Jim Fisher’s Essay: Testing Technology

December 27, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM FISHER: Beyond those now barren trees here in southeast Kansas there’s a fair example of what this past millennium has really been all about–technological change.

Look closer. Hard by the last pit it mined for coal is a relic called Big Brutus, until 1974 the world’s second largest strip mining shovel. With a single bite it removed 150 tons of overburden. Standing 16-stories high and weighing 11-million pounds, it’s a tourist attraction now, annually drawing 30,000 visitors who come not to marvel at man’s righteousness or wickedness–traits inborn since before he first walked onto the savannahs–but to gaze at his creativity.

Go back to this millenium’s start-when men in the middle ages scraped coal from an exposed bank to fuel their fires, run their crude forges, heat their huts, even provide a flicker of light against the long, frightful nights. Big Brutus and its ilk are merely the technological culmination of those long-ago scratchings.

Shoot an arrow or fire a rocket at Cape Kennedy; recall the American Indians and their dog-drawn travois; then watch the big rigs roll on the interstates; think of Gutenberg’s press and then punch a button, or mix charcoal, saltpeter, and sulfur to create gunpowder and then watch black and white films of the cloud over Hiroshima.

Technology, flowing ever onward, has been a constant over the past 1,000 years, beginning in fits and starts, gaining speed, then achieving an irresistible momentum. Some malevolent; some glorious. Yet never static.

Or take my right eye. A few weeks ago I walked into a doctor’s office at 8:55 in the morning. By10 am, Iwas on my way home — a cataract removed, inter-ocular lens implanted, and 20/20 vision in that eye. That’s technology.

Or takes this bridge a few miles to the north of the old shovel. Thirty-two feet across over West creek. Looks ordinary. It isn’t. Made of composites. Meaning plastic such as old two-liter pop bottles. Installed in four days. All but indestructible. Expected to last between 50 and 100 years. When it’s worn out, grind it up and use its material for another one. Or new pop bottles.

Today this bridge grabs us. Forty years ago, crowds flocked just to see Big Brutus assembled from parts carried in on 150 rail cars. Man loves change, newness, innovation. And thus it has always been–from the barques that brought treasure to Spain; the stone castles which crumbled under artillery sieges, even this century’s wondrous steam locomotives, discarded in a flash for diesel.

Have we changed over the millennium? Probably not much. We’re better educated. The good of our technology means we live longer, have more leisure, live easier lives. Some among us have learned there’s a human family, not just tribes, something that was worked out here in Southeast Kansas in what are called the Little Balkans-West Mineral, Mineral, Hamilton Camp, Roseland, Corona, Stone City, and Scammon once was home 10,000 Germans, English, Greeks, Irish, Slovaks, Belgiums, Czechs, blacks, Poles, Croats, Serbs, who, for the most part, got along.

Man’s creativity hasn’t changed everything. We still hate. We hurt each other. But we also can love. We usually care for each other. Most worship, using words going back two or more millennia.

And now, in the midst of the holiday season, lights that symbolize a faith to a greater force than even technology are being strung. Even on Big Brutus, there’s something more basic-not a machine, nor a technological wonder, or even an example of man’s adaptability to his environment, but faith — a twinkling luminescence against the night sky.

I’m Jim Fisher.