| Cutting edge
The author is visiting professor at the University of Melbourne and soon will be teaching at SIS, JNU
In the age of computers, lasers and robots, of fibre optics and bio-genetics, it is perhaps inevitable that one should regard technology as the key to efficiency. Hasn’t science unlocked for us the secrets of the atom and the structure of the gene' Hasn’t it transported us to the wonderland of instant communication' Haven’t we conjured up life in the laboratory and acquired the capacity for its total and immediate annihilation' Success in such a world is surely guaranteed by technological superiority.
Indeed, technology is correlated with wealth, one standard index of economic success. However, the direction of causation is not always obvious. Wealth attracts high technology as it attracts so many other resources: it funds research and development, and, since the wealthy have already sampled all that is known, wealth fosters the exploration of the unknown. But does the growth of technology necessarily induce the growth of wealth' Globally, mankind is surely better off now than before the Industrial Revolution when life was “nasty, brutish and short”. But the regional pattern of economic growth is very different from that of technical progress. Over the last forty years of spectacular technological advance, the high-tech West has stagnated while relatively low-tech east Asia has enjoyed astronomical growth, followed, over the last two decades, by abysmally low-tech south Asia.
Of course, there is more to success than technology, and the differential incidence of these other ingredients could obscure the underlying relationship. The spillover effects of technology also ensure that many of its benefits are in fact captured by those who are not innovators. While both these assertions are undoubtedly valid, there is a third, little-noticed factor at work as well: an obsession with technology creates fallibilities to which one is blinded by the brilliance of technological accomplishments. A standard example relates to genetically engineered crops: the homogeneity of these increases their vulnerability to epidemics and pests and reduces their resilience when temperature and rainfall change unpredictably.
However, technology modifies the attributes, not only of plants, but of human beings as well — and not necessarily through genetic processes: it changes the structure of our skills and our habits of mind. Any one who has ever been held up at a check-out counter because of a cash register breakdown knows that, in the United States of America, multiplication by ten is regarded as a hazardous venture into the realms of higher mathematics. Of course, the technological obsolescence of elementary arithmetic is a minor consequence of the Computer Revolution.
Far more insidious is a cult of technology that attributes to it magical qualities. The machine, we believe, will do it all for us with machine-like precision: why then exert, or develop, our necessarily imperfect, human faculties in a hopeless search for impossible improvements'
The consequences of this outlook are becoming increasingly evident in the deadly world of high-tech warfare. In the technologically unsophisticated Korean war, a mere 18 per cent of US casualties were self-inflicted — the result of what has been euphemistically called “friendly fire”. In the Kuwait war, thanks to “smart bombs” and pinpoint electronic targeting of weapons, this ratio rose to 51 per cent. In the Afghan war, US casualties as a whole were negligible, not only because the US relied primarily on aerial and electronic weaponry rather than on ground troops, in effect substituting capital for labour, but also because it substituted the cheap Afghan labour of the Northern Alliance for American. The impact on the Afghans of American “friendly fire” was however devastating. To crown its innumerable unintentional massacres of its military allies (including the Canadians), its attacks on convoys of friendly Afghan chiefs, its decimation of wedding parties, its slaughter of six foot five inch Afghans (under the impression that they were bin Laden), the US also attacked and almost succeeded in “taking out” its nominee for the leadership of post-taliban Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai. With such friends, who needs foes' — as Karzai must have reflected.
Nor is US electronic wizardry a threat to its military allies alone. In 1996, a Trans-World Airlines flight, TWA 800, exploded over the Atlantic very near to an area where US naval exercises were being conducted. Investigations into the case were strangely muted and evasive before being peremptorily closed: was this in fact the upshot of yet another misguided missile'
Medicine constitutes an entirely different field of revolutionary technical progress, and here too the efficiency of the most modern branches of the profession is not exactly awe-inspiring. Iatrogenic disease, disease caused by medical mistakes, is among the major causes of death (after cancer and heart disease) in the US. Cases like that of the mother of an Indian actress with a cancerous lobe in her brain whose surgeon casually removed the other lobe while leaving the diseased one intact are not infrequent. All this has been reflected in the explosion of medical malpractice claims, the consequent stratospheric growth of malpractice insurance premia and the skyrocketing cost of medical treatment. The patient in effect pays not only for the technology of his doctor and his lengthening training, but also for his increasing incompetence.
It is not only a decline of specific skills that has accompanied the development of technology but also a decay of general intelligence. Consider the recent revelations regarding the performance of US intelligence agencies and the US administration that paved the way for the catastrophe of September 11, 2001. Here are some items: In 1995, Filipino police arrested Abdul Hakim Murad and Ramzi Youssef for a plot to hijack and blow up 12 US airliners. Murad’s computer disclosed a plan to hijack a commercial aircraft and crash it into the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters. Youssef was none other than the 1993 bomber of the World Trade Center (what else'). On July 10, 2001, a Phoenix, Arizona FBI agent wrote to his supervisors about Islamic radicals receiving flying lessons in the US. On August 13, 2001, Zacarias Moussaoui enrolled at a Minnesota flight school, wanting to learn how to fly a Boeing 747 in four to five days. He explicitly refused to learn how to take off or land, offered thousands of dollars in cash and did not want it known that he was a Muslim. The flight school contacted the FBI and Moussaoui was arrested.
One would have thought that no further indication was needed of the shape of things to come. Yet when questioned, Ari Fleischer, spokesman for the American president, George W. Bush, said that all that could be anticipated were hijackings of commercial aircraft, not their use as weapons of attack on the WTC and other buildings.
Obviously, it had not occurred to him that some elementary precautions against hijacking would have forestalled 9/11 altogether. What was even more astounding was that no one challenged him on the issue. The entire nation was too stupefied to inquire why its government, with all this information at hand, did nothing to protect them against the greatest assault on civilians in its history.
Indeed, there can be no explanation of this sequence of events other than a general atrophy of the mental faculties. Perhaps, the Luddites were right after all. Perhaps, what the US needs is the stimulation of a holiday from technology. Otherwise, there is the imminent peril that, in the quest for artificial intelligence, at least in the US, human intelligence would be lost for ever.