The Parable of 'Scubation'

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To grasp the inevitable link between technology and politics, consider this parable: Suppose that long ago humans had so effectively pioneered working and living at the bottom of the ocean that, over a long time, they had forgotten that they had ever lived differently. In this deep-sea society, scuba gear obviously was of such overarching importance that the provision and regulation of scuba gear was uncritically accepted as one of the essential functions of government.

The ministry of scubation incorporated a vast bureauc-racy of credentialed experts to administer and carry out every facet of scuba provision: mining air from seawater, filtering and compressing it into bottles differentiated to match the breathing capacity and requirements of each age group and vocation, and compulsory scubation of the young to guard against the possibility of parents' providing inadequate air for their children. Local scubation districts were chartered and funded with taxes to pump air into the captive youths in specially constructed neighborhood buildings--called "schools," perhaps because of the way children were herded into them like bunches of fish. An elaborate testing bureaucracy also was formed to accredit the scubation "schools" and to continually measure the breathing ability of the young against sea-world standards.

Naturally, scubation was such a vital function for social well-being that it could not be left to the whims of private enterprise; so the government owned, operated, and regulated virtually the entire scubation enterprise. And all this was accepted as normal and reasonable by a general public that could neither remember nor imagine that air could be supplied any other way, and that simply took it for granted that breathing and scubation were just different words for the same thing.

Then, somewhere along the line in this undersea society's march of technological progress, scientists and engineers came up with a wondrous invention they might have called a balloon or dirigible or even "airship"--a vessel filled with gas cells that allowed it to rise upward to explore the higher reaches of their liquid world. In due course, these explorations led to a revolutionary breakthrough: The scientists discovered an altitude at which the atmosphere suddenly was transformed from all water to all air. Moreover, the earth in many places rose above this boundary, providing islands and continents where people could go work and live free of the encumbrance of gas tanks and hoses and face masks.

At this point, of course, the technological revolution spawned a political crisis. The bloated, rich, and powerful scubation ministry faced a lethal threat to its hegemony. Once enough pioneers came back from the frontier to tell of the new all-air environment, the public would eventually figure out that scubation--which, for as long as most people could remember was accepted as utterly vital--had suddenly become not only unnecessary but actually an obstacle to human progress. For those who moved to the new world of universal, free air, breathing could simply be taken for granted as a normal activity of everyday life, and the very word "scubation" would fall into such general disuse that it would be remembered at all only as a historical oddity.

There being no heaven on earth, the pioneers of the air world recognized that their new society would need new technologies to keep the air clean, and even some new government roles and agencies to guard against dangerous pollution of the atmosphere. But the archaic empire of scubation had no role, experience, or knowledge relevant to these new challenges--it was simply obsolete. Worse, the huge scubation bureaucracy, with its vast demands on the public treasure, its sprawling waste of human resources and time, and its kelp forest of regulatory snares, worked only to undermine the pioneering of the new world of free breathing. The scubacracy thus threatened to squander the rich opportunities for freedom and prosperity the air world offered.

The crisis eventually compelled cities and states in the ocean-bottom society to confront inescapable political choices. In most places, the scubacrats fought back to prevent the liberation of the lung from dependency on the bureaucratic air hose: They used their political clout to get local governments to outlaw the commercial development of airships; or, failing that, they imposed regulations requiring that all airships be owned or at least effectively controlled by the scubation bureaucracy itself.

The scubacracy used its prodigious finances to counter the threat to its survival with self-serving propaganda: First they tried to deny the existence of the air world altogether. As the scientific proof of the air-filled environment eventually became public knowledge, scubacrat propaganda claimed that airships were an unproven technology that required years of further research; that travel to the ocean's surface would cause crippling, even lethal attacks of the bends; that people never could learn to breathe on their own without the careful regulation of a respirator; and that children left to run wild in the open air would hyperventilate and die of oxygen poisoning. People who advocate replacing "schools" with airship transport to a new world of free air, the scubacrats proclaimed, are greedy capitalists out to destroy our sacred institutions of public respiration.

In a few visionary communities, political alliances of business leaders and grassroots organizations overwhelmed the scubation establishment's resistance, and redirected the community's resources to construct the airship fleets needed to transport everyone to the new environment of open air. In these communities and some others, a large number of more farsighted scubacrats realized that their ultimate mission was the provision of air not scuba gear--they helped the effort to phase out the obsolete scubation bureaucracy and to make the pilgrimage to a world of universal free breathing. These vanguard communities eventually became the stars of a new civilization.

But other communities of the undersea society fared not as well. In many, business and other civic leaders were diverted into "partnerships" aimed at "saving the schools" by raising taxes to build new, expensive pipelines to the surface of the ocean in a costly and vain attempt to pump more air into the traditional public respiration structures. In these cities and states, and others where the scubacracy's clout simply stymied even the semblance of progress, better-off families bought their way onto airships, or acquired their own, abandoning the bottled-air "schools" to the poorest and most disadvantaged citizens, who were deprived of the technology needed to escape from the bureaucratic iron lung by the same self-serving bureaucracy that owned the iron lung. In some places, the squeeze between sinking economies and rising fiscal demands of a self-protecting scubation bureaucracy, whose product grew ever more stale and toxic, ultimately set off furious rebellions of people demanding their equal opportunity to breathe free. But some provinces of the sea-bottom society simply imploded, and sank into the mud.

Vol. 14, Issue 02, Pages 37, 48

Published in Print: September 14, 1994, as The Parable of 'Scubation'
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