Monday, January 23, 2006

The Long View

Kurt Vonnegut just made an interesting point on NPR's Morning Edition.

Speaking about his early novel, Player Piano, Vonnegut said that, as an employee of the PR department of General Electric, he was shown an early milling machine, one that worked off of punch cards (and I am old enough to have programmed computers by punch card. I did it in a college computer course, in an age when monitors" were called "VDT's," and were reserved for senior Computer Science majors. The rest of us did key-punch.) He noted that everyone stood around watching this new machine work, and they were quite sheepish about the implications. Machinists, said Mr. Vonnegut, were like musicians: men of great talent and skill, and this machine was basically replacing the violin player.

Or the pianist.

What struck me was how he described it. Everyone was thinking, he said, "What are we going to do with these wonderful men who have been so useful to us?" His novel arose from the recognition that "We have to give people something to do with life."

I'm rather surprised we don't think that way anymore. On the other hand, we do. Vonnegut goes on to analyze human activity in terms of tribes. He dissects the discussion of "intelligent design" in a surprising manner. Scientists, he argues, are behaving tribally by seeking to exclude the question "Where did we come from, and how is this marvelous machine (the human body) possible simply from the process of natural selection?" As Vonnegut says, it is what we're thinking about all the time: "How the hell did we really get this way?," and it is a bit peculiar to argue we cannot think that way inside the science class, when we think that way outside the science class.

Which is not, in the black/white terms of our public discourse, to say that the fundamentalists are right, or that Intelligent Design is either good science or good theology. But why do we think we can exclude the fundamental questions of philosophy (or theology) from certain fields of thought, and still fully understand ourselves, or our world?

So how do we still think about people as humans, not just widgets (the mythical fungible good of law school scenarios)? Mega-churches, primarily; the gospel of wealth which teaches that you, yes, you right there, are important enough to God to be rich and happy and maybe even famous. It is a poor replacement of an answer, but it is a very human replacement for an answer we have otherwise removed from consideration.

And it arises because our systems are failing to save us; so we are looking for a new system for our salvation. Consider the news today: Ford Motor Company is set to announce huge layoffs, primarily in its American factories. Part of the reason is marketing: Ford has been losing market share for over a decade now. But the most repeated reason is health-care costs. Many of us in left blogistan have hoped that the rising cost of health care on GM and Ford would lead to a rational national health care system such as the ones Europe and Canada and Japan have. But the system refuses to be our saviour. The American answer to the problem, instead, seems to be: employ fewer people.

And this time, we don't seem the least bit concerned about what those people are going to do with their lives.

No comments:

Post a Comment