The Soul of the Old Machine

13 09 2009

StarchildForty years ago, as my formal matriculation was nearing its final stages, the formula signaling the end of civilization as we know it became clear. Sophistication equals fragility. I do not remember now, but this was probably prompted by reading how an electromagnetic pulse such as one generated by a nuclear explosion in the atmosphere over the central United States would destroy all of those new-fangled electronic devices such as automobile ignitions and computers.

As our world progressed scientifically feeding on all of the discoveries generated by World War II, the Cold War, and the Space Race, we were putting more and more of our increasingly sophisticated eggs into an alarmingly fragile basket.

Forty years later, my thoughts on this have not changed as we become even more dependent on sophisticated technology. I am not a scientist, but I suspect, or at least hope, nanotechnology or something that comes out of nanotechnology might pull our fat out of the fire.

However, this is all prelude. My real purpose being a short paean to homo sapiens and especially to parents. Consider the human being as an ultra-sophisticated machine. Look at it folks! It is self-replicating, self-repairing, and self-programming. It can turn all sorts of organic matter into fuel, and it can even chemically alter this matter to create super fuels such as sugar and white bread.

Okay, so maybe that mostly describes ants, too, but humans are probably the pinnacle of Earthly super-machine development. Let us say we are  at the top of the organic machine chain when it comes to sophistication, neh?

FamilyNow, as stated above, this sophistication comes at a price, namely, fragility. We are cantankerous little creatures. As machines, I am tempted to call homo sapiens a prototype. I mean look at us. We were not built to stand upright, but our survival programming pushed us that way anyway, perhaps so we could look out across the drought-ridden plains of millions of years ago, watching for danger or food or love. But the original specifications did not allow for this, so today, back problems are legion and for back doctors the living is easy.

I have read that the human head of an unborn baby is too large for the birth canal which cause all kinds of birthing problems and lots of pain for the delivery mechanism: mothers. But we needed more computing power so the brain grew. Sigh, I guess we can fix that problem in the next iteration. Nuff said.

So here comes a brand new machine, fresh off of the…well assembly line isn’t quite right, unless there are twins or better, but here comes the new machine and the specialist technician: doctor, midwife, or what-have-you picks up this new device still slick with protective packing fluids and pushes the start button. For dramatic purposes we shall designate the old tradition of a slap on the butt as said start button.



Once the technician has ascertained that the new machine is running properly–let’s call this new machine a “baby,” the baby is sent home with parents, who, in the best of all possible worlds Dr. Pangloss, are also given an operator’s manual, which, like all good humans they will not read unless something goes wrong.

But here is some of the really cool stuff about the new machines. The old machines, the parents, are pre-programmed with operating instructions. It’s kind of like coming home with a brand new plasma TV and having the genetic in-born ability to hook it up and turn it on. Wow! We are pretty cool.

There are genetic triggers like neoteny-ha, calls neoteny “larval characteristics.” Anyway, big eyes, big head, it sets off parenting instincts…I mean it launches the parenting program. In fact it does it so well, neoteny in other species sets it off too. “Oh, look at the cute little kittens, aren’t they adorable?” Many, many years ago Natural History magazine ran a swell article on the neotenous evolution of Mickey Mouse. Oh, and there are many other triggers, like the smell of a baby’s breath. “Read the manual, ma!”

Puppies are so-o-o cute.

Puppies are so-o-o cute.

So the proud new mother unit and father unit have launched their parenting software and taken the baby unit home. Let us revisit the original premise, sophistication=fragility.

When one brings home a new computer and turns it on for the first time, most likely the Operating System is launched, and this could take a few minutes, or longer, and the computer asks for additional programing and we provide it. Although, some computer owners are more saavy than others and some do not provide the additional programming properly, and, well…they screw up the computer and either continue on like that, or bring in an expert to fix things.

And babies get colds, other “viruses,” but the human being is a damned sophisticated machine and its anti-virus software and hardware–ha, ha antiviral hardware, too, white blood cells moving around wiping out viruses–is pretty darned incredible and with a little TLC from the parent units, most babies survive the constant assault from viruses and other program and machine contaminants.

Well, our sophisticated little machines do survive at an incredibly high rate, considering how many things are after them. Not only microbes, but other organic machines are just waiting to gobble them up. Lions, and tigers, and bears, oh my!

Being sophisticated, our babies are incredibly fragile and require constant attention and protection if they are to develop into the next generation of self-replicating devices. Remember, these are prototypes, so parent units and technicians: doctors, teachers, and clergy, have to continually tweak the little critters. An unsupervised baby can get into all sorts of trouble. And once they begin growing and develop independent motility, ai-ya, nothing but problems.

The parent-units must spend at least 20 years correcting glitches and faulty programming, not to mention hardware repairs. But they do. And our little baby units wobble and grow and stumble off into the sunrise of a new generation to produce their very own baby units. Remarkably, humans continue to learn and while each individual unit is still fragile, the basic machine model, for all the problems inherent in a Beta product, does pretty darned well, not only pumping out new baby units by the billions but also extending its own life span.

Sophisticated we might be, fragile we are, but we are also a tested and trusty design.




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