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The Many Faces of Technology

The State of the Union is the state of technology.

11:00 PM, Feb 2, 2006 • By ERIC COHEN
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TECHNOLOGY IN ITS MANY GUISES was a central theme of President Bush's State of the Union address--from Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons to the production of revolutionary energy technologies to the need to ban the creation of human-animal hybrids. In other words: Technology as mortal threat. Technology as political liberator. Technology as moral danger.

The mortal threat is obvious enough: the prospect of terrorists and terrorist states armed with weapons of mass destruction. But it is not clear, from this speech, whether the administration is serious about confronting that threat where it now looms most darkly--in Iran. And it is not clear whether even the most serious administration can avert a coming age of nuclear attacks. Despite the few thousand casualties on September 11 and in the Iraq war, America is not used to either suffering or inflicting death on a mass scale. We still believe that our sophisticated weapons will end wars quickly, leaving only the messy project of cleaning up (or "winning the peace"). And we still believe that we can defeat our enemy with precision strikes, rather than bear the moral weight (or guilt) of killing ruthlessly in order to avert the triumph of evil men with apocalyptic aspirations. But Iran may soon force us to confront the tragic limitations of our arsenal: the zealous enemies of civilization may require acting in ways that make civilized nations uncomfortable. The cause of freedom may require the use of terrible force. It did in the Civil War; it did in World War II; and it might again in World War IV.

The liberating powers of technology are obviously more pleasant to discuss: how digitizing medical information can lower costs and reduce errors; how continued research can finally end the scourge of AIDS; and how alternative energies can break our "addiction to oil," freeing us from doing business with unsavory regimes and preventing long-term environmental problems without crippling the short-term economy. Every American should applaud these efforts. Every American rightly embraces a certain measure of techno-optimism--a belief in the greatness of science and in the reservoirs of human creativity to solve our worst problems. But we should also be careful not to lose ourselves in techno-utopianism and to become unserious about the many problems that technology cannot solve.

On energy, it is simply unrealistic to imagine that technology will liberate us soon from the need for oil, including oil from the Middle East. Every president since Richard Nixon has talked about the coming age of "energy independence," and every president has, alas, been hopelessly wrong or so far ahead of his time that such pronouncements are at best useless and at worst deforming fantasies. American wealth, and thus American power, now depends on the oil economy. This is an unpleasant fact, but a fact nonetheless. Without question, we should aggressively pursue new sources of energy--though nuclear energy brings its own security hazards, while "wind" and "switchgrass" are not likely to bring us rapidly into the post-oil age. But even as we pursue new sources of energy, we cannot give in to the illusion that technology can liberate us from the unpleasant world of power politics. And we cannot deny the fact that our attention to democracy in the Middle East is not rooted in idealism alone, but also in the practical obligation of preventing a major, misery-causing disruption in the first-world oil economy.

On healthcare, one applauds the culture of innovation that will hopefully cure many terrible diseases. But such innovation will almost certainly raise costs, not reduce them. We will live longer, healthier lives, but we will also devote a larger percentage of our resources to resisting disease. At the same time, our extended period of healthy life will almost certainly be followed by an extended period of debility, including the increased prevalence of diseases like Alzheimer's. And this presents us with the real health care crisis now looming: the surging costs of long-term care for the disabled elderly, and the effect of long-term care on our culture and our families. On this great challenge--the challenge of Medicare and Medicaid--the speech offered nothing, only the call for yet another presidential commission. And so far, the only major Medicare initiative--the prescription drug bill--proves the point: more innovative medicines available to more people at significantly increased cost, making the looming entitlement crisis only that much worse. This is a problem that technology, alas, cannot solve.