Look at the population figures for Detroit, the “Motor City,” formerly the automotive capital of the world. Note the steady rise after 1900, and then the steady fall after 1950. Does this suggest that something went right for a while, and then it went wrong?
Then look at photos of Detroit’s dilapidated homes and empty businesses. If that doesn’t depress you, check out the latest recalls by General Motors. GM seems to be recalling more vehicles than it produces – indeed an accomplishment worthy of the Guinness Book of Records, or even a refutation of the Law of Conservation of Matter.
But wait, you object. What’s wrong with driving German or Japanese cars, especially if they are made in American factories? What’s wrong with opening our borders to a flood of unskilled workers? (Taking jobs meant for our working class? Never mind.) What’s wrong with using computers and smart phones made in China? What’s wrong with having our technical questions answered by people in India? (Taking jobs meant for our middle class? No problem.)
I’ll tell you what’s wrong.
I am writing this column on a lunch table in Gelson’s Market in Los Angeles. Why? Because I need Wi-Fi. Our DSL from ATT went out three days ago, and we do not know when it will be repaired. I lived most of my life without the Internet, but now it is almost impossible to do without. That is, unless you are a hermit living in a shack in the woods, which I am not – at least not yet.
Apparently someone cut a cable. Perhaps it was cut by an undocumented worker, operating equipment he had not been adequately trained to operate, after failing to understand his instructions because of limited knowledge of English, and having been hired by a non-union contractor to build yet another high-rise in overcrowded Los Angeles, which already has too many people for its streets and its water supply.
Yes, that’s a run-on sentence. But how better to describe a run-on civilization, which already may have run on past its prime?
We are outsourcing to foreign countries the production of the computers and chips that run nearly everything. That makes us vulnerable. An electromagnetic pulse (EMP) could render many of these chips useless. Or key computers could be disabled by a cyber attack.
But we need not imagine a terrorist attack. Consider how first responders depend on computerized communication systems. Consider what would happen if these systems went down, just when we need police, firefighters, or paramedics. This takes no imagination − it’s already happening.
Question: What do you get when you combine the following?
1. Fragile, computerized equipment.
2. A sagging economy, with budget cuts resulting in maintenance cuts.
3. Emergency services, schools, and hospitals overwhelmed by immigrants, legal and illegal.
4. Streets scarred by pot-holes, many due to careless patching of cuts made to update power and phone lines for new gizmos that nobody needs but everybody wants.
5. Cities building new high-rises and fining people for not watering lawns, while urging everyone to conserve water during a drought.
6. Disparate ethnic and economic groups each pursuing its own interests, with little feeling of cohesion with the other groups.
I’ll tell you what you get. You get Los Angeles. But you also get a preview of the rest of America in a few years.
We have become dependent on technology that is extremely useful but extremely vulnerable. It is vulnerable not just to enemy attack, but also to neglect. Neglect can be the result of carelessness. But it is more likely to be the result of budget cuts brought on by a sluggish economy, and justified by high officials who were promoted not because of their competence, but because of their willingness to go along with whatever the politicians want. Then politicians can cut vital services − and leave intact unneeded construction projects that line the politicians’ pockets with graft.
Some organizations resemble a coffee cup − the cream rises to the top. But many large organizations resemble a septic tank − the largest chunks rise to the top. I leave it to you to decide which type describes most bureaucracies run by politicians.
And a politician is a politician, no matter whether he wears an Armani suit or a fire chief’s uniform − or for that matter, the uniform of a general or admiral. Keep that in mind when you see men with four stars on their shoulders, nodding approval to severe cuts in the defense budget.
The sinking of Titanic should have taught us not to rely too heavily on modern technology, and to remember that we are personally responsible for the safety of those entrusted to us. We should have learned this lesson in 1912, but many of us did not learn it even on 9/11. Many of us still have not learned it.
Those responsible for essential functions − our military, our first responders, our hospitals, and our delivery systems for food and fuel − need to establish backup systems that can continue to function in the event of an EMP, a terrorist attack, or a natural disaster. Wise computer users back up their files and make hard copies of essential documents. Wise government officials ensure that there is reliable backup for our people. And wise voters elect wise officials.
Oh well, so much for that fantasy.
During 9/11, the New York City phone system was overwhelmed, and it was often impossible to get a dial tone, while cell-phone service went down completely. Many people assume that if current technology fails, we can always fall back on the previous technology. Sometimes this is true. When the power fails, cordless phones are useless, but corded phones continue to work, because they run on their own low-voltage current. That is, if we are among the few people who still have a corded phone – and nobody cuts the cable.
On the other hand, it is often impossible to fall back on the previous technology. If the modern, computerized fire-alarm system fails, dispatchers can’t fall back on the old system of red alarm boxes and bells. It no longer exists, and even if it did, no one would remember how to use it.
Similarly, if automobiles and trucks are immobilized − say by a fuel shortage − we cannot fall back on the prior technology of horses and wagons. They no longer exist, and even if they did, no one would remember how to use them. Instead, we will be reduced to Stone Age technology − walking and carrying things in our arms or pulling them in carts.
It is untrue that if current technology fails, we can fall back on the most recent prior technology:
● If the emergency dispatching system fails, there are no more red boxes on telephone poles. So how could we respond to fires?
● If the power grid goes down, we cannot pump gasoline or diesel fuel by hand. The old hand-powered pumps disappeared from service stations in the 1930s.
● If diesel locomotives fail because of lack of fuel or disabled engine-management chips, we cannot fall back on steam locomotives. They no longer exist, and even if they did, no one would remember how to run or maintain them. So how could food, fuel, and other necessities reach our cities?
● If cars and trucks fail because engine-management chips are disabled by an EMP, we cannot fall back on old cars and trucks with coil-and-distributor ignitions. There are far too few of them.
● If the Internet fails because of accidental or intentional damage, we cannot fall back on snail-mail. Young people no longer read or write cursive. Besides, who will deliver the mail, when planes, trains, and trucks are disabled? We will have to rely on hand-carried messages.
● If much of our high-tech electronics fail, who will build new ones or repair the old ones? We outsourced manufacturing to China and tech advice to India. All most of us know is how to use the devices – and in many cases, barely even that.
The time may come when we will regard “high tech” as having rubber tires on our donkey carts. A paranoid delusion? A histrionic exaggeration? Or a projection of the line of decline we are currently on? Stay tuned.
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