Highway collisions and market plunges: techno-dependency gone wrong?

With last week’s post I took you on what for most of you was probably an unexpected detour into the world of spiritual parable.  Well, I got responses both positive and negative for doing so – and I’m glad that at least some of you were able to appreciate where I was coming from and seemed to enjoy it.  Equally so, there seemed to be some people who didn’t appreciate the detour (and one person in particular who vented through a rather spiteful email); but fear not, for today I’m bringing you back to the ‘meat and potatoes’ of the site as we look at some interesting cases of technological dependency gone too far.

Blackberry (image by edans, Flickr, CC)This all came about because of the news this week that a woman from Los Angeles, California, is suing Google after its online mapping service gave walking directions that caused her to walk along a four-lane, high-speed roadway.  A roadway that was never intended for pedestrian traffic, and thus had no sidewalk.   Upon coming to this road she thought she could make it to a sidewalk on the other side of the highway, across a median strip, in the middle of the night.  She didn’t make it.

She was struck by a fast travelling car, and although luckily the collision wasn’t fatal she did have to spend six weeks undergoing physical rehabilitation after suffering multiple bone fractures.  Because the woman had accessed the directions from Google on her Blackberry, she claims, the map did not come with any warning that the directions might not be safe or advisable (as they do when accessed on a desktop, for example).  By following these directions she suffered an injury – and therefore deserves compensation.

The absurdity of this situation has not gone unnoticed throughout the tech industry and other media both online and off.  I’m not going to get bogged down into a discussion on whether or not stupidity deserves to be compensated.  But it certainly does highlight, in a very direct and real manner, how we are starting to become so dependent on various forms of technology that we are actually bypassing common-sense and many other factors of our humanity that have served us well over the past 50,000 years or so.

This story of Lauren Rosenberg is just something that brings the conversation to the forefront of the public eye, and I believe we should take this opportunity to sit down and really consider just how dependent upon technology we are willing to become; and the consequences that different levels of dependency come with.

Another, far more simple, example of this came about from my usual readings of various message boards and forums around the internet.  An argument had broken out about certain details of the life and words of a famous historical figure – and a call for primary sources had been made in order to help clarify certain points.  The response came quite quickly and clearly that the individual’s ‘primary source’ was Wikipedia.  For anybody who studies, or has studied, history I’ll give you a moment to stop laughing and then we can move on.

Despite certain individuals trying to explain why Wikipedia isn’t to be considered a primary source (nor, even, are most of the references that Wikipedia relies upon for authority to be considered ‘primary’ sources), the message didn’t get through until a rather inventive member of the forum took things into their own hands.  They changed the Wikipedia entry to support the counter-argument and then ran with it; showing instantly the failings of this otherwise very useful intellectual resource.

For everything great that Wikipedia brings us, the moment we fail to realise that there are countless individuals editing entries for their own personal agendas is the moment we become too dependent on technology and switch off that part of our brain that should be advising caution.

So here we’ve had an example of one woman who was terribly injured because of her over-reliance on technology; and another example of how our understanding of reliable sources is shifting in quite a worrying manner.  The final example that I want to bring up is actually one that cost a heck of a lot of people a hell of a lot of money in almost an instant.

Bear Market (image by azrainman, Flickr, CC)About a month ago now, the Dow stock-exchange plunged over 1,000 points in about 30 minutes.  This represented close to a 10% drop in the value of some of the world’s largest companies (in fact, one such company, Accenture, lost over 99% of its market value before bouncing back very soon after).  The amazing thing about all of this is that not only was this drastic drop completely unexpected (well, at least the magnitude and speed of it), but that there is still debate over just how exactly this occurred.

Trillions of dollars in market value were lost and regained in the space of half an hour, and nobody seems to know exactly why.  There certainly are many theories, but the fact that none of them can be confidently backed is worrying to say the least.  What seems pretty clear to most, however, is that this was the result of a computer error; a ghost in the machine.

So what’s the point of this post, if anything?  The point is that it is a call out for each of you as individuals to look at the manner in which technology has entered your lives.  Analyse the change in dependency that has occurred.  How much do you rely upon information the source of which is becoming more and more difficult to verify?  How much of your livelihood or well-being is wrapped up in automated systems that you have no real control over?  As we progress more and more rapidly into a technological future, how much are you willing to hand over?

All of these questions start to sound like doom-mongering – but if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time you should know that I’m certainly not technophobic.  However, embracing technology does not mean blindly worshipping it.  Enhancing our lives does not have to include handing over our autonomy.  If Google tells you to cross a four-lane, high-speed highway in the middle of the night…maybe you should “just say no”.


Leave a reply