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Lead

The history of technology is the history of human weakness. The rest of history is only the surface: what happens once human weakness has been compensated for, or at least accepted. But most things that happen, happen below the surface. There is another history, a deep history that only technology records.

Consider glasses. Every person you see wearing glasses is another person rescued who, a hundred years ago or less, would simply have lived with bad eyesight. And bad eyesight doesn’t feel like not being able to see; it feels like headaches, tiredness, irritability, helplessness. How many billions of us have lived out uneasy lives in desperation and doubt, all for a trick of the light?

The most significant freedom which artists acquired in the 20th century was not freedom from patronage, but the freedom to assume a public with good eyesight.

For the diffusion of political authority, the gradual rise in test scores, and other trends of the last century which suggest the human race is becoming smarter, the most parsimonious explanation is simply that the human race is seeing better.

But consider something less conspicuous: consider bread and water.

Billions of us having pure water on tap means more than victory over worm and germ. Before pure water the only safe drink was drink. Since civilization began ours is perhaps the first generation to live sober.

And bread. Enriched bread means more than the eclipse of diseases like rickets or scurvy. Consider pregnancy – consider the dietetic demands of scientifically managed pregnancy. Number the nutritional concerns to which a conscientious mother is expected to attend. We are overly cautious, of course, but not in every precept. To be born as a peasant – and most people who have ever been born, were born peasants – was to be born maimed in advance by the neglect of every one of these precepts.

Aristocracy, perhaps, is simply the social order that results when only a small proportion of people can be kept well-fed enough to think clearly. Democracy, perhaps, is simply the social order that results when the majority of human beings are not born a little brain-damaged.

Somewhere in his Anatomy of Melancholy, Burton, in the early 17th century, writes that if lead were indeed poisonous – as some recognized even then – then all the nobility would be poisoned with it, for they all brought their water in by lead pipe. (Hand-worked pipes, mind, not machined.) Centuries later, his fellow apprentices in printing thought young Ben Franklin laughably fastidious for wearing gloves to set lead type. Suppose he had not.

Then consider our recent century of lead-based paint and leaded gasoline.

This is what it means to be human. Small things, things we can do nothing about, things we do not even recognize as dangerous, undo us before we know we have been harmed. The pipes in our houses, the paint on our cradles, the gas in our parents’ cars, leave us ruined before we are built, and lead stands the silent ruler of a stupefied world.

This weakness is something we work to forget. We cannot always be on guard. We cannot live our lives as though they were fragile and uncertain. We must build and plan. So we imagine that if life was tougher then, it just meant more rigorous selection. When we look backward we do not see weakness. Our forebears stand as straight as we do. Surely, the average human being then was as healthy as the average human being now, when technology coddles our softer stuff.

But look to the mountains. The mountains, their soil washed sterile with rain, have always subjected their residents to malnutrition. Yet there, even as they lived, worked, built, sang, and bred, their thyroids swelled and poked goiters out of their necks.

Human beings are very tough. What doesn't kill us, we get used to.

“Human weakness” is something real; but it is not in sin and not in absurdity. We are not bad; we are not silly. We won, after all. We came into this world as food for the animals we now keep in zoos and preserves and kennels. But we are still weak. We are weak because we are fragile. We can do everything except save ourselves. Our abilities – our wonderful abilities – are so easily prevented, so easily unseated, that it may be done without our noticing. Being born and being fed are enough to destroy us.

A diamond is as hard as anything; edge to edge, it can always wins. Yet a single well-placed tap can shatter a diamond. Just because a diamond is hard, the slightest flaw affords the leverage to cleave it through and through. We are all such diamonds. It is because we are strong that we are fragile. We are the houses built on sand: and when the house falls down, it is the house, not the sand, that makes the pity.

Yet though we break, though we break so easily and in so many ways, we remain ourselves. Diamond dust is still diamond. The things our blind, starved, poisoned, crippled forebears made in their darkness and desperation transcend their particular frailties and reach us clear and full of strength. When they wrote, we can read. What they sang, we can hear. What they pictured, we can see. What they made, we can use. What they learned, we can know.

Technology is what repairs weakness, and in doing so lets us see it for the first time for what it always was – weakness. History is the record of what we do despite that weakness. And the third thing – call it culture – is what, as it passes from one generation to the next, combines our strengths, omits our weakness, and represents us to ourselves whole: whole as we should be, whole as we can never be.