On April 15, 1912, RMS Titanic went to the bottom of the North Atlantic, along with about 1500 passengers and crew. The ship had been considered a modern wonder.
It was made of steel, though it turned out that the steel plates and rivets were not as strong as they might have been.
It had lifeboats, though it turned out that because of an outdated formula, there were only half as many as necessary.
It had watertight compartments, though it turned out that the bulkheads did not go high enough, so that as the bow of the ship sank lower, water spilled from one compartment into the next, dooming the ship.
It had wireless, used to send out the distress call, but there were no ships close enough to arrive before Titanic sank.
Most of all, it had well-trained officers and an experienced captain, who nevertheless ordered full speed on a moonless night despite iceberg warnings.
On March 8, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared on a flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Beijing, China, together with 239 passengers and crew. Interestingly, describing those aboard an airliner is the only time people are likely to use the word “souls.” Now, a month later, we are not even certain whether it crashed into the South China Sea, where it was scheduled to be transiting, or into the South Indian Ocean, where we believe it actually was transiting.
The airliner was a Boeing 777, one of the most modern and most reliable of aircraft.
The plane had the most advanced electronic navigation aids and redundant safety devices.
The plane had devices to warn of unsafe conditions – for example, a speed slow enough to risk a stall, or a drop in cabin air pressure.
The plane was equipped with oxygen masks to be used in the event of depressurization, and life jackets to be used in the event of ditching in water.
The flight crew had the benefit of GPS satellites, which enabled them to ascertain their position with great accuracy.
The plane had “black boxes” designed to record flight data and cockpit voices, and constructed to survive a crash and to “ping” for about a month.
Most of all, the plane had a well-trained crew, including a respected captain with 30 years of experience, who nevertheless is suspected (perhaps unfairly) of diverting the flight.
In 1912, many people looked forward to the new century with optimism. The previous years had been largely peaceful, and the future was anticipated to be equally peaceful. Diplomacy was viewed as the answer to international disputes. No one foresaw that the 20th century would encompass the two bloodiest wars in history, as well as Holocausts and genocides too horrible to contemplate.
What is more, in 1912 many people looked upon technology as the answer to most human problems. Automobiles and trucks were replacing horses and wagons, and the assembly line was producing these articles in quantities that made them more available. Wireless was linking the world, and radio as in its infancy. Motorized planting and harvesting devices were lightening the burden of farming, thereby increasing food production and reducing hunger. It was a time of optimism.
But then there was Titanic. The most advanced ship sank, taking with it some of the richest and most prominent people in the Western World. Suddenly technology no longer seemed all-powerful. Suddenly modernity was no longer synonymous with invincibility. Suddenly the future seemed less certain and more troubling. Suddenly people no longer believed that they were masters of the universe. And two years later, World War I broke out, confirming people’s worst fears.
In 2014, we are in a similar situation. Many people look forward to the new century with optimism. World War II ended in 1945, and the ensuing wars, though terrible, did not have worldwide implications. The war in Iraq has ended – at least our participation has ended – and the war in Afghanistan is winding down. President Obama declares that we are tired of war – who isn’t? – and we want a “leaner” military. But is this indeed what we want, or a projection of what he wants?
And if people in 1912 had an unreasonable faith in technology, ours is even more unreasonable. We are addicted to our smart phones and the Internet. Information in huge quantities flashes around the world. Whether the information is accurate is another matter entirely. Thus far the Internet is free, but United Nations bureaucrats – and most regrettably, American politicians – suggest that the Internet and talk radio should be regulated by (surprise!) them. The deluge of information will no doubt continue, but whether that information will be censored remains in question.
Also in question is whether the reliability of all this technology will prove adequate for the crucial roles we call upon it to play in our national and personal lives. Are the incessant problems with the ObamaCare website caused by incompetent web designers? Or are the problems inescapable results of complex technology? Can anyone write such a huge software program without significant errors? The jury is still out.
Windows and Mac operating systems are continually upgraded. Each new version of smart phone does more. But do we really need, or even want, all these new functions? And with all these “apps” of questionable usefulness, the memory of the smart phones is largely used up. In order to free up this memory for tasks we want, special websites are springing up, informally known as the “decrapinator.” Where will this end – a high-tech Tower of Babel?
● Cars that accelerate uncontrollably.
● Cars that shut down unexpectedly.
● Solid-state storage that – unlike hard discs – fails without warning.
● Electronic medical records that can be hacked via the Internet – and can be deleted inadvertently.
● Digital TV that loses a word or two every few minutes.
● Computer models that predict global temperature will rise as atmospheric carbon dioxide rises – but for 17 years, carbon dioxide has risen but temperature has not.
● Electronic faucets and toilets, which work unreliably – and not at all during a power failure, leaving people stranded in filthy conditions.
●High school and university graduates who know less than their predecessors knew, but who are expected to manage technology that is increasingly complex but not increasingly reliable.
In 1912, people could not save some of the richest and most prominent individuals, embarked on the newest and most luxurious ocean liner. This disabused people of the notion that they were the masters of the universe.
In 2014, after a month of searching, we cannot even locate the wreckage of one of our newest and safest airliners, not to mention the 239 souls aboard. Will this disabuse us of the notion that we are the masters of the universe?
Will this remind us that technology is meant to solve existing problems, not to create new ones? Will this reinforce the idea that new technology is supposed to be more, not less, reliable than old technology? Will this impel us to create backups for new technology – for example, hard copies of important records, and mechanical backups for computerized controls? Will we consider how vulnerable we have made ourselves to computer glitches and power outages, not to mention hackers, terrorist attacks, and electromagnetic pulses?
Or will we simply doze off, self-satisfied and narcissistic, secure in our electronic, computerized fool’s paradise?
The most advanced airliner equipped with the latest technology, and a month later, we still can’t say why it crashed or where it is within a thousand miles? This is another Titanic moment. Will our unreasonable – almost religious – faith in technology be shaken? Will we slow down our headlong pursuit of the latest, shiniest, needlessly complex gizmo?
Or will we merely shrug and walk along, staring down at our smart phone – and oblivious to the dangers around us?
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