Technological Regress

When reliance becomes compliance

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Can advanced technology make us worse off? I recently had occasion to ponder the question. I was standing in line at a movie theater, when the computer that had replaced the cash register froze up. None of the staff on duty at the theater could fix it. No sales could be made and no tickets issued. I left, with a new appreciation for the old-fashioned mechanical cash register.

This was not the first time I have wondered about what might be called technological regress. Having had bad experiences with inaccessible computer files at work and at home, I now keep multiple paper copies of all important publications and information, in formats which would have been familiar to Gutenberg.

Until recently, I have paid the necessary expense to have both a land line and a cell phone. On 9/11, when wireless networks temporarily did not work in Washington, D.C., I was able to use the landline to reassure family and friends about my safety. I decided to forego the landline when I moved — and immediately regretted it one evening, when I could not find my iPhone and realized I had no way to communicate with the rest of the world without it. I found my phone, but I am planning to install a landline as a backup.

Backup — that is the key phrase. Most industrial systems have built-in redundancies, in case one element fails. Why shouldn’t civilization? To be more specific: should we keep some earlier, less advanced but also less vulnerable technologies around, just in case the superior but more vulnerable technologies stop working?

During the East Coast storm called “Snowmageddon” a few years back, friends in a Washington metro area suburb found themselves stranded by the blizzard for a week without electricity. Fortunately, a neighbor who had a gasoline-powered generator invited them to share the warmth it made possible during the blackout.

As this suggests, modern technological shutdowns can take two forms. A complex machine can stop working (the computerized cash register). Or a vast grid can cease to function (the wireless phone network, the electric utility grid).

The ultimate nightmare may be looming in the near future, thanks to the evolution of car technology. While computer technology is ever more important in cars and trucks, the automobile as we know it is still very much a product of the last industrial revolution, the electromechanical age.

A child of the late 20th century, I grew up in an age in which problems involving cars were pretty easy to fix. If you accidentally locked your keys in the car, you could insert a wire coat-hanger to unlock the door (assuming you had remembered to leave a crack in the driver’s side window). If the battery died, jumper cables would permit you to restart the car, using another car’s battery.

Electromechanical televisions were just as easily repaired. If your vacuum tube broke, you could take the TV to a repair shop and get another one installed (“What’s a vacuum tube, Daddy?”).

A modern TV is not a simple mechanism which can be opened and easily repaired. When a flat screen TV stops working, it is just a sleek piece of modernist sculpture, sneering at you across the carpet like a Brancusi.

Oh, no — first they came for the TVs, now the cars, I thought, the first time I rented a new-model car started by a button rather than a key. Must the innovators of Silicon Valley make everything worse?

What happens when your rolling computer on wheels just freezes up? I don’t think the old jumper cables will work.

And what happens if your robocar is “platooning” down the highway with other vehicles and its cybernetic intelligence experiences a seizure? The term “my computer just crashed” may acquire a new meaning.

There are combs from ancient Egypt in the Bronze Age which look identical to modern combs. What if some instruments or mechanisms reach perfection at particular levels of technological development, and cannot be improved upon? Should we mix old but perfect technologies with genuinely better innovations of other kinds?

As a writer, I can attest that the personal computer is a great improvement over the typewriter. Revision is so much easier. At the same time, documents in the cloud are no more accessible than documents in a filing cabinet. I say keep the PC — and keep the filing cabinet, too.

When it comes to security, the move to paperless transactions has vastly increased vulnerability. Reportedly hackers affiliated with the Chinese military have broken into public and private data bases in the U.S. and stolen vast amounts of information. This could never have been done in the age of paper, unless legions of People’s Liberation Army commandos had parachuted into multiple cities and forced their way into a great many office buildings.

Scholarship? People tend to assume that anything on the web will stay there forever. But websites must be maintained. Without old-fashioned paper copies, much online journalism and scholarship may vanish forever once the links go dead.

[As fate would have it, after I had completed this essay my computer froze, erasing the concluding paragraph. I was forced to turn the PC off and turn it on again. The screen showed the phrase “Windows Error Recovery.” I pressed “Start Windows Recovery” and waited patiently until I could access the file again, while fondly recalling the Smith-Corona typewriter that was my companion through college and graduate school. Only part of the essay had been automatically saved, so what follows is reconstructed from memory, appropriately enough in this Dark Age of dysfunctional technology — ML]

A case can be made, then, for keeping some old technology around, in case the fancy new tech stops working. Indoor heating has been around for generations, but many homes are still built with fireplaces and filled with wooden furniture. In the event of blackouts during blizzards, the fireplaces can come in handy. So can the wooden furniture. •

Feature image courtesy of ExeterAnna via Flickr (Creative Commons).

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.

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