Digitomania is the compulsion to digitize all human activity.  Its compulsive nature is betrayed by the casual, thoughtless manner in which we are casting ourselves down the slippery cyberslope, “acknowledging” the “perils” yet completely unwilling and unable to pull ourselves back.

Digitomania gaily mirrors 17th-century Europe’s “tulipomania.”  That classic bubble is described with wicked humor in Charles Mackay’s compendium Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds; few books have traced the manias of man so delightfully as this one, written more than 150 years ago.  Of the tulip craze, Mackay wrote:

People of all grades converted their property into cash, and invested it in [tulips]. . . . One would suppose that there must have been some great virtue in this flower to have made it so valuable in the eyes of so prudent a people as the Dutch; but it had neither the beauty nor the perfume of the rose—hardly the beauty of the “sweet, sweet-pea”: neither was it as enduring as either.


At last, however, the more prudent began to see that this folly could not last forever.  Rich people no longer bought the flowers to keep them in their gardens, but to sell them again at cent per cent profit.  It was seen that somebody must lose fearfully in the end.  As this conviction spread, prices fell and never rose again. . . . [T]he commerce of the country suffered a severe shock, from which it was many years ere it recovered.

Mackay well understood the eerily prolonged suspension of disbelief that can spring up periodically among even the most enlightened of peoples:

Reading the history of nations we find that, like individuals, they have their whims and their peculiarities; their seasons of excitement and recklessness, when they care not what they do. . . . We see one nation suddenly seized, from its highest to its lowest members, with a fierce desire for military glory; another as suddenly becoming crazed upon a religious scruple; and neither of them recovering its senses until it has shed rivers of blood and sowed a harvest of groans and tears, to be reaped by its posterity. . . . Money, again, has often been a cause of the delusion of multitudes.  Sober nations have all at once become desperate gamblers, and risked almost their existence upon the turn of a piece of paper.

In this historical light, digitomania also reveals itself to be a continuation of the dot-com bubble of the 1990’s, still perpetuating the fallacy that fragile, ephemeral bursts of energy can form the basis of a strong, sound economy.  Everybody knew on some level that the dot-com phenomenon was too good to be true—and it didn’t matter.  The worship of Information and other forms of digitalia is as superstitious as any form of idolatry.  But misinformation is worse than no information, and disinformation is worse still; and digitomania unfortunately lends itself equally well to all three.

The craze for “blogging” is another curious instance of the digital compulsion.  All of a sudden, a gaggle of random bloggers posting their opinions in tedious detail on various websites is “changing the way we perceive reality,” “revolutionizing what is considered ‘the news,’” and otherwise ushering in a Golden Age of Absolute Information.  In his syndicated column, for instance, a respected economist cites something called Economy.com as an authority on the relationship between tax policy and job creation.  This website amounts to the musings of a handful of fairly recent graduates of the University of Pennsylvania, some of whom “hold doctorates” or have “all but dissertation” toward Ph.D.’s in economics.  The site states that “clients worldwide have trusted Economy.com’s independent economic information . . . since 1990.”  Aside from forecasts for subscribers only, the site consists of The Dismal Science, “the world economy in real time”—links to online market and financial news.  Why this site’s analyses are any more credible than those of dozens of others is impossible to guess.

Information itself is thus another key commodity that has been thrown into crisis by the digital revolution.  People no longer trust the mainstream media or government mouthpieces, so they have apparently decided to shift their credulity en masse to obscure bloggers or such sound-good sites as factcheck.org or hereinreality.com.  The notion that, “If it’s online, it’s fine” is all the more extraordinary considering that the internet has fostered more extreme, elaborate, and numerous hoaxes, frauds, urban legends, and flagrant disinformation than have all the beauty parlors and barbershops in the country combined since the birth of our nation.  Even the most innocuous e-mails (“Help me with my science project”) and the most pathetic (“Please be on the lookout for this abducted little girl”) turn out to be shams—although there is no reason necessarily to believe the various debunking sites such as Snopes.com, either.

All the little ones and zeroes weave phantasmagoria not only of words but of pictures, both still and “streaming.”  People used to say, “A picture doesn’t lie.”  But these pix can and do, and a faux photo is worth a thousand faux mots.

A far graver source of potential fraud lies in the new electronic voting technologies.  These were languishing in the face of healthy voter mistrust when the Democrats’ thwarted attempt to steal the 2000 presidential election in Florida gave rise to wild charges of ballot tampering, errors, and general malfeasance, all of which would supposedly be “fixed” by touch-screen systems.

There are, of course, countless ways for electronic votes to be cooked or hijacked outright.  But the true problem is that, with touchscreens, “casting your ballot” becomes a meaningless expression.  Your vote does not exist any more than an “electron” in “orbit” around a “nucleus” exists.  No artifact has been created by your act.  This turns Homo faber, “man the maker,” into Homo faker, a much lesser being.  It makes one nostalgic for a pregnant chad, or even just a dimpled one.

A similar problem arises with the financial sector’s drive toward a “cashless” society.  Coins have been passed from hand to hand since the dawn of human time.  The metal of modern coins, however adulterated, at least dimly recalls the feel of gold or silver and pays tribute to the crucial notion that value must be based on something real, some physical good.

Phasing out currency in favor of electronic transfers has many drawbacks: It will be inflationary.  Without reference to coins that must be stamped and paper that must be printed, we will abandon ourselves still further to fiat money and the (at best) obscure agenda of the Federal Reserve.  Even the humble penny serves as ballast against the constant tendency of the monetary system to surge skyward like a hot-air balloon.

Cashlessness will encourage personal overspending, as all transactions will take on the same abstract, wishful quality of present credit-card usage.

Cashlessness will make it even easier for the rapacious state literally to pick your pocket before you see so much as a bit or a byte of your income.

Cashlessness will make it easier to implement such socialist schemes as the totalitarian “health plan” of the Democratic Party: Once and for all, no one will be able to deal directly with the physician of his choice.  Digitization of healthcare payments and medical information is made to order for the rationed, one-dose-fits-all vision of Hillarycare.  Heroically combating that vision is a new cash-only movement among doctors called SimpleCare.  The American Association of Patients and Providers, founded in 1998, seeks to break the parasitic stranglehold that government and Big Insurance have on the practice of medicine.  Direct cash payment, the organization contends, is the key to keeping costs down for both doctors and patients—the only ones who matter when it comes to healthcare.

Cashlessness will expose everyone to instant bankruptcy and economic chaos, should the system crash.  Imagine the impossibility of reconstructing all that lost data without material backup; it was bad enough when a fire in 1973 at the Military Personnel Records Center in St. Louis destroyed 80 percent of the files on soldiers discharged between 1912 and 1960.  At least other facilities, not to mention families, had records physically stored elsewhere.

Most ominously, cashlessness will enable state (and private) monitoring of everyone’s economic life, inviting selective “intervention” for political reasons.  With a stash of cash, you have a fighting chance; with an electronically frozen account and an electronically canceled ID, you’re already dead.

The cashless society is, above all, the personless society.  More and more companies are encouraging and will soon be forcing customers and clients to conduct their business online instead of dealing with a sympathetic (or sympathetic-sounding) human.  Voice mail has replaced live voices—although the newer versions do crummy imitations of Patience, Concern, and even Polite Confusion.  These companies are saying, in effect, “You don’t care for outsourcing?  Then do the job yourself—provide your own customer service, manage your own account, find your own answer on our helpful list of FAQ’s, should your question happen to appear there.”  Older people, especially, are maddened by attempts to deal with these inhuman, inflexible systems.  How many millions of them are defeated each day in their quest to get a simple question answered?

Going digital invites—indeed, mandates—the outsourcing of entire professions from soup (software design and programming) to nuts (data entry and tech support).  Moreover, it mass-produces jobs in precisely those “non-tradeable services” that Paul Craig Roberts has warned that America cannot rely on to maintain her way of life and standard of living.  We cannot all get along by taking in one another’s laundry, nor can we remain a First World economy by auditing one another’s credit profiles.

An outfit in Munich called the Research Group on the Global Future has published a monograph on “Digitalization,” praising it as desirable and inevitable because it can make an infinite number of perfect copies while preserving the original; it is instantaneous; it creates cycles that feed back to shorten themselves and become “pervasive”; and it cuts costs.  The Munich group thoroughly approves of the digital revolution’s “dematerializing” dynamic.  In its conclusion, the monograph notes that “the drive for efficiency that digitalization fuels inevitably means that fewer people will be asked to do more tasks in less time.”

What sort of person could speak so openly and favorably of such a policy?  Digitization saves lots of money on payroll and sets up disasters waiting to happen.  The process goes well beyond outsourcing: First, the job vanishes; then, the product itself.  We are headed toward the vanishing point, the still point of the overturning world.  There is another name for dematerialization: death.

Finally, the FDA announced that it has approved the VeriChip Health Information Microtransponder, a radio-frequency microchip manufactured by Digital Angel Corp. for invisible implantation into humans.  When scanned, it reveals blood type, allergies, medical history, and anything else that has been encoded.  Of course, “a secure database” is part of the package, along with earnest assurances that “only information the patient wants disseminated [will be] available” (Washington Times, October 14, 2004).  Right: That’s exactly how databases behave in the real world—100 percent secure, 100 percent benign.  And, as usual, the need for implanting chips is justified by “hard cases” such as advanced diabetes and Alzheimer’s.  And let’s not forget the children: Children can’t articulate their ills, so the chip will speak up for them just like a tiny, subcutaneous John Edwards.

It’s a sure bet that we will ride the digital tiger to the bitter end.  The day is coming when we will all be microchipped, scanned and tracked around the clock, around the globe.  Our salvation, however, by the excruciating grace of God, is that the trackers will be too incompetent to do their job and that, through those blessed loopholes of human error, the human spirit will keep on escaping.