Friday, July 13, 2012

What Do We Value?

By Keith McDowell

The first few drops of rain pelted our sweat-soaked clothing and cooled down our exposed skin as my sons and I trudged along the Colorado Trail toward the Wagon Loop Trail junction that was visible just ahead of us. Having hiked nearly 8.5 miles up and down over a number of ridges at altitudes approaching 10,000 feet in a little less than three hours from the Angle of Shavano Trailhead had not been our first choice. The three of us were in great shape and looking to summit several of the Colorado fourteeners during our vacation, but the weather gods had dictated otherwise keeping the invisible peaks enshrouded in ugly black clouds from first light to darkness.

Reaching the trail junction, we turned right along the top of a ridgeline in a sparsely populated lodgepole forest and headed eastward for the 1.3-mile descent to the Brown’s Creek Trailhead where my wife would be waiting to pick us up. Ahead of schedule, we were in no hurry as the light drizzle continued and the distant rumble of thunder and occasional flash of lightning signaled a thunderstorm on the high peaks to our West. Veteran mountaineers, we took the weather conditions in stride and once again tuned out our surroundings as we walked along the relatively flat ridge.

Suddenly, it happened! There was a blinding flash of light coupled to an explosion of sound that nearly popped our eardrums. It was the dreaded “flash-bang” of a lightning strike right on top of us. Instinctively ducking down as a massive surge of adrenaline shot through my body, I watched as my son Andrew in front of me did the same, followed by a bent-over leap into the air and explosive sprint into a dead run as gravity took over and his boots made contact again with the trail. My reflexive move wasn’t quite so spectacular, but I was just as panicked by the seeming lack of trees in our immediate area.

For an old man like me, running at an altitude of 9,600 feet down a sandy horse trail filled with rocks and tree roots wasn’t the best thing to be doing. My sons quickly left me behind as several more lightning strikes occurred behind us providing additional incentive to keep up the pace. Mercifully, we rapidly came off the ridge into thicker woods and slowed to a dogtrot. We soon stopped to gather ourselves and our breaths and to ponder why the hairs on our body had not stood on end before the lightning strike.  A few unprintable curse words mixed with a sardonic laugh or two were also part of the menu.

In such moments as these – and I’ve had a few in my mountaineering career, it is easy to reflect on life and to appreciate the simple act of survival. Such moments also often lead me after the fact to a deeper consideration of the meaning of life and to puzzle over the following question: what do I value – other than life itself?

But life itself is no longer a simple concept as we accelerate the innovation race and move increasingly faster toward a new definition of human existence on Planet Earth. Take, for example, the recent news that a baby’s DNA can be constructed before birth leading to a “possible diagnosis for genetic disorders in certain circumstances.” Gads! We are only a step away from using genetic drugs and gene manipulation in a fetus to achieve “cures” for such disorders – a worthy endeavor.

But that means we are also only a step away from using chemical, physical, and biological means to manipulate a fetus to produce a human with enhanced performance characteristics. Steroids, doping, and blood transfusions will no longer be needed to produce the next great athletic performance in the Tour de France and the accompanying dollars and rewards that go with such success. Will parents succumb to such manipulation of a fetus? Of course they will!

And what about the world of wireless information technology? I envision a world in a decade or two where people shave their heads and cover them with a “hair piece” that looks like a scalp covered by hair but is actually a very sophisticated flexible device that monitors brain activity and interrogates our thoughts. We will literally be able to send commands to an electronic device by thinking about it. Surprisingly, we are already in the first stages of doing so as monkeys manipulate mechanical arms by merely thinking about it.

Of course, real progress will ultimately occur when we learn how to send signals back into the brain to be interpreted by our brain as “thoughts.” Yep, that will happen sooner than later! Goodbye iPod, iBook, iPad, and iPhone and hello to iBrain!

And the good news is that our advanced iBrain device will be both wireless and powered by a sophisticated coupling to our body’s physical and chemical systems. It’s the wireless part that’s really cool, to use an old-fashioned “nerdy” term. We will be able to connect instantly to the Internet of the future and thereby to all facets of social media by merely thinking about it. My God! Talk about hacking or the ultimate in texting. But who really wants to know what an old man like me thinks about the babe in the revealing outfit? And was that last thought really mine?

“Reading people’s minds” and participating with them in the midst of all sorts of physical endeavors will become the ultimate experience for the couch potato. Jeez, I could hyperlink to someone climbing Mt. Everest and experience what they feel as they slowly approach their final moments in the “death zone.” We won’t mention the pornographic aspect to such technology.

And what about our educational system and the effect of instant access to all knowledge? How will we measure progress? Will it be done solely by one’s ability to use and access the new iBrain technology – a sort of IQ test of the future? Will manipulation of a fetus to achieve the best and brightest iBrain performers be considered cheating?

My 92-year old father has seen it all during his lifetime including his own personal participation in the Normandy invasion in 1944 as well as the invention of the radio, the television, the computer, air travel, and now wireless communication and the social media. He doesn’t understand why anyone would want to text about their intimate or even their silly moments and Facebook exists on another planet for him. As he would say, it’s all about our values.

So what do we value as modern society heads for a real confrontation with itself in a world of interconnected and engineered human beings? And yes that will happen faster than anyone imagines. Just ask my father if you don’t believe me!

And even more disconcerting, will it matter what we value?

I don’t have a clear answer to such questions, but believe that we must consider them as a society. Unfortunately, I suspect that we will drift into this future connected world driven by the usual motives of selfishness, avarice, and greed serving as replacements or substitutes for the evolutionary mandate to adapt and survive. But do we really want to accelerate innovation to achieve that end, even if success in global competition requires that we do so? Some, and perhaps many, would answer with an emphatic NO!

I never made it to the summit of a fourteener during that summer vacation in Colorado. A painful bone bruise on my ankle caused by running away from the lightning kept me from joining my sons a week later as they ascended to the summit of Mt. Massive, the third tallest mountain in the 48 states. For them, it was a very long and exhausting day on a mountain worthy of its name. But I did talk to them using our portable radios as they slogged to the summit. My! Isn’t modern technology wonderful!

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