Let's hear it for hubris

November 16, 1996|By Hal Piper

YOU CAN HAVE the '90s; David Gelernter will take the '30s. When I heard him speak a couple of years ago, he was a Yale professor working on whether emotion could be designed into computers. But his topic that day was modern technology. Mr. Gelernter thinks it is pretty mediocre, driven more by narcissism than human need.

Thus we have a lot of gee-whiz computer stuff, from virtual shopping to virtual sex, but too few technologies aimed at alleviating social problems -- or even making life easier or more pleasant. Technologies developed in the 1930s -- superhighways, air conditioning, television -- though not unmixed blessings, were grounded in the realities of daily life.

An example from my profession, I suppose, might be the ''newspaper of the future.'' Already it is possible to get news downloaded into your computer instead of delivered to your door. But it's vastly more expensive, and much more awkward to carry around. For most people, the only reason to want it is to avoid being thought ''technophobic.''

And yet ours is, Mr. Gelernter suggested, a technophobic society. Much current popular science fiction (''The Andromeda Strain,'' ''Jurassic Park'') plays on our fears of Frankensteinian technology running terribly amok.

Mr. Gelernter recalled that the New York World's Fair of 1939 envisioned a glorious future of shining cities and human ease. And yet if ever there was a time that should have been wracked with fearfulness and doubt, it was 1939, after years of Dust Bowl and Depression, on the eve of world war against German and Japanese fascism. Why are we Americans, prosperous and at peace, so pessimistic about the human prospect?

Mr. Gelernter has developed his themes in the current issue of City Journal, published by the Manhattan Institute. His particular target is environmentalism, and his charge is that its credo -- ''careful, hands off, don't touch!'' -- has made us passive.

Again, he contrasts present and past. The 1930s saw the completion of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Boulder Dam and many of New York's bridges and tunnels. But it was hardly an anti-environmental time: Franklin D. Roosevelt added to the national parks, and his Civilian Conservation Corps tended forests and built wildlife shelters.

The 22-year dither

Today, though we love nature, litter piles up in our city parks, and when a major New York highway collapsed, the city dithered for 22 years before beginning reconstruction.

It is a matter of will, Mr. Gelernter argues. We no longer believe in our ability to create a better human environment. Nor should we try, the environmentalists tell us: We are one species among many, of no more moral significance than a kangaroo rat, and our duty to nature is to leave it alone.

We must not ''fall victim,'' Vice President Al Gore warns, ''to a kind of technological hubris.''

''Hubris'' is exactly the point, Mr. Gelernter retorts: ''Manhattan took colossal hubris -- a great city on a small island, cut off from food and water?'' He quotes from a Federal Writer's Project description of New York's tall buildings as ''the expression of American daring and American contempt for limits.'' ''Of American hubris!'' Mr. Gelernter adds -- ''how could you say it more clearly?''

''He who says man cannot improve on nature,'' wrote Gerald Wendt, science director of the New York World's Fair, '' . . . forgets that steel, concrete and glass are all unnatural products.''

It's a different time now. ''As for us,'' Mr. Gelernter concludes, ''we cannot make the slightest contribution to nature's achievements; we are mere fusspot curators. The energy we used to invest in making things better we have decided to spend, instead, in keeping them the same.''

Hal Piper edits The Sun's Opinion Commentary page.

Pub Date: 11/16/96

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