Machines That Don’t Work, People Who Don’t Care

By | March 19, 2012 | 0 Comments

I just got a glimpse of our “post-industrial” future. It’s not a pretty sight. My wife and I were in a large chain drugstore. The check-out counter had three stations, but they were unattended. The clerks we had grown to know and joke with were gone.
Instead, there were three self-service machines, and a young man walking up and down watching them to prevent shoplifting. He appeared bored and restless. He may have been a recent graduate of the nearby university, forced to take a low-paying job. Working-class young people generally are happier at work. Perhaps they are more grateful to have a job.
Grateful people tend to be happier than resentful people. I suspect that the more college graduates we have, employed at jobs they believe are beneath them, the more unhappy, resentful people we will be forced to deal with. This is not a cheerful prospect in a stagnant economy.
Finally our turn came, and we approached one of the self-service machines. I swiped my discount card, and the machine voice thanked me − the only polite interchange I had. I then swiped each item we were buying, being careful to turn them with the bar codes down. One would think that manufacturers would agree on a standard location for the bar code, saving customers from turning each item six ways to find it. Still, each time I swiped an item, the machine beeped contentedly.
But suddenly the young clerk, who had been watching, abruptly reached over my shoulder, pulled the last item out of the bag, and rescanned it without explaining, as if I had done something wrong. Surprised, I said, “It beeped.”
He replied curtly, “It didn’t beep right.”
I was about to protest being accused of shoplifting when my wife admonished, “Don’t charge me twice.” But the item was listed only once on the monitor, so it had not scanned the first time. I don’t recall ever seeing a scanner that beeped but did not register the item. Perhaps the drugstore chain had purchased a particularly cheap batch of scanners from China, enabling it to save even more money than it had by laying off the clerks.
We finished, and the machine disgorged a foot-long stream of paper, with the statement plus a host of “savings” coupons. I turned to the clerk and said in a loud voice, “What’s all this, my rap sheet?” His face remained expressionless, so I went on, “Look, it’s even got my juvenile shoplifting arrest − I thought those records were sealed.” But the clerk turned away without even a shrug, and went on to scrutinize another customer. My anger and sarcasm meant nothing to him.
As we left the store, I wondered whether he would have been as rude if I were six feet tall, weighed 200 pounds, had a shaved head, and was covered with tattoos. I’ll bet serious money that he would not have acted as if he were stopping a shoplifter, and that he would have explained politely that the machines were malfunctioning. When fear trumps respect as a lubricant for society, we know we’re on a down-slope.
So what is this “information society” we hear so much about? Yes, it includes a small number of brilliant nerds in places like Silicon Valley, developing innovative, high-tech gizmos. And it includes the investors who profit from them. But increasingly, like Apple, these gizmos are manufactured elsewhere, probably in China. And the vast majority of us will be left to deal with the gizmos we didn’t make, don’t really understand, and probably can’t repair when they break down − which they will, as the Chinese realize that we will buy almost anything.
Besides, what choice will we have? We no longer have the equipment, the will, or the know-how to make them ourselves. Apparently that information is not part of the “information age.”
The original Keynesian, Keynes himself, remarked that everyone can’t make a living taking in everyone else’s laundry. A purely service economy won’t work. If we don’t produce a decent percent of our steel, our cars, our light bulbs, our NBA uniforms, and our computers, we won’t be a great nation. We won’t even be an independent nation. We will be an economic colony of the producer nations, especially China. That may be what the “global elite” want, but it’s not what the great majority of Americans want, and we need to say so.
If a checkout machine at a drugstore malfunctions, it’s an inconvenience. But if a machine that we depend on for our lives malfunctions, we’re in real trouble. Not long ago, a CT-scanner at a major medical center malfunctioned for over a year, giving patients a serious overdose of radiation when they got their diagnostic scans. No one checked the machines, but merely assumed they were functioning properly − until patients complained of losing their hair.
But no one thought of measuring the radiation doses the patients actually received. They trusted the gizmo − that is, the hardware they had not built and the software they had not written.
And what about information itself? Is it safe? Medical records used to reside in paper files located in doctors’ offices and hospital record rooms. The downside was that they were slow to obtain or transfer in an emergency. The upside was that, for the most part, they remained confidential and secure.
But now, medical and other sensitive records are computerized and accessible from the Internet. Government officials, insurance companies, and miscellaneous snoopers can access your birth date, social security number, and other data useful in identity theft − not to mention your medical records.
When people blabber about the right to “privacy,” they mean the right to abortion on demand, but not the right to actual privacy. Is it possible to maintain a high civilization if modesty and confidentiality die? I’m not sure. And what about backup? How can things function if medical and financial records are lost? I’m even less sure.
In another decade or so, most books may disappear, replaced by Kindle and its clones. But what if the few factories making the chips that power these devices are damaged, or the Internet is interrupted? The ability to retrieve most human knowledge will disappear, and we will be like people in the Dark Ages, looking at Roman ruins with wonder − but without understanding.
As the CT-scan patients discovered, machines can malfunction. We are now dependent on computers and the Internet for buying nearly everything from gasoline to medicines. We are equally dependent for delivering food and other essentials to our stores. Our police departments, fire services, and armed forces are just as dependent.
Recently I stopped at a local gas station. The pump would not accept my credit card, so I offered it to the attendant. He replied that the system was down, and he accepted only cash. Filling the tank now costs me at least $60, and for a large car, SUV, or pickup, it may cost upwards of $100.
What will happen if the satellite communication system goes down, either because of a malfunction or because of an EMP attack by terrorists or by Iran? Do you have enough cash to survive until ATMs function again? And will you feel safe walking around with so much cash in a troubled time? How many people will arm themselves, legally or illegally?
Such an EMP attack would probably knock out all computers, telephones, and anything else controlled by chips. Would an EMP also knock out the engine-control chips on all late-model cars, trucks, locomotives, and airplanes? Perhaps not, but I would not want to bet my life on it − though in effect I already am.
I am not a Luddite. Advances in medical technology probably saved my life, and advances in information technology enable me to reach more people. But we need to keep a close watch on those devices.
If we care for patients, we and not the computers are responsible for the lives in our hands. In we handle important records, we and not the computers are responsible for keeping them secure and backing them up. If we are in charge of delivering food or other essentials, we and not the computers are responsible for keeping the supply lines open. If we manage billions in assets, we and not the computers are responsible for safeguarding people’s life savings. If we are in charge of police, firefighters, or our military, we and not computers are responsible for backup systems that are not vulnerable to EMP attack.
The key word is responsible. We cannot fob off our responsibilities onto fragile, fallible machines that are made by foreigners who may not wish us well, and that can be disabled by foreigners who definitely do not wish us well. If we are not careful, the information that the “information society” produces may be bad news.
Dr. Stolinsky writes on political and social issues. Contact: You are welcome to publish or post these articles, provided that you cite the author and website.

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