Marrying your dentist, as I did, means learning all sorts of things you never imagined you’d know. Some of them are even useful. Smoking, for instance, will make your teeth fall out, and raisins can be harder on the old choppers than chocolates. But the biggest lesson has to do with technology. What I’ve learned about this from being around my wife is that there are no Luddites with toothaches.
The Luddites, you’ll recall, were disaffected craftsmen who destroyed newfangled textile machinery in England in the early 19th century. Today lots of people fear technology, or at least new technology, and a certain amount of Luddism is probably inevitable in a time of rapid change. But what’s striking, as people cope with all of this, is how irrational we can be when confronted with everyday technologies we don’t understand. Los Angeles, where my wife practiced dentistry, is a showcase for the phenomenon of “selective Luddism”: a big, sophisticated city that hasn’t fluoridated its water. My wife’s patients there included plenty of people who were open to almost any new idea, yet were deeply suspicious of modern medicine and technology-except, of course, when they had a toothache, at which point they were happy to embrace any substance or technology that brought them relief. I remember much wariness about silver fillings, but hardly a peep about lidocaine.
Some of this is understandable. With its sunshine and smog, caressing breezes and crime, there is a quality of paradise lost about Los Angeles that can make anyone leery of progress. Yet human responses to civilization’s discontents are frustratingly inconsistent. Our friends in L.A. wear machine-made clothing and drive cutting-edge cars through a web of sophisticated traffic signals, architecture and engineering to reach health-food stores where they escape modern farming technologies by “buying organic.”
When my wife was carrying our twins, we encountered pregnant women who insisted on natural childbirth-in a high-tech medical center, of course. I confess to being puzzled. Advocates of natural childbirth don’t walk barefoot to the hospital, after all, and they bring the new baby home to a house with indoor plumbing and central heat. They don’t stop buying shampoo or sending e-mail, either, and they have countless sonograms en route to delivery. So why the desire to experience “natural” childbirth?
I think “experience” is the operative concept here, backed by a general desire to be free of what we perceive as the dangers of technology at such a sensitive moment. We remember at such times that medical science brought the world thalidomide, but we remember also how useful blood tests, amniocentesis and the like can be in helping safeguard mothers and fetuses. So we’re torn. To borrow an adage from Madison Avenue, we think half of all the money spent on technology is wasted. The question is, which half?
The classic example, of course, is flying. You are probably safer on a major U.S. airline than in your bathtub, yet my mother-in-law (who smokes cigarettes) is still somewhat afraid to fly. Who understands, after all, what keeps airplanes aloft? Who was this guy Bernoulli anyway? Microwave ovens, despite their well-established harmlessness, are also a focal point for outbreaks of selective Luddism. A friend in Santa Monica won’t own one, even though she uses a computer every day, commutes to work by car, and casually flies coast to coast.
What accounts for all this selective Luddism? My friend’s phobia points to a possible explanation, which is that people’s willingness to embrace a new technology is in inverse proportion to its invisibility. Sensitized by stories of the harm caused by chemicals and radiation, people are nervous about microwave ovens, cellular telephones and other mysterious electronic devices. Thus food irradiation, which would save many lives annually, remains largely taboo. That so many of these modern technologies are simply beyond the average person’s understanding only enhances people’s fears. (A kind of technological grandfather clause seems to exempt television and radio transmissions, which are also invisible-perhaps because they became commonplace in the days when people still thought radiation was fun. Remember, there was a time when children routinely put their feet into X-ray machines…in shoe stores.)