Excited by science, wary of technology
© by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Thursday, August 13 2015


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 toddler son.

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 not sure.

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 outgrown.

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 individualized watching.

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 downsides.

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 individuals.

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 News columnist.

The comments made and opinions expressed in her columns are those of Barbara Anderson
and do not necessarily reflect those of Citizens for Limited Taxation.

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