Is Amer­ica pre­mod­ern or post­mod­ern?

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

Dur­ing the last 20 years, sci­ence and a grow­ing econ­omy gave Amer­i­cans the most so­phis­ti­cated and leisured lifestyles in his­tory. We in­ex­pen­sively call or e-mail any­where in the world. With on­line shop­ping and bank­ing, Amer­i­cans ac­quire and spend elec­tron­i­cally — without see­ing those with whom we do busi­ness. Taxes are filed over the In­ter­net, and stocks are bought and sold daily on­line.

But with such ease and re­liance on com­put­ers comes ever-in­creas­ing vul­ner­a­bil­ity. Bril­liant en­gi­neers may have de­signed our lap­tops, cell phones, on­line com­merce and 1-800 call lines. But some­one still has to an­swer the phone, en­ter data into com­put­ers and as­sist cus­tomers who fall through the elec­tronic cracks. And such hu­man au­dit of the grow­ing power of com­put­er­ized com­merce re­quires more, not less, ed­u­cated work­ers than ever be­fore.

And here is where prob­lems arise.

Too many of us are grow­ing more il­lit­er­ate — read­ing less and watch­ing tele­vi­sion more. A con­ser­va­tive es­ti­mate of the na­tional high-school dropout rate is 20 per­cent. Even for those who grad­u­ate, too of­ten a ther­a­peu­tic cur­ricu­lum em­pha­siz­ing self-es­teem; race, class, and gen­der is­sues; and drug, al­co­hol and sex ed­u­ca­tion has crowded out lan­guage, sci­ence and math.

A highly com­plex so­ci­ety, staffed by those who are un­able to read well and com­pute at ba­sic lev­els, can be ter­ri­fy­ing. One math­e­mat­i­cally in­ept tran­scriber or an Amer­i­can re­cep­tion­ist who can­not speak flu­ent English can do the pub­lic a lot of dam­age.

Their mis­takes can get em­bed­ded into com­plex com­put­ers — the force mul­ti­pli­ers of hu­man er­ror — whose func­tions they do not fully un­der­stand, which in turn au­to­mat­i­cally be­gin send­ing out mis­taken no­tices, bills and pay­ments.

To rec­tify th­ese mis­takes, the ex­as­per­ated con­sumer di­als in to a com­puter bank, pushes var­i­ous but­tons, is put on hold and, with luck, even­tu­ally finds a liv­ing, breath­ing real per­son — in In­dia. (That said, In­dian fix­ers of­ten prove to be bet­ter ed­u­cated and speak more pre­cise English than their Amer­i­can coun­ter­parts.)

In the last year, I had many brushes with this grow­ing dys­func­tional side of Amer­ica — ex­pe­ri­ences now com­mon to mil­lions. A Macy’s clerk copied my ad­dress wrongly; then oth­ers sent three bills to a nonex­is­tent lo­ca­tion; and then, without my knowl­edge, still an­other re­ported the un­de­liv­ered bill to a credit bureau.

DirecTV charged me each month for un­wanted NFL foot­ball pre­mium chan­nels. Ev­ery time I called to stop pay­ments, the phone-bank Amer­i­can re­cep­tion­ists ei­ther put me on hold, failed to un­der­stand ba­sic re­quests or spoke English so poorly that com­mu­ni­ca­tion was nearly im­pos­si­ble.

Most re­cently, a forger some­how got hold of my Citibank check-router num­ber and be­gan writ­ing phony checks. In our im­per­sonal world, the charges went through un­no­ticed to my ac­count — even though the forger used clearly coun­ter­feited checks with dif­fer­ently printed names and ad­dresses from my own. We are a long way from my grand­fa­ther’s world, where an ac­tual per­son would have spot­ted such am­a­teur­ish fraud.

I am sure that cor­po­rate dons, in their profit-loss mod­els, have fac­tored in all th­ese po­ten­tial foul-ups — and con­cluded that the greater prof­its of hir­ing poorly paid, poorly ed­u­cated cler­i­cal work­ers — or sim­ply turn­ing ev­ery­thing over to im­per­sonal com­puter au­dit — out­weighs the greater risk.

But, on the other end of the equa­tion, mod­ern life is be­com­ing not so mod­ern at all for the rest of us. The more so­phis­ti­cated the chain of our cul­ture be­comes, the more it is ren­dered vul­ner­a­ble to a sin­gle weak link of the ever-more un­so­phis­ti­cated — cost­ing us time, money and peace of mind.

Un­less our schools re­turn to an em­pha­sis on lan­guage and math­e­mat­ics, and then hire bet­ter au­di­tors of our elec­tronic world, it will not mat­ter how many in­no­va­tive thinkers like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or War­ren Buf­fet that Amer­ica pro­duces.

Just a few poorly ed­u­cated cogs in our vast elec­tronic wheel can eas­ily undo their work, mak­ing our glo­ri­ous post­mod­ern life once again pre­mod­ern.

Vic­tor Davis Han­son is a na­tion­ally syndicated colum­nist.

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