But the shock of the old is not limited to breaches of national security. The civil engineer and historian Henry Petroski, in his book Engineers of Dreams: Great Bridge Builders and the Spanning of America, points to a 30-year cycle in which a new generation of professionals forgets the hard-won lessons of its predecessors’ errors. Indeed, there are signs that many professions have started to lose their technological balance. Many U.S. medical residents, for example, are no longer highly skilled in using a stethoscope to interpret body sounds. The demands of training physicians for tomorrow’s biotechnology may be in conflict with the best preparation for hands-on contact with today’s patients. Doctors obviously need to know the latest science, but both educational trends and the pressures of managed care make it harder for them to read facial expressions alongside lab reports.
What makes a good lawyer, too, is not just access to databases of legislation and decisions but intuitive knowledge of clients and clients’ environments. That’s why most lawyers still avoid representing themselves despite all the new tools at their disposal. They’re paying not for formal information but for tacit knowledge.
Librarians tell me that students often spend much more time finding certain information on the Web than they would have needed using standard printed reference books. Internet skills are indispensable-in fact, they too are not taught enough-but so is the ability to access the vast body of essential knowledge that has not been and may never be available in an electronic format. The high cost of both electronic and paper information, not to mention terminals and printers, challenges librarians, but most of them recognize that each mode has irreplaceable advantages.
In fact, engineering itself is not just the application of mathematical equations but a subtle balance of aesthetics, economics and science in which culture counts as much as calculation. Computer-assisted design can accelerate execution of ideas but can never replace the insight that comes from immersion in the traditions of building. It was the cultural resonance of towers and polygons, used by brilliant designers, that made the targets of September 11 such powerful icons, not simply their acres of usable space.
Just as the Nasdaq’s collapse well before September 11 was a symptom of an economy out of balance, so this infinitely greater catastrophe reminds us to seek a new equilibrium between virtual reality and the real kind, between pixels and iron and concrete, flesh and blood. As Dan Rather told his viewers during the ordeal, “This is not a graphic.”