My father was an electrical engineer. He considered himself a scientist. Born Nov. 4, 1899, he was a lifelong employee of Bell Laboratories. On more than one occasion he told me, “If I live to be a hundred, my life will span three centuries.”
He didn’t make it, but he lived long enough to experience two world wars and the dawn of the nuclear age.
I was born in 1932. As middle-class Americans, we had electricity, indoor plumbing, an automobile and other comforts of life but nothing even approaching the technical gadgetry common to the average American family today. The technical advances in my lifetime alone are greater than anything humanity has experienced in all its history.
My father liked all thing technical, and to illustrate how fast technology was expanding, he would draw a graph. On the bottom-line from left to right he plotted human technology: the first stone tools, the discovery of fire, the wheel and, finally, electricity and the industrial revolution. On the vertical arm he indicated the rate at which technology was advancing.
The graph showed a line that was nearly flat for most of human history. An upward curve began in the last few hundred years and then climbed sharply as it reached the present. Most of mankind’s technical advances fell within our two lifetimes.
Technology was growing geometrically. Dad would point to this and warn that in my lifetime alone the line would begin a near vertical assent. “What will happen to human society at that point,” my father said, “will be beyond imagination.”
To a child this view of the future was disturbing. Even in my teens, I sensed we were in trouble. Technology was advancing at a staggering rate, but human nature had changed very little over the last 100,000 years.
Engineering was the first science. Physics and chemistry evolved from astrology and alchemy. Then came the social sciences. Psychology emerged as a separate discipline less than 150 years ago.
Only in the last few years have we begun to look into the human brain. Today, we can watch as a subject deals with his emotions. However, this kind of neuroscience is in its infancy, and of human consciousness we know next to nothing. “I think, there for I am,” is about as far as it goes.
So here’s our dilemma. Technology has given us wonderful things: the ability to replace organs and prolong life. We have invaded space. We have gone to the depth of the sea. We can travel around the world in hours; communicate around the globe in seconds. We can manipulate DNA, the very basis of life itself.
On the other hand, mankind has never been more vulnerable. A single nuclear exchange could destroy thousands of years of civilization, and environmental pollution is even now poisoning the oceans, the soil and the air we breathe. Subconsciously, we’re all aware of the threat, and a strange sort of depression is settling over humanity.
It’s reflected in our music, our movies and in the economy. We will not willingly give up our technical magic. Money and power cannot be beaten on their own ground. We cannot destroy the things that threaten us. We can only transcend them.
We are in a second dark age, only this time it is psychological. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, 1 in 5 Americans are taking some form of mood-altering drug. If technology is making life better, why do we do this? Something is missing. Until we figure this out, we’re on the road to self-annihilation.
The obvious answer is a spiritual reawakening, but that’s not going to come from religion as it’s practiced today. No one faith has all the answers, but our competitive nature causes religions to fight among ourselves rather than work together.
“When we will ever learn.” — Pete Seeger.
Joan King lives in Sautee. Her column appears biweekly on Tuesdays and at gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint.