December 1996

Short Cycles:
How Fast Can We Make People Buy Into New Technology?

by Paul D. Lehrman

Michael Crichton and I nearly share a birthday. We were born exactly 10 years and 6 days apart. On top of that, we grew up in the same town. I think I knew him: though I’m not certain, I’m told it’s likely that the tall, pleasant library aide at my elementary school, whose name was Michael, and who would get the Dr. Seuss books down from the top shelf for me during those afternoons in the first grade when I was so bored that my teacher threw me out of the classroom, was indeed the soon-to-be-famous novelist and Hollywood honcho.

In high school, he was a basketball star; I played the bassoon and rhythm guitar. We had the same senior English teacher, whom Crichton cites as one of his chief inspirations as a writer. I considered the guy a pompous jerk. But what did I know? Last year, Crichton’s literary properties brought him an income of $22 million, according to Forbes. Mine didn’t, according to anybody.

Crichton and I even lived on the same block in Cambridge, perhaps in the same building – he in the late ’60s while he was attending Harvard Medical School and learning why he didn’t want to be a doctor, but getting the inspiration for ER; I in the mid-’80s when I was working in software development and learning that I would never be a great programmer, but getting inspired to write computerized Celtic folk music.

Why do I bring this up? Well, I’ve been thinking about Crichton a lot recently, as I find myself increasingly disquieted over the ever-accelerating march of technology. At the heart of a lot of Crichton’s books is a warning that over-reliance on technology, especially that which is so new that we haven’t had a chance to assimilate it and weigh its costs and benefits, is extremely dangerous. Would that I could say it as eloquently as he does – and make nearly as much money at it.

I am thinking particularly of an early book of his, The Terminal Man. A computer scientist who hates computers, by the name of Harry Benson, has a nasty (and utterly fictional) form of epilepsy which causes him to kill people when he is in the throes of a seizure. A group of doctors implant under his skin a computerized device that reads his brain waves. It recognizes the pattern that precedes an attack and when it detects that pattern, it sends a little jolt of electricity to a pleasure-stimulating site in the brain, breaking the cycle and preventing the seizure.

The rest of this column, along with 56 more, is now available in The Insider Audio Bathroom Reader, published by Thomson Course Technology PTR.

Copyright ©2006 by Paul D. Lehrman