I HAD LASER EYE SURGERY THE OTHER DAY,
and after more than 40 years of wearing glasses
so strong that I was legally blind without them,
I can see clearly on my own. I had a perfect outcome: 20/20 for far vision, yet still able to read and
do other close work as well. I keep saying to myself:
I’m seeing with my own eyes!
But in order to remove my need for prosthetic
vision, the surgeon ended up relying on prosthetics
of her own, performing the surgery with the aid of
high-tech equipment and specialized technicians. “THE FUTURE IS HERE. IT’S
First, they mapped my eyes with a device called JUST NOT EVENLY DISTRIBUTED
a corneal topographer, and came up with a modi- fication plan. Then they used a laser to blister the YET”— WILLIAM GIBSON
surface of my cornea, and 20 minutes later, the
surgeon used a microkeratome to lift the flap of the tech vehicles that can only be debugged with the
blister so another laser could do the real mods to aid of computer diagnostics to vehicles that can only
the deeper layers of the cornea. During the actual be driven by a computer. “The long run” — the last
surgery, apart from lifting the flap and smoothing road rally of those diehards who insist on driving
it back into place after the laser was done, her job their own vehicles — imagined in the 1989 novel of
was to clamp open my eyes, hold my head, utter the same name by Daniel Keys Moran, may not be
reassuring words, and tell me, sometimes with that far off.
urgency, to keep looking at the red light. Afterwards, As we appreciate the wonders of technology, let’s
I asked what would happen if my eyes drifted and not forget the dangers of taking them for granted.
I didn’t stay focused on the light. “Oh, the laser would For everything that is gained, something is lost.
stop. It only works when your eyes are tracking.” The classic 1958 essay “I, Pencil,” by Leonard Read,
In short, surgery this sophisticated could never compellingly makes the point that in a connected
be done by an unaugmented human being. The world, even simple objects like the humble lead
human touch of my superb doctor was paired with pencil require the expertise and activity of machin-
the inhuman accuracy of complex machines, a ery, business processes, and thousands of coordi-
21st-century hybrid freeing me from the tyranny of nated people. How true that is today of our complex
assistive devices first invented in 13th-century Italy. devices, composed of throwaway components
Whether or not we’re heading for a Kurzweil-style themselves made in multi-billion-dollar factories.
singularity, in which humans merge with machines, In this world, the role of the maker is especially
an increasing number of our activities are only pos- important, lest we fall into the future foretold nearly a
sible with the aid of computers and other complex century ago by E.M. Forster in “The Machine Stops,” in
devices. My eye surgery is only one example. which people cocooned in their high-tech homes are
The revolution in sensors, computers, and control helpless when their technological assistants go silent.
technologies is going to make many of the daily Knowing how things work, being able to fix them
activities of the 20th century seem quaint as, one when they break, and knowing how to create accept-
by one, they are reinvented in the 21st. It’s all over the able substitutes when they can’t be repaired are not
news — remote drone warfare, powered exoskeletons, just hobbies but essential skills in a world growing
automatic language translators, cellphones that know ever more complex.
their owners by the way they walk — but these high- Check
makezine.com/05/nff for related stories.
profile examples tend to obscure the ways that com-
puter technology is remaking the everyday world. Tim O’Reilly (
tim.oreilly.com) is founder and CEO of O’Reilly
Take the automobile: it’s a short step from high- Media, Inc. See what’s on the O’Reilly Radar at