An Autumn Leaf

In a very vivid dream from my childhood, my parents, some neighbors and I sit listlessly in the living room of the neighbors' home. Their daughter is playing the piano. We are all in the grim grip of a calm but profound hopelessness. It has been announced that an autumn leaf is wrapped around the world and we all have only a few days to live. There is nothing that can be done about it and no avenue of escape.

I grew up believing what I understand to be the truth today: humanity, improbably enough, is simultaneously on two slopes. Our technology and understanding of the world are constantly improving. My ninety-seven year old grandmother was born before the airplane, radio, television and computer. I grew up before the VCR or personal computer. Advances in medicine can avert diseases or cure conditions today that would have been fatal in my childhood. The power of computer chips increases fivefold in each generation. Antimatter has been created in the laboratory. A book called The Physics of Star Trek talks about the extreme difficulty, not the impossibility, of implementing ideas such as the transporter beam. We have the confidence that what we talk about today, we will do tomorrow or the day after.

At the same time, things are getting worse from year to year. One does not have to resort to politically-infected statistics sorted out in national debates to know this. It is obvious from the evidence of one's eyes. In my childhood, in Flatbush, Brooklyn, we left the house on Saturday morning and all our parents knew was that we were somewhere in the neighborhood. My stepson never played outside, unsupervised, until he was a teenager. The world had changed between his childhood and mine. Everyone knows that there are more predators out there, more violence, more poverty, more homeless people sleeping in tunnels and subway stations and on gratings.

We have one foot on an uphill path, while the other slides downhill. This is not a stable state: sometime in our lifetimes or those of our children or grandchildren, we may be torn apart. The wealth and comfort we have created with our technological innovations are not available to all, and therefore have not improved the quality of our lives, because we cannot really live separate from the have-nots, who we regard as dragging down the quality of our lives. An ongoing human fiasco means that there is a loss of consistency, of energy, of communications, between problems and their solutions, between people who are suffering and those who have the means to help them. There is enough food in the world, but no mechanism to get the surplus to the people who are hungry. Technology exists, medicine exists, to solve problems which are going unsolved because it is not important to anyone that they be solved, or because there is a human obstacle to their solution.

An improvement in our tools means nothing, in fact is dangerous, without both a corresponding improvement in our ability to plan and the development of a morality of tool use. The fact that something that can be done does not mean that it should be done. Illustrations of the disjunct between tool use and common sense can be found on every level of life.

Take software development. An increase in the power and flexibility of programming languages, to the point where applications can be literally snapped together from components in a hurry, is largely unmatched by an equivalent interest in methodologies of requirements analysis and design. The result is that you can get yourself into trouble a lot faster. A man who does not know how to use a manual drill will not cure the problem by using a power drill instead. Now look at these same issues on a macro level, where we almost entirely lack methodologies (other than the invisible hand of the marketplace) for the deployment of world-changing technological innovations.

The marketplace does not care if one million people starve to death in a third world country, so it will not mobilize. Because the marketplace has no respect for the tragedy of the commons, new technologies allow us to do faster and more efficiently things we should not be doing on the long term thinking or moral level: killing masses of people or strip mining the earth. Technological determinism, blaming technology for social developments, is a cop-out; we are human beings and have choices. If we are too weak to resist the temptation to use our tools when they should not be used, we should blame ourselves and not the tools. Thoreau is my hero, but I do not agree that we are "tools of our tools," a doctrine which is the 19th century forerunner of the "Twinkie defense."

In the following essays, I examine various views and allegories of human progress and decay, including sociological, psychological and artistic explanations. I then attempt to follow the stream of beauty and disaster to its source in the human heart.