the machines are on the rise

11 03 2009


Freder descends into the underground city.   There he sees workers pushing dial hands back and forth frenetically as a valve shows the great machine building up steam. Finally it explodes.  Freder sees the machine transformed into a giant demon, spewing fire and devouring workers.

“Moloch!” Freder exclaims as columns of workers march into its gaping, fiery mouth.

– Metropolis, 1927

From Ezra Klein we learn of the continued use of a discredited story:  that Obama created the post of “National Coordinator of Health Information Technology,” presumably for sinister reasons.  Improved health IT is actually one of the few issues where left and right – at least the reasonably informed left and right – agree.  The position was created by President Bush years ago, and both its Bush-appointed occupant and his boss (HHS Secretary Mike Levitt) did some good work.

The latest appearance of this myth comes in a piece by Amity Shlaes that compares the current Administration to the best-known works of the Wachowski Brothers.  “Barack Obama has dropped us all into The Matrix,” writes Ms. Shlaes.  She continues:

In the Obama Era, it seems, we all pick our way through anxious lives that have something to do with software. Like Keanu Reeves’ Neo, we realize hour-to-hour that we are being manipulated by a system that has its own larger plan.

If only we keep a cool head, we tell ourselves, our powers of logic will help us escape the web. But each move we make, even the one that feels independent, takes us deeper into the Matrix …

President Obama’s $634 billion, 10-year health-care plan undoubtedly appeals to would-be Neos out there … As in “The Matrix,” freedom is a mirage … and there’s no escape.

If I tell you that before she’s done she says Republicans need a “superhero” and compares Peter Orszag to Agent Smith, you’ll get the general idea.  America reads this and wonders:  Do I take the blue pill or the red pill?

(Think I’ll take a Tylenol capsule.  It’s blue and red.)

Ms. Shlaes has more, like this line:  “There was discussion during the campaign of tax breaks for employers for providing health care.”  (Actually, employers already have a tax break for providing health care.)   But we’ll skip the details and stick with the broader picture.

There’s a pattern developing, the outline of a new mythmaking that’s about finding spooky sounds on the organ and then playing them over and over until the audience runs screaming from the theater. Why pick on the “national coordinator for health information technology”?  Because that pedal can be made to sound scary by bringing up memories of all those computers-are-taking-over movies from the seventies.  Because some partisans believe that we all share a general anxiety about everything digital, that we all “pick our way through anxious lives that have something to do with software.’

The problem is that, judging from the poll numbers, they’re grinding away at the old pipe organ but nobody’s listening.   All of which gives me an idea … how about a piece comparing criticism of health reform to ‘Phantom of the Opera’? I could wring 1,000 words out that one, easy.  Think I’ll pitch it to Bloomberg News.

In the meantime, I look forward to Amity Shlaes’ next piece, in which she warns of the  enslavement of humanity that’s sure to come if people don’t stop forwarding that cute video of a dog cleaning your computer screen from the inside.




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