I will conclude Technology Week with a very brief examination of the limits of technology.
Despite the ever-optimisic views of transhumanists, worshipers of artificial intelligence (AI), modern eugenicists, and other deluded science enthusiasts concerning the improvement of our species, there are some very widespread human problems which are not amenable to technological solutions. I give you a recent case in point from the San Jose Mercury News.
SAN JOSE — Amid inspirational talk, chanted mantras and shouts of victory at a late-night firewalking event attended by thousands Thursday came agonized shrieks from followers whose soles were scorched by the superheated coals, witnesses said.
At least 21 people were treated for burn injuries after taking part in the crowning event of the first day of a Tony Robbins function downtown, including at least three who went to the hospital, a San Jose fire captain said.
The people who suffered various second- and third-degree burn injuries were among more than 6,000 who attended the motivational speaker's event at the San Jose Convention Center called "Unleash the Power Within."
After the event, which ended about 11 p.m., the crowd walked across the street to the park, where 12 lanes of hot coals measuring 10 feet long and 2½-feet wide rested on the grass.
Jonathan Correll, 25, decided to check out what was going on when "I heard wails of pain, screams of agony." He said one young woman appeared to be in so much pain "it was horrific."
"It was people seriously hurting, like they were being tortured," he said. "First one person, then a couple minutes later another one, and there was just a line of people walking on that fire. It was just bizarre, man." Correll, a San Jose City College student, said he saw between 10 and 15 people being treated. He said he videotaped the scene for about 5 minutes before an event staffer told him to put the camera away.
But on a break from day two of the four-day event Friday night, others who walked on the coals said it was nothing short of life-changing.
Henry Guasch, 19, of Mountain View, said that after crossing the coals while chanting his mantra of "Cool moss," he felt powerful. "Overcoming something like that, it's a breakthrough," he said, adding that he did slow his pace in the middle of the field and got a minor burn.
Guasch and Andrew Brenner, another fire walker, both said that the keys to not getting singed are faith and concentration. "I did it before, didn't get into the right state and got burned," Brenner said. "I knew I wasn't at my peak state. I didn't take it as serious."
He said his feet blistered after the walk about eight months ago at another Robbins event, but he didn't need medical attention...
Over at Slate, they felt it was important to explain why not all the firewalkers got second or third degree burns on the bottoms of their feet.
Twenty-one people were treated for burns after walking across a bed of hot coals at an inspirational event hosted by motivational speaker Tony Robbins in San Jose, Calif., last week. About 6,000 people reportedly participated in the firewalk. Why were most of them not injured?
Because coal isn’t a very good conductor of heat. In other words, though coal can get very hot—usually between 1,000 F and 2,000 F—it can’t transmit the heat to other materials very efficiently. When flesh comes into contact with a heated material that’s a good conductor of heat, such as metal, it usually results in a burn because the metal heats up the flesh quickly. But coal—and especially the ash coating a burning coal—doesn’t conduct heat very well. So when flesh comes into contact with it, the flesh cools down the outer surface of the coal faster than heat can move from below the surface of the coal and sear the flesh, at least initially. It’s the same principle that allows you to stick your hand into a hot oven without getting burned or briefly touch a loaf of bread baking in the oven, even though you’d get burned if you touched the sides of the oven or kept your hand on the loaf for more than a few seconds. (Bread, like coal, is not an efficient thermal conductor.)
That said, there are dangers associated with firewalking: If you stand on a hot coal for too long instead of moving quickly or if there are any bits of metal, wood, or sap (which are better thermal conductors than coal) in the fire, you could get burned. The same is true if a hot piece of coal gets stuck to your foot during the walk. The scope of Robbins’ firewalk in San Jose—6,000 people sharing a dozen 10-foot-long lanes of coals—might have made it more likely for firewalkers to get held up on the coals, increasing their chance of being injured. (Most traditional firewalking rituals involve only one dozen to two dozen people on a single lane of coals.) Also, minor burns and blisters are common results of even successful firewalking.
I leave it to you to decide which is the stupidest — the story of the firewalkers who got burned because they had not sufficiently unleashed the Power Within, or the story of why the Power Within is irrelevant.
I myself have reached the point where I find these stories equally stupid. And that, my friends, is the point of no return when I consider the Human Prospect. It was especially gratifying for the writer at Slate to tell me that there are dangers associated with firewalking. Presumably the writer assumes that his audience couldn't figure that out for themselves. The story outlined above justifies that assumption
Perhaps the Slate writer believes, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that science and technology will save the human species from itself. All he needs to do is explain how things work, and this astonishing Tony Robbins craziness will disappear in a puff of smoke.
And some people wonder why I have a bad attitude. It pisses people off. I get nasty e-mails and comments which you never see.
No amount of nifty technology, however cleverly conceived and assiduously applied, can fix the obvious human problems our firewalking example reveals. With this story, and the millions upon millions of others just like it we can find every day, we have reached the hard limits of technology. It follows that technology does not solve all problems, including stupid applications of technology.
Have a nice weekend.
Bonus Video — Duck & Cover, from 1951