The Coastal Post - January, 1997

The Parable Of The Farmer And The Nerd

BY KIRBY FERRIS

While being virtually computer illiterate (pun intended), I am attempting to understand a book by Robert Cringely called Accidental Empire. It's about the personal computer revolution that has taken place in this country in the last 20 years. The overwhelming message conveyed within its pages is just how damn smart guys like Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates actually are. The author's premise, oftentimes expressed with wry humor, is that Woz did it for fun, Jobs did it to prove himself, and Gates just wants to rule the world.

I can't help wondering through the whole story where the hell we are going with these frigging machines. And a week ago Intel announced a computer that cranks out one trillion calculations per second! Who the hell invented that thing? Is there a computer programmer eugenics experiment going on somewhere in the Nevada desert? Is it bootleg space alien technology?

So now we've got this "Big Bertha" computer that, according to one excited nerdy guy I heard on the radio, is going to make decoding DNA information a "slam dunk." Unraveling the secret to life on earth, a "slam dunk?" Oh boy. And, according to Cringely's book, computer technology is doubling in speed and capacity every 18 months.

Is this the hubris of Greek Mythology? Or, is the Biblical Tower of Babel really a parable regarding the computer?

In the Tower of Babel story mankind has a single language. God gets a bit irked at the arrogance of these upstart hominids building a tower that was going to reach right into Heaven. God red-tags the tower, gets ignored, and then knocks it to the ground. He then punishes mankind by giving all the pesky critters different languages.

With this in mind, I'm going to spin a wild yarn. Pure fiction. But maybe it contains the glimmer of some sort of genetic survival mechanism, like baby chimps being afraid of rubber snakes even if they are raised in captivity.

Imagine, if you will, the world of 2020 (if we make it that far). I've got a Big Bertha on my desk and you've got one on your desk. More likely, they'll be laptops. We all speak the same language. I mean the whole world. Because the computers automatically translate English into Japanese or Ebonics, and vice versa. So it's like we all speak the same language. You be gettin' it homies? At this point, all the world's nerds decide to build that tower to Heaven. (Arthur Clarke has some cool ideas about an elevator system that goes up into the zero gravity of outer space, but I'm tending to think that this tower is symbolic.) If we climb this computer tower, we will really screw things up. Just like in the Babel tale. I think this tower leads to time travel. Imagine Bill Gates going back and buying up IBM stock in 1955. Pretty scary.

So the tower has to come down. God can't let us mess up the whole universe, can He? Okay, so here's the catch. Electromagnetic pulse (EMP). An atom bomb exploded 10 miles in the air over Denver would wipe out all the electrical circuitry in the Western United States. The military guys know all about this. EMP fries transistors, microchips and magnetic information storage devices.

Now imagine a Divine Cosmic Blast of EMP pummeling Earth. It wouldn't necessarily kill anyone. Might even help the ozone layer. But it would kill every computer on Earth that wasn't deep in some cave somewhere. So there goes 99.9% of all our computers. And radios and telephones, and television sets (so it for sure has to happen during the Super Bowl).

Zap! We can't communicate with each other! The translators are splorked and gone. Can't understand each other no more! And your bank balance? What's that?

Doncha see? Mankind is in a pretty dicey position at this point, because we've put our eggs in the almighty, computerized Big Bertha Basket. And she's giga-crashed, dude!

So who are the big shots now? Culturally speaking, I mean. It's the guys and gals with the dirt under their fingernails. The farmers. You can't eat a floppy disk, pal. But they told us in school it was the "information age" this, and the "information highway" that. And that we had to adapt and become a "service society!"

Wrong, Buckwheat. Now it's the food providers, the farmers, who are the big shots. They really always were, but the elite intellectuals just thought of them as knuckle-headed hayseeds who got drunk in pickup trucks and listened to Merle Haggard tapes.

And now, after the Divine Cosmic Blast EMP, the entire global food distribution system is caput. It can't run without the computers. So the only people who don't starve to death are those who have access to local agriculture. Remember, part of this global monkey wrenching is that all the airplanes and trains and trucks have fried electrical systems also. So if you can't sail a boat or ride a mule or walk to the farmland, you are going on a diet, Jack.

Did you know that Bill Gates has a huge vegetable garden in the backyard of his Seattle compound? Yep. That's what I hear. So maybe Mister Bill really has seen the future. No! Hang on a second! What if his computer was deep in a cave in 2020, and only be figured out how to... Nah. Can't be. Nobody is that smart!