DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY AND LIFE

With the tremendously rapid changes in electronic technology over the last decade or so, most Americans now at least have heard of, and attained some comprehension of the word digital. Going from yesterday's analog world, as basic as telling time from the position of the hands of a clock, to a digital world in which a number telling the time is directly read, has fundamentally altered the way in which people live. Personal computers, digital video disks, high definition TVs, the Internet itself, and virtually all modern electronic equipment is of digital design. Digital data, which consists solely of "1's" and "0's," can be cheaply and reliably transmitted long distances with simple amplification schemes, while analog signals require sophisticated, expensive amplifiers. Economics is everything. As a concrete, familiar example, digital phones make it possible to call from virtually any place in the world to a given phone number. One of the touching passages from the book, Into Thin Air, reveals the final phone call of Ron Hall, a guide who perished in the sudden blizzard, to his pregnant wife. He was freezing, dying from cold and exposure just a few hundred feet below the top of Mount Everest, and she, in New Zealand, tried to give him comfort and the strength to safely descend. He knew it was impossible, and he was right.

Yes, the starkest, non-technical meaning of digital pertains to life itself. The adverse selection of accidents, disease, old age, or sometimes just being a day trader in the wrong spot in Atlanta, can put "0's" after our names, instead of the ordinary "1's." I was recently reminded how digital life can be by a good friend of mine, a former Marine colonel. About two months ago, I saw my normally unperturbable friend visibly upset. Bob explained that he'd just come from the hospital, where he'd seen a close, long-time friend who'd been riding his bicycle alone that morning. This man was 73 years old, a retired officer, physically vigorous and extremely fit, still a triathlete, and sufficiently bright and flexible to pursue a career in marketing when his military career ended. He'd done everything right, and had continued as a consultant. No-one knew what had caused the accident, but he'd gone over the handlebars, split his helmet, and broken the number one and two vertebrae in his neck. Passersby found him on the road, unconscious, and called an ambulance. He'd suffered the kind of injury that Christopher Reeve had, was paralyzed below the shoulders, able to breathe only with a ventilator, basically able only to blink his eyes and smack his lips. They were going to have to make a decision whether or not to operate and install a tube with which to feed him. Bob, who has a law degree, said his friend didn't have a living will, nor did his wife have power of attorney, so the hospital could not legally remove him from life support systems.

Now, two months later, his friend, first moved from the local hospital to a medical facility near Miami that specializes in head and neck injuries, now resides in a VA hospital in Tampa where Bob had just visited him. They've made an incision for a voice tube, and by swallowing and exhaling air when the tube is inserted, he can utter recognizable speech for a few minutes until the effort tires him. Bob thinks they have him heavily sedated, and believes his friend does not yet realize the extent of his injuries. It is hard to see a tough old Marine tearing, but as Bob related how his friend apologized for the delay he's caused in the canoeing trip they'd planned to take in Tennessee, and that Bob will now have to pick out and rent the canoe, his voice caught. The injury will leave his friend permanently paralyzed, but if his neck bones solidify or fuse in a month, they can remove the halo brace that supports his head, and allow him to sit in a chair. If not, he'll have to wear it and remain flat on his back for the rest of his life. Life is indeed digital.

Bob and I discussed the living wills we both have, documents that permit a hospital to forgo the heroic efforts it otherwise must make to save life under all circumstances. Our unspoken word is if something similar were to happen to us at this stage we would elect to let life go, rejoicing quietly in what we'd had, willingly relinquishing what remained. One never knows, but we think we could do that.

The larger question is for our civilization. Fortunately, few Americans will be faced with a future as bleak as that now looming before Bob's friend. Medical science performs miracles on a daily basis, and the diseases that typically accompany old age can be and are successfully treated. Heart bypass surgery, joint replacement, kidney dialysis, and organ transplants are only part of the list. And it is all incredibly expensive. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, barring the kind of digitalization that removed John Kennedy, Jr., from the gene pool, can look forward to almost any type of major repair they may require.

But what about the man and woman in the street, the vast masses of us! Again, economics is everything. The ice floe solution may mean nothing to most people today, but as a boy I read that eskimo custom allowed the village to place an elder who could no longer keep up, alone on an ice floe. Freezing to death, I read, wasn't terribly painful, and it saved scarce resources of the group. Down here in Florida, that doesn't seem too practical, but we can find entrepreneurs to arrange one-way plane trips to Barrow, Alaska. I've been there, and can vouch for the ice floes, lots of them. I've walked on them, jumped from floe to floe, and even swam under them amid a crystal wonderland. Would an ice floe solution be better than fifteen years in a nursing home, as another friend of mine mentioned when she finally buried her mother this summer at age 99? By that time, large portions of the family farm were gone, sold piecemeal to pay for nursing home expenses. Now that I'm no longer a young boy, the ice floe solution isn't simply an academic curiosity. How, and when, do we turn off 98.6 degrees F?

Digital phones just go back into the cradle, digital electronics dies with the flick of a switch, but what do we do about human beings!

8/1/99

Sam Orr sorr@metrolink.net
World Traveler
and Philanthrope
(Location Unknown)