Victor Davis Hanson

Americans now have more computer power in their smart phones than did the Pentagon in all its computer banks just 30 years ago. We board a sophisticated jet and assume that the flight is no more dangerous than crossing the street.

The downside of this complete reliance on computer gadgetry is a fundamental ignorance of what technology is. Smart machines are simply the pumps that deliver the water of knowledge -- not knowledge itself.

What does it matter that millions of American students can communicate across thousands of miles instantly with their iPads and iPhones if a poorly educated generation increasingly has little to say?

The latest fad of near-insolvent universities is to offer free iPads to students so that they can access information more easily. But what if most undergraduates still have not been taught to read well, think inductively or have some notion of history? Speeding up their ignorance is not the same as imparting wisdom. Requiring a freshman Latin course would be a far cheaper and wiser investment in mastering language, composition and inductive reasoning than handing out free electronics.

Technology also confuses us about the vast power and force of nature that remains more formidable than Yahoo or Google. Computer models assured us that the Earth would be now be getting really hot. But over the last 17 years, when carbon emissions reached historic levels, temperatures mysteriously have stayed the same or cooled. Nature remains fickle, complex and unfathomable, and can defy even computer-enhanced theorizing.

When wind-chill temperatures fell to 40 degrees below zero in the frigid Midwest this winter and there were occasional storm-related power outages, was it better to have a computer-controlled central heating system or an ax, some wood and a cast-iron stove?

The politicos who peddled the Affordable Care Act did so not just on the impossible logistics of giving more coverage to more people at less cost. They also hyped their new user-friendly website that would make getting health care no different from buying shoes on Amazon.

Yet behind the cheery web pages on our laptops lie millions of hours of complex computer programming -- as arcane a task as deciphering Byzantine Greek manuscripts. Technological failure has all but sidetracked Obamacare. And the resulting shock is not surprising, given how something so difficult to do was sold to us as if it were already done.

Jets have all sorts of transponders, navigation computers and sophisticated tracking systems. So how could we for days lose track of a 250-ton Malaysian jetliner that recently disappeared from radar screens as if it were some lost clipper ship of the 1840s?

Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a recipient of the 2007 National Humanities Medal.