IN just a few short years, the United States has become a nation of electronic addicts, technojunkies dependent on their microprocessors and mainframes. I took a walk through the office of the future, counting the number of electronic brains I could find. The tiny silicon chips were everywhere: in the telephones, the alarm system, fax machines, photocopiers, calculators, typewriters, desktop computers, even inside the company's postage scale.Skip to next paragraph
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At home I listen to music that is encoded as a digitized stream of 44,100 sixteen-bit numbers per second, recorded into a sheet of polycarbonate and played back by the use of a laser beam and a microprocessor. My cassette deck has a light-emitting diode readout display and a digital alarm clock of its own, as well as soft-touch buttons for ``play'' and ``rewind'' that control computerized motors. Another chip controls my microwave oven. My computerized thermostat even has a tiny analog-to-digital converter so the microchip can tell if the room is too chilly or too hot and turn the furnace on or off.
From printing presses to automobiles, everything is controlled by packs of microprocessors, tied together with local area networks. National networks of automatic teller machines give us our daily ``bread.''
People who use the machines to earn a living - writers and businessmen, engineers and university professors - are the most dependent. Computers were supposed to set us free. The real effect, curiously enough, has been to enslave us: I know reporters who, having made the switch from typewriter to video-display terminal, now find it almost impossible to go back.
A friend of mine recently called a travel agent to find out about flights from Boston to San Francisco. ``I can't give you that information now because the computer is down,'' he said. My friend reminded the agent about the Official Airline Guide on his desk - a hefty book published weekly that lists every flight in the country. ``Oh, that's right, I can do it that way, can't I?'' he agreed.
Becoming attached to silicon chips is as habit forming as eating potato chips: Once you learn how to use the computer to write your memorandums, it is not a very big step to use it to balance your checkbook, ``paint'' your greeting cards, or correspond - electronically - with your friends.
In our throwaway society, computers are now even being sent to landfills. ``There's something wrong with your ignition computer,'' the mechanic says when you take your new car in for service, and he sells you another one. There is simply no way to fix or recycle a microchip.
For those who worry about such things, American dependence on computers has real implications for national security. If a pair of hydrogen bombs were detonated in space over the United States - possibly as part of a preemptive attack - nearly all the computers in the country could be damaged or destroyed by a phenomenon known as electromagnetic pulse. Within seconds, the country's technological base could be blown back to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. If our technological house of cards ever falls it will take a long time to pick up the pieces.
The problem isn't that we are in danger of having electronic brains make organic ones obsolete. The real danger is total dependence on the electronic ones. Computers can't think - people who say otherwise are simply using the machine as an excuse for not thinking themselves.