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Did ANYONE really believe there were Weapons of Mass Destruction?

Jonathan Larson (2003)

In spite of the fact that almost everyone has to take a few science courses in the process of getting an education, and virtually all Americans live in an ocean of technology, technological illiteracy is nearly universal.

The only regular exceptions to the rule of technological illiteracy these days seem to be farm kids, construction workers and builders, the folks in technical maintenance such as auto repair, engineers, advanced computer geeks, and folks with technological hobbies such as drag racing.

Notice that none of these groups are over represented in forums where foreign policy, education, law, monetary direction, or media decisions are made.

In the world of media or government or academe, technological illiteracy is so widespread, it could be termed "fashionable." This is not an exaggeration. The best example of "fashionable technological illiteracy" (hereinafter FTI) might be the enormous popularity of the movie "2001, A Space Odyssey." In 2001, an evil computer named HAL threatens innocent Dave with all sorts of disasters. This view of the future was taken so seriously, classes at known universities that charged money and issued grades and credits came to include studying this "cinematic classic."

Of course, 2001—the year—came and went and there were no computers remotely like HAL to be found anywhere on planet earth. Far from being a threat, your computer is more like an infant—in constant need of care and attention and often irrational when it decides to cooperate.

This is the case of ALL technology. It is FRAGILE. It is in constant need of some level of attention. If the film professor at a snooty liberal arts film department could have talked to the guy down the street who raced dragsters or built flying model airplanes, (s)he would have been regaled with the stories of how brutally unforgiving technology is to carelessness of the slightest kind—the failure of a $5 bearing destroying a $5000 motor. Folks are truly technologically literate when they can cite personal examples of why they believe that Murphy (of Murphy’s Law fame) was an optimist.

There are millions of folks who really liked 2001—for whatever reason including the quality of the drugs ingested before viewing. Snooty film professors are a minor annoyance in the larger world of FTI. Unfortunately the damage they cause by helping to make fashionable a form of ignorance is very real.

When some bubble-headed TV newsreader admits on camera that (s)he hasn’t "figured out how to set my VCR," the FTI-meter goes to full-tilt. There is almost no way to measure the technological difference between the people who invented television and someone who makes such a remark. Ironically, they are both in the same business (TV) so we have beautiful techno-illiterates in everyone’s life—a feat made possible by some of the finest techno-geniuses of history.

It actually gets worse. In many ways, FTI drove the economy of the 1990s. For example, Jack Welch became a Wall Street darling of the era with his management of GE. Virtually everything GE makes from jet turbines to power-plants is technologically as sophisticated as anything on earth. GE’s customers are usually governments or regulated industries. GE was as close to pure socialism as anything we had in USA—and smart folks actually endorsed this arrangement because "big tech" as represented by GE was of such value, it was worth taxpayer subsidies and protection from some of the practices of finance capitalism.

Welch became Wall Street’s man because he was able to return, with mathematic regularity, increases in "shareholder" value. For this, he was rewarded with wealth beyond wretched excess.

In the meantime questions as to what was really happening as Welch exported the know-how and tools of "big tech" to the rest of the world never got asked. In the world of technology, there is a huge difference between being able to make the tool as opposed to merely operating it. For much of the 20th century, the guys who made tools had empires, the folks who only used tools became colonies—is it really a good idea to squander such a lead?

Welch was "exceeding expectations" in the capital markets—why would anyone want to question his methods? And who would do it—the TV "journalist" who got college credit for watching 2001 and writing a report?—and thinks that technology is evil because occasionally his microphone doesn’t work? Could this journalist ever understand why Welch’s successor is have a tough time "making the numbers" out of the technological wreck left him by a professional plunderer?

The FTI media failed us again in the run-up to the USA invasion of Iraq. In order to have had the Weapons of Mass Destruction claimed for Iraq, they would have had to have a GE—pre Welch—in their country. Technology needs ALL the parts to work. If an essential part is missing you have to make it or buy it. As the embargo stretched out, the chance that an irreplaceable part had gone missing somewhere along the technological "food chain" became practically infinite. Even if we "knew" they had everything to make WMDs (after all, went the joke, we had the receipts) at one time, we could not know what had been lost. Therefore, technologically we "knew" nothing. And all the predictions that Iraq had the capability of making WMDs in anywhere NEAR the quantities believed had less basis in fact than the Sunday-morning football betting lines.

We are talking about people who truly believed their own voices. USA military teams took along bunny suits and masks and antidotes. You would think that THEY would know better—the military being one of "big tech’s" customers after all. But there seems to be a gap in consciousness between buying, maintaining, and ultimately destroying technology than in building the stuff. In the Army, talking tough will get you into the very inner rings of power; talking about the nearly infinite ways that technology can be reduced to uselessness will get you stationed in Greenland.

And groupthink—fashionably technologically illiterate groupthink replaces reason in the corridors of power. I’ll wager that questioning the existence of WMDs at the Pentagon in mid-March was a good way to get yourself called "French," even though the whole idea was technologically preposterous.


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