Technology Trap

Most of us really don’t take notice of how dependent we’ve become on electricity. It’s sort of like your thumb: it’s just tough to recognize how vital it is until you sprain the thing, and then have to deal with the pain every time you try to do the simplest thing with that hand.

 

Here at the University of Mississippi, a kamikaze squirrel has just immolated itself in a set of relays that’s taken power down all over campus. I work for campus IT, and in one swift furry explosion, I’ve been reduced to the level of primitive men – indeed, far below them, for they knew how to survive and function sans higher technology!

 

Right up until Edison and Tesla, every human being had to have some basic skills, mostly centered around mankind’s earliest technological innovation: fire. Early man had to know how to kindle fire … fire was man’s first defense:  it created a bubble of light and warmth and comfort that few wild animals would dare invade.  It made meat more tasty, tender, and safer to eat. It drove away the instinctive fear and dread of the predator-filled darkness, and held at bay the icy wind of the last Ice Age.

 

It was the very first technology mankind became dependent on. The first technology that  one really couldn’t live without. As long as one had the means of kindling fire, one was as safe as it was possible to be in this world.

 

Even at the dawn of the Industrial Age, fire was at the heart of men’s lives: great iron ships like Titanic were powered by it; factories were run with the steam it generated; gas-lights, and oil lamps, candles, and hearths depended on it. Nevertheless, despite its importance, there came a day, sometime in the late 19th Century, when most people had no idea how to create it themselves …

 

Oh, sure, they could buy matches, or, later on, lighters, but could they make it from scratch? Because, if not, they’d be, very literally, at the same level of technical expertise as Early Modern Humans or Neanderthals before techniques for kindling fire were developed … oh sure, they probably had an idea that two pieces of wood can be rubbed together to light kindling, or that flint and steel can be scraped together to make sparks, but most had never done it.  From that point to the present, outside of the Boy scouts and the Military, most people simply have never learned that skill, or tried it for themselves.

 

The situation is far worse when it comes to the electric power that has supplanted fire as humanity’s most important source of energy – most of us have not the first clue how to produce that! In James Burke’s 1978 series, Connections, the first episode “Trigger Effect” deals with this subject in far greater detail than I can:  he makes the point that we are so dependent on the web of technology that surrounds us, that we can barely function at all, when it’s taken away. He points to the power blackout, of 1969, which basically paralyzed the entire northeast of the United States, and part of Canada – all because a single relay, about the size of a brick, failed. The failure of the web of interconnected technologies that followed this single ‘minor’ failure, was epic in proportions – but it was the manner in which people responded to it that was, for me, the most frightening aspect of the situation.

 

People seemed to react in one of two ways: complacency, or terror.  In New York, for the most part, people tended to come together and look out for each other, which is great – but as much as it speaks to their courage and generosity, it says even more about their attitude toward technology.  “They’ll figure it out, and the power will come back on!”  People seemed to feel, even when they didn’t say it outright. They were certain that someone else would take care of things, and that all they had to do was make themselves, and whoever they were stuck with, as comfortable as possible, awaiting the appearance of the literal Deus Ex Machina. It was inevitable: things go wrong all the time, but everything works out in the end, and few of them had any real impact on making that happen, nor did they feel that they should try to make things all right themselves …

 

At the other end of the spectrum were the ones who for whatever reason, felt that the failure of society’s technology absolved them of any need to adhere to any sort of social structure.  There were riots and looting carried out by people who felt they were cut off, that it was every man for himself, that they needed to steal food, water, tools, weapons, and whatever else they had neither the knowledge, nor the skills, to provide themselves with.

 

In neither case were any of the people trying to resolve the situation, only survive it – the first group waited calmly to be rescued, and the second group abandoned ship, trampling anyone who got in their way. The curious thing is, this pattern of behavior is normal seen during natural disasters, storms, wildfires, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions. In Pompeii, some people were found carrying everything of value that they could bear, headed for the port to escape, while others were found huddled in homes and gardens, waiting for it all to be over …

 

I find the response to the blackout to be curious, because, in a way, it shows that we have elevated our own technology to the level of a force of nature.  People tend to think this way in the case of weapons of mass destruction, but those are intended to be horrifying. The great blackout represents the first example, I believe, of the failure of a bit of normally benign technology being treated as we would a natural disaster. Today, of course, it would worse, because the technology is far more complex and inter-connected than it was in the 60’s, and it is far more embedded in our lives!  What can you do without your computer, cell-phone, tablet, microwave, or car (which is now so dependent on sophisticated electronics that you can no longer fix it yourself without a huge diagnostic computer.)  Worse, the entire system, because of it’s complexity and interdependence is vastly more fragile – it’s not just that any failure would be really horribly bad:  with the number of interconnected things that can go wrong, it becomes more and more inevitable that something will go wrong!

 

Apart from our dependency on technology, there is also the direct effect of that technology on us. The things we’ve invented are altering us, permanently, as near as I can tell. When pocket calculators became common in the 70’s, tons of us lost some of our ability to do basic math. With instant, 24-hour news, we are barraged in such a way that our attention-span has declined … an event that would have seized and held the world’s attention for a month in 1972 (The Munich Massacre, is a fair example), would be newsworthy for only a few days – perhaps a week.  This Spring a US soldier was accused of the massacre of 17 unarmed civilians, including 9 children. It was a big item in the news for a week. Then interest died down, and most people don’t remember the name of the soldier accused of the atrocity.  On July 20th, a heavily armed and armored gunman opened fire in an Aurora, Colorado theatre, killing 12. It was big in the news for about 10 days, and now most people, including myself, would be hard pressed to remember the bizarre suspect’s name. Executives sleep with their cell phone’s by their beds – there’s ample research to indicate that the person’s response to an e-mail alert coming while he’s asleep, is nearly identical to the response of a soldier woken from sleep by a gun-shot. Our children play violent games in which they learn that it can be thrilling to fire a variety of weapons at a human-looking target. Or they get on WoW, and deliberately ruin other people’s day, simply because they can – studies have shown that the lesson’s they learn in gaming situation are no less real to them than the lessons they learn in life; and the lessons they are increasingly learning is that their actions, however ‘wrong’ are almost entirely devoid of consequences. Indeed, many are learning from their gaming lives that there is no right and wrong: there’s only ‘successful’ and not – one of the biggest criticisms young people level at one another is simply ‘Fail.’

 

I don’t see any end to the trends. My gut tells me it can’t keep getting worse, but, for the moment, anyway, that seems more like wishful thinking than intuition.

 

All I know for certain is that I’m sitting at my lifeless desktop computer, in the dark of a power outage caused by a rodent, typing on a laptop whose battery is running out with alarming swiftness …

 

I feel Powerless. Literally.

 

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~ by dourscot on October 10, 2012.

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