I’m sure I’m not the only
one who looks back on life and recognizes certain moments when
perception shifted and a new potential future from that which was
expected emerged in one’s head.
One was the election of
Ronald Reagan. Another, the fall of the Berlin Wall. The next, more
intensely noted, was the 9/11 attack on America by radical Muslims
we barely knew still existed, the Middle Ages being long over.
But there were smaller
moments that only some of us noticed. One of mine occurred in the
mid-60s, in a three-room upstairs apartment along the Jersey coast,
where my husband taught school and I was a stay-at-home mom with our
We’d just inherited our
first television, a black-and-white 12-inch, when my grandfather
died and we were the only family members who didn’t already have
one. Being readers, we hadn’t missed TV, but Lance was soon parked
in his little rocking chair, wearing rubber rainboots and a
dishtowel around his neck fastened with a clothespin, eagerly
awaiting “Batman,” and I enjoyed having TV company on the evenings
my husband worked his second job, as teachers did back then.
One evening I saw a
Nova/Frontline-like special about computers on one of the three
channels; the show might have been called “The Big Story” but I’m
I’d seen a computer when I
was a student at a commonwealth campus of Penn State University; a
group of us took a field trip to the main campus, to see this giant
entity that filled, if I recall correctly, two rooms. I didn’t have
enough science background to fully appreciate what I was seeing.
So until I saw the
television special, I didn’t realize the implications of this young
invention, which were laid out for the audience with ominous music
in the background. Keep in mind this was two years before Stanley
Kubrick’s historic film, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” scared us with
Hal; I don’t even remember what specific in the TV special scared
me, but it did. I remember thinking I wasn’t sure I wanted my son to
grow up in that machine-dominated world.
Well, of course he didn’t;
he grew up in a world much like the one his dad and I grew up in,
playing outside, riding bikes, reading comics and kids’ chapter
books, and, something his father didn’t remember for himself,
playing with Batman action dolls after the Playschool families were
Sure he had something we
hadn’t: “Super Saturday” morning cartoons. My generation had to wait
until we went to the movies to see Bugs Bunny as an extra feature.
This too was a cultural shift, which most of us didn’t recognize
until later, when television had become a major part of our family
life and later still, when the family life started to disappear into
But that was nothing
compared to the advent of the personal computer, which eventually
led to the present smartphone tyranny, which is turning our humanity
into technology’s servant. I think this is what that television
special predicted, because what else would have scared me so much I
remember it still?
Usually I’m excited by
science and new ideas. Another moment I recall was walking with a
high school friend who, unlike me was a science/math major. Sara was
telling me about something she’d just learned about, something
called “deoxyribonucleic acid.” This was roughly 1960, when Francis
Crick and James Watson were on their way to a 1962 Nobel Prize for
describing the double helix structure of DNA.
I walked her home from
school, then insisted she walk half way home with me, then I
followed her home again as we discussed the amazing things this new
discovery was going to do to human lives. The new ideas expanded
over the years into new data on the evolution of man, his genome,
cognitive growth, theories of behavior.
Though I never studied
these things formally, I read books for laymen, which many years
later included the thrilling, mind-stretching books of Stephen
Pinker and Matt Ridley. Much of the work in these arenas depends
upon computers, so I found myself liking them, despite the
Then I got a work computer
myself, discovered Google for help with column research, and now I
too am hooked on, though not to, a machine. I keep my smartphone in
the other room, so it doesn’t bother me when I am reading, writing
or, OK, watching television. But how wonderful before bedtime to
check for text messages from my son: Last week I was getting
vacation photos of my grandchildren from the Northwest. I can
respond at midnight because they are always three hours behind us.
Time, space, none of that is a problem anymore.
Nor is assaulting our
individual privacy a problem to those want access to it. What is
dangerous, (cue up that background music I heard in 1966), is what
we are learning about the end of that privacy, our control over our
data, the empowerment of some big bad institutions and some very bad
Take our medical records,
which we were always told would be secure, along with our Social
Security number, of course. As we learned this month from a report
by Stephanie Armour [How
Identity Theft Sticks You With Hospital Bills] in the Wall
Street Journal, we have no assurance that our own records won’t be
hacked, used for identity theft with and bills run up by others to
be paid by us, merged with the hackers to make them useless if we
are rushed to a hospital unconscious. No, Obamacare hasn’t fixed
this, nor will it; the badly run government systems, trying to
“connect” all health care information, add to the risk.
And yet, go figure, when I
visit medical facilities I’m often still handed a clipboard with
sheets of paper asking me to fill in my history and medications. I
like going onto the computer to see my lab results soon after a
test, but I was warned years ago by a medical insider to print them
out in case they aren’t available in the future.
Never mind, technology
with computers is saving lives in the medical arena. We are lucky to
be living through this era — except, of
course, for that ominous music in the background of our lives.
Barbara Anderson of
Marblehead is president of Citizens for Limited Taxation and a Salem