America (Part One)
America really is still beautiful, from sea to shining sea. Nor has it lost its way in most of our hearts. But I fear that our country has lost something important. The industrial revolution brought millions off the farm to the cities, and two wars and a depression kept our grandparents, parents, and the older members of our generation busy.
We survived that. But then along came the computer -- or perhaps I should say, the computerization of American life. And that wiped out so much of what America was and stood for. On the one hand we became too self-satisfied. We felt; because it’s us, it has to be good. And some thought there was no longer any need for them to try to make it better for others.
Now I know some who read this will say, come on! You can’t be serious. Are you saying America’s dreams were blown to smithereens by a calculating machine? Nope. They were blown to smithereens by a computer-created massive communications revolution. Everyone can now be in touch with the world.
Originally, computers were large bulky things of little interest or use to the average person. When I first encountered ‘a computer’ as a graduate student in the 1960s, it was an IBM device that filled a large room.
Compact, it was not. Its electronics generated so much heat it had to have its own air-conditioned room where it floated above a floor to keep nearby traffic from wiggling it.
That IBM dingus could do more than count, but barely. It was really just a machine that punched cards with a keyboard designed by engineers. So when I was asked by a computer programmer on my Ph. D. studies committee “will you ever use computers in this strange work of which I understand nothing (organic chemistry)?’ I answered with total self-assurance; “not until the machine gets smart enough to teach me how to use it.”
That was 1962. Fourteen years later, a young upstart named Steve Jobs had entered the scene with Apple I, and an engineer’s machine was converted to a device, still a bit awkward and cumbersome, but a device that could talk to people on the corner of Technology Boulevard and Liberal Arts Street.
That was 1976. By 1981, Apple was clearly here to stay, and I bought the first three Apple computers for the chemistry department at Bowling Green State University.
With the aid of insightful administrative assistants in the department, I ruled that we would only buy Apple products going forward, and use Microsoft Word for all documents. That made a huge difference in how that chemistry department told its stories outside the University.
Naturally, there were casualties in the technology wars. For every office person who enthusiastically embraced the computer, others were left behind. Think of them as the horse-and-buggy brigades of the computer age, all of whom soon perished on the pyres of their typewriters and slide rules.
Then came the real game changer: In 1989, a young British researcher named Tim Berners-Lee invented hypertext, the World Wide Web and the first browser.
Now, a scientific paper that used to take a secretary and writer a week to put together properly could be composed in a day and sent in multiple copies to editors at some far-off location in a few minutes. No copy machines needed – it could be shared instantly with as many people as desired.
That changed the world -- but many were left behind. Things that came only to the desks of experts in 1980 are accessible, without filters, to most of those in the world now.
And try as we might, we still haven’t absorbed the implications of all this. What all this has done has severely disrupted American life. Many of the geeks of the early computer age, starting with the late Steve Jobs to Microsoft’s Bill Gates have gotten terribly rich. Meanwhile, billions of jobs have been killed worldwide.
Thanks to computers and robots run by computers, auto plants have far fewer assembly line hands than they once did. That may be good for those who own those companies – but what about those who need jobs?
The economy is, in the last analysis, about people. People who build and make things, people who paint houses, drive trucks or service them, repair roads, fill at teeth, deliver babies, treat the ill, raise children.
Has America forgotten that the people behind each of these jobs are more important than finding the latest and fastest video game on the internet?
Those leading the technological revolution have missed a lot of the social disruption they caused. Five years ago, many people, feeling forgotten by both parties and all the conventional politicians, gave us Donald Trump, a belligerent outsider who spoke to them, though he was a disastrous failure at governing.
For America to survive we have to come together around the complex notion that liberty and justice belong to all. Horace Greeley, the first newspaperman to run for president, was said to be “tireless, sensitive, incorruptible … (and) a mighty force for good.”
We certainly need leaders who can see the bigger picture - and be mighty forces for good today.
Douglas Neckers is the retired founder of the Center for Photochemical Sciences, and former Chair of the Board of the Robert H. Jackson Center 3dscienceblog.com fb sciencein3d.