Monday, October 10, 2011

IT As a Halfway Technology --The Secular Gospel Is Not the Holy Grail

October 10, 2011 - In American culture, we tend to look at our bodies as machines - as our salvation and our path to immortality. If the machine face sags, we lift it up; if pipes plug, we unplug them; if joints creak or grind or pain, we replace them. We depend on information technologies to tell us what body organs to fix, remove, or substitute with spare parts.

This brings me to my theme: halfway technologies, whether of the mechanical or informational sort, will not ward off our final ending. We will continue to have a finite life span.

Others have said this better than I. As I write, I am thinking of two of my heroes.

One is a literary hero - Lewis Thomas, MD (1913-1993), a pathologist who wrote “The Technology of Medicine,” in Lives of a Cell (Viking Press, 1974), a compilation of essays that first appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine under the rubric “Notes of Biology Watcher.” Thomas articulated the doctrine of halfway technologies, what we do after the disease horse has left the barn.

"Halfway technology represents the kinds of things that must be done after the fact, in efforts to compensate for the incapacitating effects of certain diseases whose course one is unable to do very much about. By its nature, it is at the same time highly sophisticated and profoundly primitive... It is characteristic of this kind of technology that it costs an enormous amount of money and requires a continuing expansion of hospital facilities... It is when physicians are bogged down by their incomplete technologies, by the innumerable things they are obliged to do in medicine, when they lack a clear understanding of disease mechanisms, that the deficiencies of the health-care system are most conspicuous... The only thing that can move medicine away from this level of technology is new information, and the only imaginable source of this information is research. The real high technology of medicine comes as the result of a genuine understanding of disease mechanisms and when it becomes available, it is relatively inexpensive, relatively simple, and relatively easy to deliver."

The other is a technologic hero – Steve Jobs, who died on October 5, 2011 at age 56 of pancreatic cancer. In a Stanford University commencement address in 2005, he said this:

"No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true."

"Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary."


My two heroes share a belief that technology, however wondrous, will not save us from death. Most of us would not deny this reality, but that is exactly what many of us expect, what we want, and what we demand. But, alas, half-way medical technologies - organ replacements , dialysis, stents, wonder drugs , stem cell transplants, and IT telling us how to prevent disease, cure disease, and stay well – will not provide immortality any time soon. These technologies may keep us upright and functioning to the very end, but the end will come to us all.

Yet we Americans will continue to worship at the altar of technology, particularly information technology. Technology offers us hope of another and better day.

In a October 8 WSJ piece, “ Steve Jobs, Secular Prophet,” Andy Couch, also author of Culture Making: Recovery for Creative Calling, explains why information technologies have become secular gospel.

"Steve Jobs’ most singular quality was his ability to articulate a perfectly secular form of hope. Nothing exemplifies that ability more than Apple's early logo, which slapped a rainbow on the very archetype of human fallenness and failure—the bitten fruit—and turned it into a sign of promise and progress."

"That bitten apple was just one of Steve Jobs's many touches of genius, capturing the promise of technology in a single glance. The philosopher Albert Borgmann has observed that technology promises to relieve us of the burden of being merely human, of being finite creatures in a harsh and unyielding world. The biblical story of the Fall pronounced a curse upon human work—"cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life."

"All technology implicitly promises to reverse the curse, easing the burden of creaturely existence. And technology is most celebrated when it is most invisible—when the machinery is completely hidden, combining godlike effortlessness with blissful ignorance about the mechanisms that deliver our disburdened lives."

"Apple made technology not for geeks but for cool people—and ordinary people. It made products that worked, beautifully, without fuss and with great style. They improved markedly, unmistakably, from one generation to the next—not in the way geeks wanted technology to improve, with ever longer lists of features (I'm looking at you, Microsoft Word) and technical specifications, but in simplicity."

"Press the single button on the face of the iPad and, whether you are 5 or 95, you can begin using it with almost no instruction. It has no manual. You cannot open it up to see its inner workings even if you want to. No geeks required—or allowed. The iPad offers its blessings to ordinary mortals."

"Steve Jobs was the evangelist of this particular kind of progress—and he was the perfect evangelist because he had no competing source of hope. He believed so sincerely in the "magical, revolutionary" promise of Apple precisely because he believed in no higher power. In his celebrated Stanford commencement address (which is itself an elegant, excellent model of the genre), he spoke frankly about his initial cancer diagnosis in 2003. It's worth pondering what Jobs did, and didn't, say:

"This is the gospel of a secular age. It has the great virtue of being based only on what we can all perceive—it requires neither revelation nor dogma. And it promises nothing it cannot deliver—since all that is promised is the opportunity to live your own unique life, a hope that is manifestly realizable since it is offered by one who has so spectacularly succeeded by following his own "inner voice, heart and intuition."

"Perhaps every human system of meaning fails or at least falls silent in the face of these harsh realities, but the gospel of self-fulfillment does require an extra helping of stability and privilege to be plausible. Death is "life's change agent"? For most human beings, that would sound like cold comfort indeed."

"The world—at least the part of the world in our laptop bags and our pockets, the devices that display our unique lives to others and reflect them to ourselves—will get better. This is the sense in which the tired old cliché of "the Apple faithful" and the "cult of the Mac" is true. It is a religion of hope in a hopeless world, hope that your ordinary and mortal life can be elegant and meaningful, even if it will soon be dated, dusty and discarded like a 2001 iPod."

"It is said that human beings can live for 40 days without food, four days without water and four minutes without air. But we cannot live for four seconds without hope."

"Whatever the limits of Steve Jobs's secular gospel, or for that matter of Dr. King's Christian one, our keen sense of loss at his passing reminds us that the oxygen of human societies is hope. Steve Jobs kept hope alive. We will not soon see his like again. Let us hope that when we do, it is soon enough to help us deal with the troubles that this century, and every century, will bring."

Halfway technologies offer hope, but they cannot deliver biological immortality.

Tweet: Modern medical technologies and information technologies may help you in the short run but they merely delay the inevitable.

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