The computer and the organic garden

Two curiously contradictory stories appeared in the same newspaper on the same day. One lip-smacking headline reported the "Dalton School Computer Caper" -- the by-now legendary tale of how three eighth-graders in New York used their teaching computer to invade and disrupt the data bank storing the records of 21 Canadian corporations.

The second story, dealing in the inflation tall tale of all inflation tall tales -- California real estate -- explained the new rules of that game. As cash values of houses in the Los Angeles area increase by as much as $2,200 a month, buyers, in fact, cannot ante up the cash for a down payment. Something that real estate brokers prettily call "creative financing" enters the market place -- meaning that everything from a diamond ring to a tanning salon is accepted as currency.

So, from the Dalton adventure, one learns how abstract money has become, proceeding from precious metals to coins to paper to numerals in a computer -- "money in electronic form," as one economist has put it.

Meanwhile, back in the San Fernando Valley one regresses to old-fashioned trading -- to barter. So much wampum for so much real estate -- with a tanning salon thrown in.

Beyond a stark contrast in high finance, the two stories seem to dramatize a civil war we sense within ourselves -- a struggle to determine the kind of people we will become in the late '80s or '90s. Will we be inclined to turn into neo-primitives, biting for verification on our gold coins, rooting in our organic gardens, and chopping our own firewood -- calling nothing real unless we can put our hands on it? Or will we tend to become cybernetic humans, plugged into terminals, chanting as serious mottoes the jokes of the '70s? For instance: "If it's not in a computer, it doesn't exist."

At first glance, any cautious prophet -- not to mention the computer itself -- would bet on the computer. Already more than 250,000 home computers have been sold. The prediction that one out of four American homes will be equipped with a computer by 1990 may prove to be conservative.

In the office we are growing accustomed to the screen by day, even as we have become accustomed to the screen by night in the TV room, formerly known as the living room. What, then, can save us from becoming very like the parable-people in Plato's cave who stared at the shadows on the wall for so long that the shadows finally seemed more real than the people who cast them?

Donn Parker of the Stanford Research Institute foresees the ultimate computer culture. Future wars, he suggests, will be waged by computers on computers. One will not require the nuclear bomb -- that block-busting leveler. One will not even require the neatly slaughtering neutron bomb. One will conquer one's enemy -- reduce him to unprecedented helplessness -- by destabilizing his computers.

The philosopher Albert Camus saw technological civilization as a progressive abstraction. Way back at the time of World War II, he was horrified that human beings had learned so well how to kill enemies they could not see with long-distance artillery and how to love their friends over the long-distance telephone. What would the computer signify to this ethical worrier?

The Dalton School gang -- 1980's sorcerer's apprentices -- would not walk into a bank, we may presume, and fool around with the money. Can people ever be taught the same sense of responsibility in the abstract vault of the computer? Or is there something intoxicating about the power of the computer that makes us feel a little Nietzschean -- beyond good and evil? These are the Camus questions that pop up subliminally on Everyman's terminal. And at this late date -- after Hiroshima -- it is not quite enough to say that all power is neutral and we can trust ourselves to use it for good.

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," Arthur Clarke, that visionary of 2001, warned.

Still, one can become hysterical from worrying too much, just as one can become complacent from worrying not a whit. Magic is an illusion, after all, and it is the nature of an illusion to wear off. The Clarke warning might have been applied to printing-press culture as well as to computer culture, and presumably we've survived Gutenberg's worst. There is no evidence that human beings can be abstracted from their daily lives beyond a certain point.

The most probable future may not be an either-or proposition but a world in which computer technicians cultivate organic gardens and chop wood in their spare time to keep their balance -- their sanity. As for our original dilemma of high finance -- electronic data vs. barter -- one home computer owner tells of a synthesis there too. His daughter, he reports, uses the computer to record a running inventory of her bubble gum cards -- which she spends the rest of her day trading.

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