Technology’s Incompetence with Tragedy

(This essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News on May 25, 2019.)

Technology is transforming our world at an alarming rate. However, as it transforms and offers such promise, we must be very cautious about it affecting the core elements of what it is to be human. This imperative has become clear to me recently as I have confronted a personal tragedy.

Many of the new technologies hold such great promise for making our lives easier and healthier. To help people with disabilities, Japanese scientists are developing a headset which can read and translate a person’s thoughts into speech. For people who have lost their voices, the Scottish company, CereProc, is developing technology which will convert their typed words into their original voices. Advances in battery life may make a pacemaker last, not for ten years, but for hundreds.

Last December, USA Today reported that the Kroger Company, the world’s largest grocery chain teaming with the robotics company, Nuro, began delivering groceries in driverless vehicles in Arizona.

For the first time scientists with nanotechnology are building materials one molecule at a time, machines as small as a human hair. Some of these microscopic computers, “micro-doctors,” will swim in our bloodstream, analyze, seek out, and destroy cancer cells. Unravelling the secrets of the human genome, engineers now predict that within two decades, technology will exist to extend life expectancy.

These are all wonderful developments with great promise. I am all for them, and even if many of us were not, history has shown that technology will march on inexorably.

However, technology is no elixir or panacea when tragedy strikes. All the technologies of the world will not bring back my son. And while it assisted in what might be called the administration of tragedy, it showed remarkable incompetence and fecklessness in addressing the deepest human needs of me and my family. While it was good at spreading his obituary, it could not show up, show empathy, or express sympathy very well. Cell phones proved to be destructively distracting. Of the 526 people in my Linked In network, two used the platform to express their condolences; one of those followed with a card. (I am not on Facebook.) The more important point is that even if hundreds had, the messages would not touch my deepest needs.

Thomas Zilian (1973-2019)

The things that really helped me and my family were those friends and family who gave the gift of presence: they showed up, touched, hugged, wept, and came bearing gifts—chicken soup, mounds of fruit, muffins, calzones, chicken soup, rice pudding, tuna-noodle casserole, gallons of ice cream, and Brenda’s baked ham which I ate every day for ten days straight.

Klaus Schwab, writing in Foreign Affairs, on “The Fourth Industrial Revolution,” December12, 2015, was correct in questioning the impact of the digital revolution on “not only what we do but also who we are.” He said: “I am a great enthusiast and early adopter of technology, but sometimes I wonder whether the inexorable integration of technology in our lives could diminish some of our quintessential human capacities, such as compassion and cooperation.”

This subject is so important that Senator Ben Sasse, in his latest book, Them, Why We Hate Each Other—And How to Heal, calls for a national discussion on the subject. “Now is the time to pause for a national family meeting—and lots more individual family meetings—to discuss what we want from these coming technologies, before they make the decisions for us.” In so doing, let’s give little credence to the bold but self-serving proclamations of some of the big tech companies that they are “making the world a better place.”

During the hours of visitation, it was gratifying to see my son’s friends come through the line. Many I knew. The greater impact came from his friends I had never met and from what they said about my son. There was the stranger who came alone, limping, with a cane. He paid his respects at the coffin then came to me and related his story. “When I fell,” he said, “Tom came to me and picked me up. He spoke to me; he helped me.” The man, his walk, the scene he gave me with this story–these will forever give me comfort. No technology could ever replicate or replace that.

Fred Zilian, ( teaches history and politics at Salve Regina University, is an opinion contributor to The Hill, and is a monthly columnist to the Newport Daily News.

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