Duck Soup
Busted trust


"Lo! Men have become the tools of their tools," wrote Henry David Thoreau in the second century past. He might well have added "victims." The past year has been a bad one for machines, an ominous start to the looming digital era.

We dove into the year Aught with warnings that machines couldn't be trusted to count - at least not above 1,999 - and exited 00 instructed by five justices that only machine counts should be trusted. The Y2K business was either overblown, or corrected in time (depending on one's point of view) and, while the election derailment pleased the winners, nobody sane believes that the certified results reflect actual voter preference.

Faith in computerdom was further strained by the Love Bug when thousands of trusting souls with Windoze machines opened e-mail that said "I Love You," and crashed corporate and government networks around the globe. We must heed that television spookydrama, "Trust no one." (And most particularly, don't open any .exe files.)

E-tailers have been falling like detached chads, due in no small part to shoppers' distrust of online transactions. Though the actual danger of credit card data theft on the Internet is statistically lower than the same threat at gas stations and restaurants, the apparent danger is greater.

Sending off one's vital statistics to a place that isn't really a place, with salespeople who aren't really people, and voices that aren't really voices, while one's browser pops up alert balloons warning of insecure web pages, could make anyone second-guess the reliability of the system. Meanwhile, reports of fraud in online auctions reinforce the fear of e-flying.

While I stood in the Atlanta jetport last summer, all of the too-many TVs in the concourse were tuned to an investigative report that detailed the stories of people who were ripped off when buying computers over the Internet. The message was that consumers shouldn't believe everything they see on their screens.

I swivelled my head a few degrees to look at the other display listing flight arrivals and departures, then looked at my watch. Like the woman said, "Don't believe everything you see on a screen." This led to the obvious collateral thought: as I stood in the bowels of a transportation system almost entirely dependent on computers, I was being instructed not to trust computers. Gee.

In a recent magazine story I commented that one of the diminishments of air travel was that "there is no hope for participatory adventure-except, perhaps, a hijacking in which one wrestles the perpetrator to the mat." Exactly that scenario played out recently, as two young men from Sumter saved a jumbo jet over Africa from a suicidal dive. Passengers aboard a U.S.-bound craft that apparently suffered a similar fate one year earlier were not as lucky. It seems we must now add a polygraph test to the metal detection at airport gates-that is, if we can trust polygraphy.

The poor wretches aboard the Russian submarine Kursk were failed twice by their technologies. First the sub torpedoed itself and then the escape hatch jammed so that would-be rescuers couldn't get in. As if to sharpen the point that we are all inescapably involved in Russian techno-roulette, this past week the Ruskie Space Agency lost contact with Mir for 20 or more hours, a lapse which could have resulted in a fiery rain on almost anybody's parade. Then, to cap it, they completely lost a supply rocket shortly after launch. Oops.

Caveat emptor applies, whether you are buying into start-ups or launch vehicles. If this year's lessons have tempered our trust in the virtual superhighway, they have been no less worrying on the real road. It is always the path of wisdom to look under the hood and kick the tires-gently, these days, since they might explode. Now, cautious motorists give every Ford Explorer a wide berth on the odd chance that it is tooting along shod with Firestones. (Cuban tires, we should note, are evidently not tubeless, making Elian the poster child for Old Technology.)

Underwater, undercounts, underinflation-altogether an underwhelming technologic year. Homo faber we once called ourselves .- the toolmaking ape. This year Homo pazzo feels more apt, patsys in thrall to our own slippery device.

C.L. Bothwell III hails from the other Carolina. For information on reprints, publication, address changes or letters to the editor, send e-mail to Three free issues will be sent to the curious, the suspicious or the bored who just say, "Please." Subscriptions: $12/52 issues. Gift subscriptions/renewals: $8/52 issues. Payments will be happily greeted at: Brave Ulysses Books, 300 Rush Creek Road, Black Mountain, NC 28711 USA. (Please include your e-mail address with snailmail correspondence.)

© Copyright by POINT, 2001