Readers of my columns can be forgiven for assuming that my every waking thought surrounds things political and historical. After all, at 4, I cried myself to sleep in front of my family’s grainy 12-inch Muntz television screen the night Stevenson first lost to Eisenhower. Four years later, without encouragement from my revered labor union father, I went door-to-door in my suburban Los Angeles neighborhood to explain why Adlai was still a better choice than Ike.
Despite such an early baptism by fire and a lifetime immersed in the theory and practice of governance, to make the above assumption would be an overstatement. Actually, my thoughts often wander off to far-flung places having nothing to do with public policy.
Take computers for example. When I was completing my political science doctorate in the late 1970s, computers were few in number, prone to breaking down and were larger than a Buick Roadmaster. For those of my comrades whose work involved crunching numbers, it was this legendary unreliability that was a huge annoyance. To me, mired neck-deep in the quicksand of 19th and 20th century European intellectual history, this was all such as it should have been.
My smugness at their distress wasn’t born out of any personal animosities. Instead, even at that early stage in that technological revolution which now sets the pace of most of our daily lives, I distrusted the artificial reality created by programmers and their ilk.
Taking even a moment to reflect, it should be obvious to nearly all that the “real” world is made up of an infinity of properties and impressions. The spectrum contains colors invisible to the human eye and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle blew up any notion of a fixed, contained, precisely defined external sub-atomic world. Even the efforts of behavioral social scientists to describe human feelings and attitudes fell short because of all the content they left out.
This is the very nature of our current digitalized world. If you attempted to define the emotion of racial bias, for example, you are told to begin your study in the full knowledge that attitudes and opinions in all their multitude of shadings, derive from a limitless history of conditioning events.
So, knowing this and knowing as well that it is impossible to input an infinity of anything into a computer, a researcher derives a set of questions which, it is assumed, will be accurate indicators of the underlying belief structure which you are trying to identify.
What science has done to us! It has extracted from the universe of possibilities a small set of responses that will have to be good enough. In place of immediate, intimate understanding of the human world of which we are a part, we are told to accept an infinitesimally small fraction.
And I suppose this is what experimental science is all about — “control.” The more “variables” that you can “control,” the more likely that your limited peep-show version of reality will be true.
I suspect that there is an appropriate place in today’s world reserved for “normal science” ... how to make a more nutritious breakfast food cereal, for example.
What I strenuously object to, however, is the increasingly ubiquitous faith that this shriveled up, mutilated picture of reality is the only reality worth studying or putting our collective faith in. So trusting is this blind loyalty that millions live their lives vicariously through this shadow world they can touch by keystrokes and images on their monitors.
Since the full apprehension of reality with its multitude of shapes and forms and colors lies beyond human comprehension, computers instruct us to be content with the fragmentary world we can control. From this prospect, humankind should recoil in horror, recoil from the newest technologies which offer us a virtual reality, recoil from the shelves of big-box stores groaning under the weight of helmets and goggles which allow the wearer to experience the thrill of a downhill slalom run without having to leave their living room chairs.
And it all began with the assumption that the world we can input into a computer program will have to suffice. Instead of understanding that we are masters of our own creations, we have come to worship them as fetishes.
McGehee, a lifelong activist, settled here in 1973 and lives in Palouse with his wife, Katherine. His work life has varied from bartender to university instructor to wrecking yard owner.