Jonas and a Wail
by Stevan Alburty

From The Net
August 1995

1995 by Stevan Alburty
    All rights reserved.




It is, as they say in Vegas, a tough room to play.

Its given name is the Conference on Technology, Education and Design, but this is an industry which is fond of verbal shorthand (RAM, ROM, CPU, LOL), and so it is referred to by its affectionate acronym, TED.

"Welcome to the dinner party I always wanted to have," declares Richard Saul Wurman, TED's father and host, as he opens the first session. Attendance is limited to 500, which gives the conference an atmosphere of intimacy and exclusivity. It is an opportunity to hear and mingle with the Crowned Heads: Warnock, Gage, Metcalfe & Rossetto, the ubiquitous Nicholas Negroponte. At a coffee break one previous TED, I watched a self-conscious Bill Gates standing alone in the lobby, nervously juggling a pastry and a cup of coffee as if he were once again on the sidelines at his junior prom, busily nursing a glass of punch.

The TED conference is, at its most fundamental level, a celebration of the incessant thrust of Future. It is a conversational festival of emergence, evolution and change where the only good paradigm is a shifted paradigm.

It was within this context that a frail, 80-year-old man walked up onto the stage and brought this year's TED conference to an emotional standstill as all of us in the audience thought not of the future, but of the past. The man was Jonas Salk.

In 1955, Dr. Salk, a Pittsburgh virologist who had never even taken a science course in high school, developed a vaccine for polio. First identified as a disease in the 1840's, the paralyzing effects of the poliomyelitis virus were ancient enough to be seen in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. In 1952, the worst epidemic year in polio's history, 21,000 cases were reported in the U.S. Although the virus sometimes struck randomly at adults, as it did Franklin Roosevelt, its favorite victims, cruelly and inexplicably, were children.

In New York City train stations, departure permits were required for anyone traveling with a minor. Officials feared that parents fleeing with their children to escape possible contagion in the city might spread the virus into the countryside. People killed their cats and dogs, thinking their own pets might be the source of the disease. Swimming pools and drinking fountains were shunned.

Dr. Salk's vaccine released the nation from an iron lung of fear.

I had cried when the school nurse plunged the vaccinating needle into my arm. Now, as I joined the TED audience in rising to its feet in welcome, I fought new tears as I realized that many of us in that audience owed our limbs and lives to this man.

Dr. Salk's appearance at the TED conference was, for me, a moving reminder of technology's greatest power: to positively improve the human condition. While not all of us are clever enough to find a cure for a fatal disease, it seems appropriate to occasionally question the fundamental value of all of those billions of bits we're generating out there on the Internet every day.

It has become an accepted part of our own self-referential vernacular to speak proudly of the "revolution" in which we are all participating. All revolutions require two ingredients: an old order suitably decayed and corrupt, and a new order with a bright, broad assortment of seductive promises. What is the old order against which we rebel, and what is the bright future toward which we march?

From time to time I take a few aspirin and retire to my bed as I contemplate the sad reality that I live in a country which has sustained "Married With Children" for over five seasons. I lie awake for hours, fearful that the resistance of bacteria to modern antibiotics is the only plausible explanation for the career of Tori Spelling.

But, of course, that's television. It's easy to pick on television. It's a wasteland we all know is inflicted on a powerless America by the bourgeois capitalist elite. The net is revolution!. The web belongs to the proletariat!

And so what did users around the world vote for as the coolest web site on the planet? -, an episodic tale of six 20-Something's living in a beach house in California. On the day I visited, someone named Tara was sharing with all of us the news that her phone had rung the other day ("but I didn't feel like answering it") and that she had "grown a beautifully thick scab" on her elbow.

We're in charge now. The value of the technology we are in the process of creating will be judged by the content we develop and the content we choose to view.

We are what we browse.