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Norman Mailer, Technology and the Survival of the Planet

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"Technology was invented by Satan." So said Norman Mailer at a book event in Los Angeles in 2007, just half a year or so before he passed away.

Mailer, who is the subject of a new biography, Norman Mailer: A Double Life, by J. Michael Lennon, also contended late in his life that God was "an existential God." By that, he meant that, while God may be omniscient, He is not necessarily omnipotent. He wins some battles, but He loses others. This might explain the Holocaust, the Crusades, the Black Death and typhoon Haiyan.

Throughout history, there have been people who have predicted Armageddon and the death of our planet, as Jonathan Kirsch pointed out in his book, A History of the End of the World. Some doomsayers feared that the world would end as the year 1000 approached. Others thought the end was near during the Crusades, the Black Death, the Civil War, World War I, World War II and even Y2K.

In spite of all the hysteria surrounding those prophecies, the planet and humanity have always survived.

Still, one would have to be tone-deaf to the human condition or a climate change denier not to worry about the severity and frequency of all the recent storms, hurricanes like Sandy, typhoons like Haiyan, tornadoes like the many that are wreaking havoc with the Midwest.

One thinks about Mailer's comments, and one realizes that, as was often the case, the provocateur was correct.

Since the Industrial Revolution, technology has improved convenience and efficiency in our lives yet it has polluted, despoiled and warmed our planet to the point that we may yet have to worry about coastal regions like Miami and islands like Manhattan going under water by the year 2100.

It is enough to get one thinking about whether God is losing another battle. This may be a case where He really does need our help.

Whether or not one believes in God or the story of the Fall of Man, we have always had free will and the ability to keep the planet going.

We are going to need all of our human ingenuity and free will to figure out how to survive climate change. Perhaps, we can even harness some of our technology to save ourselves.

But we may also need less science and more art, fewer gadgets and more novelists like Mailer, who not only provoked but also delighted and enriched us with wisdom. Mailer spoke of how in his day a person would have to trudge over to the library, file through the card catalog and check out the requisite books in order to research a subject. He noted that people of our era often don't put in such hard-earned work to acquire knowledge. All people nowadays have to do is go to the Internet and Google a topic.

Mailer was suggesting that in that ease of access, that convenience, something has been lost. Partly due to technology, due to reality TV and the 24/7 news cycle, many people in our newfangled times have shed the character required to learn a subject the honest way, let alone to gain mastery over it. They no longer want to pay their dues. They want instant fame, and they equate that with the number of Twitter followers they have rather than with the originality of their work.

Young people have to realize that failure is not only part of life; it is an essential learning tool. We all have the ability to grow and mature through failure, through humility. If young people don't believe me, they should read about Steve Jobs, a hero of the tech set. He stated that he learned more from failure than from anything else. Let us not forget that Jobs dropped out of college and got fired by Apple before he came roaring back with his great inventions.

As much as I decry technology, I love my old iPod, which my step-daughter and son-in-law programmed for me. But I don't love it for its multifaceted apps. I love it because it allows me to listen to Bob Dylan, Steve Jobs' own hero, when I go for a walk.

Like Jobs, Dylan once sang that "there is no success like failure, and failure is no success at all."

No one likes to fail, but you can change your life in a positive way after you fail. That is what I have learned from my own failures. It is a lesson that President Obama and his team will have to learn in the wake of the Obamacare debacle and the mantra of "failure is not an option."

There is no doubt that technology is with us for the foreseeable future. Even I acknowledge that. But what we don't need is to enslave ourselves to it.

While we will always have technocrats and apparatchiks who can program code, look at how that has turned out for President Obama's health care Web site.

These are not the people we should revere. We should not seek to quantify and reduce everything we do. Instead, we need artists and storytellers who will open our minds to new ideas and new ways of looking at the world.

Perhaps, those artists and storytellers will have the cognitive, imaginative and aesthetic gifts of a Mailer, a Dylan, a Jobs, true geniuses who can guide us through these difficult times and lead us to a new era, where we learn how to counteract climate change and other challenges while we nurture ourselves with art.

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