The unpredictable long-term impact of liberated genies crossed my mind last Friday as I stared out my window at the absolutely empty streets and sidewalks. The marathon bombing victims were in the hospital, the killers were shooting in the streets. An entire metropolitan area had been asked to “shelter in place” – to lock ourselves down – and we, myself included, complied with a willing conformity even greater than during previous emergencies such as when we were ordered to stay off the streets during last winter’s blizzard. We all, myself included, applauded at the equally unprecedented coordination among every type of police and emergency agency and every level of government, rather than the turf-protecting disarray that has so frequently characterized such interaction. We all, myself included, were amazed and relieved that so many images of the bombers were able to be found and analyzed so quickly from so many sources and merged with information from cell phones and even more sources that we had never before realized could be so effectively tapped. We wanted the situation dealt with, and we were all, myself included, very glad that the bastards were found, using any means necessary.
But looking out the window I suddenly thought, “it wasn’t so long ago that I was part of a small minority of the population who were fighting to stop the US invasion of Southeast Asia, and most of the country – including elected officials and police leaders at nearly every level of government – thought we were traitors; now that there has been a precedent of unrolling the full might of the government over an entire region, will it become easier to use the same tools to attack the next effort by US citizens to stop the country from catastrophic actions.”
The answer is obviously “yes.” In fact, given how frequently local police and the national FBI have tracked, harassed, framed, and even killed people whose opinions they find offensive, both in the past and today, it is difficult to imagine that these tools are not already being used in less dramatic ways for the same purposes.
But there are lots of genies. A century or two ago we discovered that internal combustion engines and fossil fuels provide energy many times greater and more efficiently than any other technology yet invented. We unleashed an industrial age that brought physical comforts and longer lives to the entire, increasingly connected globe: machines, cars, airplanes! But the price has been as high as the benefits – the millions of people whose lives were disrupted or destroyed, the natural resources used up or despoiled, the evolution of our culture from communal inter-relatedness to self-aggrandizing consumerism, the possible creation of a self-fueling hot house climate that can end life as we know it on the entire planet. It’s as if we never know when the energy creating the future turns into a hurricane.
Similar stories can be told for atomic energy, digital communications, and even health care.
Scientists, inventors, and even more the entrepreneurs who turn their creations into products are all partially responsible for the mixed blessing of what is done with their work. But we can’t roll back the clock, and most of us wouldn’t want to – the new fad of “paleo-diets” not withstanding. And most of the time the problem isn’t so much with the idea or technology or even the product. It’s with the way it is manufactured, promoted, sold, used, and disposed of – which is more about the surrounding context of economic and social systems.
Nearly everyone I know, myself included, has been feeling a bit weird this past week, a bit unsettled, jumpy. Obviously, the primary cause is that our all our personal routines, day-to-day interactions, and societal norms have been disrupted. We feel surrounded by uncertainty and potential harm that comes out of nowhere with no way to avoid, predict, or prevent it. There’s been a jagged tear in the fabric of the world we believe we inhabit. We’ve had a glimpse of an alternative universe, more akin to what it’s like in Beirut or Kabul – something we are lucky enough to experience as abnormal if not surreal. We are all relieved that the worst is over and we are all trying to get back into the regular grooves of our lives.
But getting through this crisis has required that we rub the lamp of police power and another genie has been set free. I think part of our uneasiness comes from exposure to the unpredictable and now among-us power of this new force. I only hope we don’t use up our three wishes too quickly.