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How We Understand Our Gadgets

Lewis Lapham describes living in an American age of techno-wonder and unreason.

| Wed Jun. 27, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Like England in the late sixteenth century, America in the early twenty-first has in hand a vast store of new learning, much of it seemingly miraculous—the lines and letters that weave the physics and the metaphysics into strands of DNA, Einstein's equations, Planck's constant and the Schwarzschild radius, the cloned sheep and artificial heart. America's scientists come away from Stockholm nearly every year with a well-wrought wreath of Nobel prizes, and no week goes by without the unveiling of a new medical device or weapons system.

The record also suggests that the advancement of our new and marvelous knowledge has been accompanied by a broad and popular retreat into the wilderness of smoke and mirrors. The fear of new wonders technological—nuclear, biochemical, and genetic—gives rise to what John Donne presumably would have recognized as the uneasy reawakening of a medieval belief in magic.

We find our new Atlantis within the heavenly books of necromancy inscribed on walls of silicon and glass, the streaming data on an iPad or a television screen lending itself more readily to the traffic in spells and incantation than to the distribution of reasoned argument. The less that can be seen and understood of the genies escaping from their bottles at Goldman Sachs and MIT, the more headlong the rush into the various forms of wishful thinking that increasingly have become the stuff of which we make our politics and social networking, our news and entertainment, our foreign policy and gross domestic product.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

How else to classify the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq if not as an attempt at alchemy? At both the beginning and end of the effort to transform the whole of the Islamic Middle East into a democratic republic like the one pictured in the ads inviting tourists to Colonial Williamsburg, the White House and the Pentagon issued press releases in the voice of the evil angel counseling Faustus, "Be thou on earth as Jove is in the sky,/Lord and commander of these elements."

Charles Krauthammer, neoconservative newspaper columnist and leading soloist in the jingo chorus of the self-glorifying news media, amplified the commandment for the readers of Time magazine in March 2001, pride going before the fall six months later of the World Trade Center: "America is in a position to reshape norms, alter expectations, and create new realities. How? By unapologetic and implacable demonstrations of will."

So again four years later, after it had become apparent that Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction were made of the same stuff as Eisenheim's projection of "The Vanishing Lady." The trick had been seen for what it was, but Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld emerged from the cloud of deluded expectation, unapologetic and implacable, out of which he had spoken to the groundlings at a NATO press conference in 2002: "The message is that there are no 'knowns.' There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns...but there are also unknown unknowns... The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."

"Perform What Desperate Enterprise I Will"

The Rumsfeldian message accounts not only for what was intended as a demonstration magical in Iraq, but also for the Obama administration's current purpose in Afghanistan, which is to decorate a wilderness of tribal warfare with the potted plant of a civilized and law-abiding government that doesn't exist. Choosing to believe in what isn't there accords with the practice adopted on Wall Street that brought forth the collapse of the country's real-estate and financial markets in 2008.

The magnitude of the losses measured the extent to which America assigns to the fiction of its currency the supernatural powers of a substance manufactured by a compensation committee of sixteenth-century alchemists. The debacle was not without precedent. Thomas Paine remarked on the uses of paper money ("horrid to see, and hurtful to recollect") that made a mess of America's finances during its War of Independence, "It is like putting an apparition in place of a man; it vanishes with looking at, and nothing remains but the air."

Paine regarded the "emissions" of paper money as toxic, fouling the air with the diseases (vanity, covetousness, and pride) certain to destroy the morals of the country as well as its experiment with freedom. A report entitled "Scientific Integrity in Policy Making," issued in February 2004 by the Union of Concerned Scientists, advanced Paine's argument against what it diagnosed as the willed ignorance infecting the organism of the Bush administration.

Signed by more than 60 of the country's most accomplished scientists honored for their work in many disciplines (molecular biology, superconductivity, particle physics, zoology), the report bore witness to their experience when called upon to present a federal agency or congressional committee with scientific data bearing on a question of the public health and welfare. Time and again in the 40-page report, the respondents mention the refusal on the part of their examiners to listen to, much less accept, any answers that didn't fit with the administration's prepaid and prerecorded political agenda.

Whether in regard to the lifespan of a bacteria or the trajectory of a cruise missile, ideological certainty overruled the objections raised by counsel on behalf of logic and deductive reasoning. On topics as various as climate change, military intelligence, and the course of the Missouri River, the reincarnations of Pope Urban VIII reaffirmed their conviction that if the science didn't prove what it had been told to prove, then the science had been tampered with by Satan.

The report spoke to the disavowal of the principle on which the country was founded, but it didn't attract much notice in the press or slow down the retreat into the provinces of unreason. The eight years that have passed since its publication have brought with them not only the illusion of "The Magic Kettle" on Wall Street, but also the election of President Barack Obama in the belief that he would enter the White House as the embodiment of Merlin or Christ.

To the extent that more people become more frightened of a future that calls all into doubt, they exchange the force of their own thought for the power they impute to supernatural machines. To wage the war against terror the Pentagon sends forth drones, robots, and surveillance cameras, hard-wired as were the spirits under the command of Faustus, "to fetch me what I please,/Resolve me of all ambiguities,/Perform what desperate enterprise I will."

Wall Street clerks subcontract the placing of $100 billion bets to the judgment of computer databanks that stand as silent as the stones on Easter Island, while calculating at the speed of light the rates of exchange between the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns. By way of projecting a federal budget deficit into both the near and distant future, the season's presidential candidates float cloud-capped towers of imaginary numbers destined to leave not a rack behind.

The American body politic meanwhile dissolves into impoverished constituencies of one, stripped of "profit and delight" in the realm of fact, but still sovereign in the land of make-believe. Every once and future king is possessed of a screen like the enchanted mirror that Lady Galadriel shows to Frodo Baggins in the garden at Caras Galadhon; the lost and wounded self adrift in a sea of troubles but equipped with the remote control that once was Prospero's; blessed, as was the tragical Doctor Faustus, with instant access to the dreams "of power, of honor, of omnipotence."

Lewis H. Lapham is editor of Lapham's Quarterly. Formerly editor of Harper's Magazine, he is the author of numerous books, including Money and Class in America, Theater of War, Gag Rule, and, most recently, Pretensions to Empire. The New York Times has likened him to H.L. Mencken; Vanity Fair has suggested a strong resemblance to Mark Twain; and Tom Wolfe has compared him to Montaigne. This essay, shortened for TomDispatch, introduces "Magic Shows," the Summer 2012 issue of Lapham's Quarterly. Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch, join us on Facebook, and check out the latest TD book, Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.

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