The mindset of the silicon nursery

JP: Good read on technology and the Air France disaster.

Technology: tool, toy or god?


The stunned reaction to the Air France plane crash this week had me thinking about technology and our faith in it.

You could have taken the headlines — “Flight 447 Is Missing” — straight out of the 1960s. In those times, “Mystery Plane Disaster” seemed to pop up on front pages several times a year.

How do we then explain the shock that has accompanied the loss of the A330?

My suspicion is that the reaction comes not so much from accident itself but rather the circumstances. In short, this episode revives our fear of the unknown.

The jetliner tumbled out of the sky for no accountable reason. It made no radio contact. It left no radar trace, for it was flying over a patch of ocean where there is no radar coverage.

Before the accident, the Atlantic was something to fly over. After it, it became a dark, deep and forbidding place — something that it had always been, in fact — with shattered bodies and a wrecked plane held in a watery grip. Such images are unsettling to our rational environment. We struggle to find an adequate explanation for the disaster, and this is worrying in a world today that craves to know causes and loves to apportion blame.

Flight 447 is a blow to the cosy notion that we have mastered Nature, can explain the Unknown, reduce Risk to a mere algorithm. This is today’s response to the ancestral fears that have always lurked on the fringes of our mind.

That notion of information and control has become deeply imbedded, thanks to the IT revolution. We have established a mental comfort zone where the techno-nanny is always around, shielding us from the unexpected, the wild and dangerous, entertaining us when we are bored, keeping us in contact with others when we are feel a tiny bit lonely. We have developed the mindset of the silicon nursery.

If you eavesdrop on the inane conversations that passengers on a suburban train have on their mobile phones, the realisation dawns that the phone has become a constant comforter for people who cannot stand being alone, even for a minute.

Parents give a mobile phone to a young child not to give him freedom but to know where he is. The phone becomes an umbilical cord that is never cut, for a child never learns to cope by himself if instant support is a fast-dial number away.

Technology has of course its uses. I’m not at all a technophobe. But I do wonder about the impact it makes on our minds, given the potential to create illusions about relationships, skew perception of risk and mask us from some of the nastier realities of the world.