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Gadget-Dependent Nation

No matter that the United States is the only industrialized nation in the world not to have universal health care. We Americans are different. We’re independent. We don’t need others — especially our government — telling us what to do. No less a giant than Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his essay, “Self-Reliance,” gave us a clarion call (“trust thyself”) reminding us that real men make decisions for themselves.

The 19th-century Emersonian idea of self-reliance, slapped on top of 21st-century realities, yields a very odd result. On the one hand, many Americans — especially Republicans — deeply loathe “government nanny-state programs.” They argue that whenever the government interferes in the marketplace, people lose their sense of initiative and their freedoms, costs go up, and whatever was wrong in the first place simply gets worse. They say it’s best to leave as much as possible to the free market and keep the terrible Leviathan of Government confined to a small cage in a zoo of possible oppressions. To them, nothing about health care in particular makes it different from any other consumer matter, or alters the unalterable principle that individuals participating in free markets decide things best and that Government should leave them alone.

On the other hand, while Americans can’t stand their government telling them what to do, they love having machines that boss them around. Our phones, appliances, and automobiles are evolving into machine-creatures that take over and make decisions for us. Who needs to bother to remember phone numbers any more, now that phones remember them for us? And as I recently learned when shopping for a new washing machine (the old one died), the appliance industry has turned into a little nanny state of its own. “I want the simplest thing that also has a high Energy Star rating,” I told the lady at Home Depot. She proceeded to show me machine after machine — popular sellers that were in the medium price range — designed for people who can’t (or won’t) estimate small, medium and large for themselves “No worries! You just dump in the clothes and the machine weighs them for you,” the lady told me.

Or take the ever-increasing number of winking, blinking, talking automobiles. Recently, a colleague who was driving me to an event refused to listen when I said, “Say, I know the way — turn left here.” With the affectionate tone of a father who knew better, he calmly informed me that his GPS navigation system knew better. We drove two miles out of our way.

To my dismay, the toilets and faucets in the bathrooms at Hofstra increasingly seem to be the kind that let sensors do the “work.” Sensor potties don’t trust that we know how to flush them properly. Or perhaps their designers worry that we’ll become anxious about (heaven help us) the germs that live on toilet handles. Perhaps people are forgetting how to wash their hands?

While commuting to work on the Long Island Railroad the other day, I happened to sit next to a test pilot. I asked him if he wasn’t scared doing all that crazy Tom Cruise Top Gun stuff.  He laughed and told me that was the easy part. His biggest fear was that he’d get so bored that he’d fall asleep on a long flight. “Everything’s electronic now,” he said wistfully. Even while typing this little post, I’ve been plagued by the rude interference of Word’s gigantic “Help” pop-up window that likes to block my little essay every time my finger happens to slip even the eensiest bit. Can’t I decide on my own when it’s time to correct my mistakes?

Sometimes I wonder how long it’ll be before people say, “Huh? Turn a what? A ‘knob’? What’s that?” How long before people no longer remember how to memorize a phone number? How long before people can’t read a map, or understand directions, or estimate whether a load of dirty clothes is small, medium, or large? The relentless electronification of everything from washing machines to automobiles to toilets, which pleases the American consumer no end, points in one direction only: a populace as incapacitated as the horizontal doughboy humans on the outer-space cruise ship in the animated movie WALL-E.

Here’s a crazy proposal: We embrace universal health care, but ban all washing machines that won’t let people decide for themselves the size of their own load of laundry.

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