The Fall Line of Technology

Jean-Marc Côté, circa 1900, from series ‘En L’An 2000,’ courtesy Françoise Foliot, CC-BY-SA 4.0



Technological innovation is tricky. Flying cars, sure, we know what to do: get a car, add wings and a propeller. But put a magnetron in a metal box and use it to hyper-excite water molecules in food? Never saw that one coming.

Yesterday I was reading how a tech company hopes to store things in orbit for on-demand delivery, and I thought: I never would have thought of that, any more than I anticipated drones would deliver online purchases, and for the same reason: I have traveled great distances, from an older physical-based reality, in order to be with you now.

In that reality, space travel was so expensive only a couple of governments (and no corporations) could afford it. Helicopters were notoriously hard to fly, especially among buildings and power lines. New ways of doing things, as in any time, often sounded horrific. Run a stint to my heart from an incision in my groin? No thanks, Doc, just crack my chest like a honeydew, please.

Truth is, we began moving back and forth over the line of competency with technologies of our time long before Thoreau said that “the boy who had made his own jackknife from the ore which he had dug and smelted, reading as much as would be necessary for this,” might cut his fingers less.

A young man I know, smart and competent in so many areas, including being able to cook meals for his family, was revealed recently to have only a theoretical understanding of what to do with a box of matches, as his parents only ever had lighters in the house. There is no embarrassment in it; after all, how hard is it to pick up that knowledge?

I worry more about complicated, critical tasks on either side of the fall line. Who can diagnose or debug their computers these days? Find quick solutions with faceless corporations? Know what to do as an individual to make a meaningful difference with climate change, pandemic, Russian invasion?

If the grid collapsed in cyberwar, how many would know how to heat their freezing homes without burning them down or asphyxiating themselves? To communicate with no mobile phones? To treat drinking water without the aid of YouTube video?

“It’s all a very tenuous house of cards,” says my friend Larry, a former tech guy.

He tells me a story about how, when he worked for a large private university, the campus radio station was still on the air thanks to an 80-year old man named Joe, the last guy—he was it—who knew how to get to and change the old-school vacuum tubes that were the last non-digital link in the system. (Remember this horror, from only two years ago?)

Somebody should write a movie set in the near future, when we have rocketed our agricultural surpluses to low-orbit warehouses to keep them fresh and infestation- and contaminant-free. The grid is permanently damaged by an electromagnetic pulse weapon. Joe, an 80-year old from an older physical reality, is the only one who remembers where the mechanical switch is to make the food fall out of orbit and re-enter the atmosphere if digital commands no longer work. But Joe has a fit of apoplexy that his flying car no longer works and dies.

Everyone looks at the President, expecting his help, which is weird because there is no longer any way to look at the President.

Surely not everything we need is up there, says the President. All the grains from earth are up there?

What? everyone says. What?

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.