A generation on, it is clear that our generation’s is a revolution larger than the conveyor belt, the steam engine, maybe the wheel, even the discovery of fire itself.
Even in its infancy, when the ultra-tech revolution seemed merely about the PC and the faster document production and data management it allowed, there already was general agreement that what had emerged from a California garage rivaled in its significance Gutenberg’s printing press. But then came e-mail, the Web, the cellphone, the Handycam, the Digicam, the MP, the iPod and the iPad, and humanity became too bewildered to comprehend just what it is that it is undergoing.
We realize the swiftness of the transition about us only when our children, who never saw us drive a stick-shift car, dial a rotary phone or place a kettle of water above a flame, ask us what we mean when we say “broken record” or “burned film” or “Olivetti,” thus leaving us wondering how close we are to the moment when they ask what people once meant when they said “pencil it in.”
The breadth, pace, ubiquity and intensity of the technological commotion around us have been so dizzying that we forget that today’s 30-somethings were born when practically no one had e-mail, the first website had yet to be designed, the word Google had yet to be coined, microwaves were still the province of physicists, a mouse was a rat and a laptop was where you placed a child before sharing with him a story – that you read in a book.
INVENTIONS NEVER announce their impact. When sailors first crossed the Mediterranean using a magnetic compass in the 13th century, they had no idea it would later lead to new continents and civilizations, and when bishops first held a printed Bible, they had no idea it would soon split the church, and when the Wright brothers finally saw the ground from the air, they doubtfully suspected that in the future, let alone in their own lifetime, airplanes would set the world ablaze.
So we, too, back when we first saw words hop like grasshoppers from keyboard to paper through screen and printer, had no idea that what seemed to us like the height of modernity would soon become obsolete and give way to entirely different inventions, ones that rather than merely lend life more speed, economy and comfort would redefine life itself.
Now, as yesterday’s hottest inventions, from the fax machine, the dot-matrix printer, and the video cassette recorder to the Walkman, the Gameboy and the Palm Pilot gather dust in museums, where they arrived as industrial relics having barely survived their teens, the question arises: Where the hell is all this going? And with what began as an innocent, if colorful, celebration of gadgetry now morphing into a tsunami of information and sensation that threatens to drown commercial pillars from the travel agency to the record company and cultural landmarks from the bookstore to the public library, people increasingly ask: What on earth is happening?
Well, what’s happening is that while you were away looking for the latest-generation iPad, flat-screen or camcorder, some of civilization’s most fundamental norms and society’s most veteran fixtures have been melting away.
THE FIRST casualty of the ultra-tech era is the secret.
Never mind that under the gaze of today’s satellites no one could do Auschwitz without getting immediately detected; just think of a simple cellphone camera in any of the ghettoes, train stations or cattle cars that led millions to their deaths.
Not only the event, but the top secret document, too, is fast becoming impossible to hide. The days when the journey to light of a report about Khrushchev rebuking Stalin required resourcefulness, imagination, daring, espionage, money and far-flung travel seem prehistoric at a time when one Internet activist makes thousands of the sole superpower’s most classified documents instantly available to millions worldwide – by the click of a mouse.
Had he lived today, the biblical Absalom would not have slept with his father’s concubines “in a tent upon the top of the house” so as to capture “the sight of all Israel”; today Absalom would have broadcast his conquest on his Facebook page.
The decline of secrecy is pervasive not only in politics, diplomacy and strategy, but also in private life. Cheating on a spouse, for instance, is becoming ever more difficult, as cellphones make us increasingly locatable at any time and in any place. Then again, while secrets become difficult to keep, discretion is getting out of fashion. More and more people poeticize, tweet or blog to the entire world their daily travails and nightly bravados, others post online photos of relatives, colleagues, neighbors and pets, some trumpet what’s on their minds, others flaunt what’s under their clothes.
Meanwhile, the Web is devaluing authority in just about all its manifestations – political, professional and religious. The ability to peek, through Google Earth, at any mountaintop anywhere, makes any kid with Netscape more informed than entire intelligence agencies were but last decade. Medical information that once was as exclusive to doctors as the Scriptures were to medieval monks is now universally available on the Web.
In one hospital here, a doctor who informed relatives in mid-surgery about the critical state of their loved one was amazed to hear them ask why he was not using a certain medication that was still experimental. “Who told you about that?” he asked. “We read about it on the Web,” they said matter-of-factly, and demanded that it be deployed. The doctor climbed with them to the hospital manager’s office and requested permission to use the drug. “Why did you tell them about this?” the fuming arch-doctor yelled at the surgeon, in the relatives’ presence, while several stories under them the anesthetized patient on the surgeon’s table was hovering between life and death. “I didn’t,” he said, “they Googled it.” The medicine was used that day, exceptionally but successfully, and soon afterward – routinely.
Religious authority is also challenged the way it hasn’t been since the Age of Enlightenment. “There is an empowerment and upgrading of the student,” wrote Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein recently, recalling that a rabbi from St. Louis had told him that in the past, when he would analyze a legal dilemma citing opposing views of luminaries on the scale of the late rabbis Joseph Soloveitchik and Moshe Feinstein, the audience would be impressed. Today, however, people tell him: “Really? Rabbi Feinstein? But I read on the Internet that some rabbi from southern Australia rules the other way around.”
Not only secrecy, discretion and authority, but privacy, too, is losing
ground by the day. Never mind satellites in the heavens and Webcams in
bedrooms, Big Brother video cameras now checker metropolises from
intersections, parks and shopping malls to museums, offices, gas
stations and houses of worship; though it arrived by sheer coincidence
in tandem with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the ultra-tech era has
quickly restored the infamous institution of governmental voyeurism.
Where, then, does all this lead? I haven’t the faintest idea. All I know
is that, like all inventions, and like the sages said about the Torah
itself, ultra-technology is like a drug, and as such, it is up to man to
choose whether it will cure – or kill.