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THE CUTTING EDGE | Digital Nation

Technology Puts New Spin on the American Male

November 23, 1998|GARY CHAPMAN

Sen. John Glenn's flight aboard the space shuttle Discovery predictably and rightly summoned national feelings of pride and nostalgia, especially in this period when American heroes seem so rare.

One of the interesting things about Glenn's flight, however, is what it showed us about the effects of technology in our time, and especially about how technology affects the lives of men.

It was striking how different Glenn's second trip into space was from his first, when he orbited the Earth in 1962. As portrayed so vividly in the movie "The Right Stuff," Glenn, in those days, was a member of a rowdy bunch of jet jockeys--most of them, like Glenn, veterans of combat flying and the test pilot program. Thirty-six years ago, he was strapped into the cramped "tin can" Mercury capsule and he sang the "Marine Hymn" as his spacecraft heated up during its hellish, bone-rattling reentry.

By contrast, technological progress has since made the space shuttle so accommodating that it can now convey a 77-year-old astronaut in relative comfort. There is clearly danger involved in any space launch, as the Challenger disaster reminded us. But aside from that catastrophe, manned space flight is so routine now that most Americans barely take notice of shuttle flights unless NASA puts a celebrity on board.

What was once an exclusively male domain characterized by extreme risk, contingency, hardship and steely Cold War determination has been tamed by technology to the point that its chief discomfort is nausea caused by weightlessness.

In fact, weightlessness may be a metaphor for what technology is doing to masculinity itself.

The United States is the chief producer of masculine mythologies in modern times, through Hollywood movies and our literature of frontier and urban heroes. But we're also the main source of technology, much of which works in opposition to those myths about masculinity. This is no small irony, of course, because most technology is developed by men and for purposes defined by men.

This friction, between the free agency and risk that most men seem to crave and the omnipresent "control revolution" brought about by technology, is probably the main source of confusion among men today, even more so than anything wrought by feminism.

We're surrounded by technologies of comfort and leisure that turn many of us into couch potatoes or mouse jockeys instead of jet jockeys, and many features of technological progress strip us of expertise that was once key to masculine identity.

When I was growing up, most adult men seemed to know how to fix their cars. Now, no one I know would ever dream of fixing his car. I once foolishly tried to repair a broken microwave oven. I was told by a repairman that its blown switch was more expensive than replacing the oven with a new one, so the broken oven went to a landfill.

A lot of engineers of my age acquired their curiosity about technology fiddling with the tubes and wires of an old TV or radio. Now, the only thing you see inside a TV or radio is a completely indecipherable circuit board. Many men are totally helpless when their computer, essential to their work, ceases to function.

All of this grates against what men are taught about what it means to be a man, which is, above all, not to be helpless. In the 1980s, the U.S. military conducted a fascinating debate--invisible to the public, for the most part, found only in military journals--about the encroachment of automated decision-making into weaponry and battle management systems.

The debate was about whether such computerized systems robbed soldiers of their time-honored military values such as honor, duty, sacrifice, judgment and heroism.

Military critics of weapons and battle management systems dependent on artificial intelligence pointed out that such systems would ultimately turn soldiers into one of two things: carnage or less-than-optimal killing machines. The concept of the automated battlefield appeared to these critics an implicit admission that war is simply mass slaughter, a suggestion that soldiers are loath to concede.

At the same time, of course, military technology had already reached a point where opponents can be killed en masse, without being seen, and with little risk or heroism. It's no accident that the heroism in the movie "Saving Private Ryan," or what we're going to see in the coming holiday season, "The Thin Red Line," had to be set in World War II, 50 years ago, when the masculine values of honor, duty and sacrifice were more clearly evident. And those values depended on "seeing the whites of their eyes," as the old American Revolution phrase put it, something that technology has made largely unnecessary.

Professor Phil Agre of UCLA, commenting on the recent Glenn flight, said, "NASA has always been totally P.R.-driven," meaning the space agency is preoccupied with public relations. "And P.R. is about reflecting the culture back to itself," Agre said.

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