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Technological Paradox: We Do More Knowing Less

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, October 23, 2014

The ill fated Air France Flight 447 from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009 killing 228 people, remains one of the most perplexing and significant modern airline disasters, according researchers. In a Vanity Fair article, William Langewiesche explores the paradox that technological advances that have greatly improved airline safety over the last 40 years have also increased the likelihood that pilots won't know how to handle a crisis if one arises.

A series of small errors, the story says, "turned a state of the art cockpit into a death trap." As the plane approached a line of thunderstorms at 35,000 feet over the Atlantic in the middle of the night, the captain was taking a nap-which was an habitual practice and allowed by rules-and two co-pilots, each thinking he was in temporary command-were at the controls. Langewiesche reports that a French investigator observed after the fact that "Sometimes two is less than one." Because of an accumulation of ice crystals outside the plane, the pilots temporarily lost valid air speed data, alarms sounded and control panels showed a slight dip in altitude and an impossibly low speed, though the airspeed itself was unaffected. Auto pilot disengaged. The flying co-pilot yanked the hand control causing a steep climb, then tried unsuccessfully to level the plane. Stall alarms sounded. The two copilots, panicked and communicating poorly, used controls in ways that counteracted each other. Fear and confusion reigned. The captain awoke but couldn't reverse the fatal descent into the ocean. Some passengers may have been aware of turbulence, but there was no screaming or panic, according to records recovered.

Langewiesche concludes that because we've designed auto-piloted planes that virtually anyone could fly, the average knowledge base that pilots need has declined. "It seems we are locked into a spiral in which poor human performance begets automation, which worsens human performance, which begets increasing automation," he writes, adding the pattern is common to our time, but is acute in aviation. The next disaster will involve different planes, airlines, circumstances, and culture, he suggests, but will almost certainly "involve automation and we will be perplexed by it."

We all rely on technological equipment and gadgets, and we know how to use them for our own purposes without knowing much about how they work. Are we, as a result, inclined to skim over the surface of knowledge our survival might occasionally require? Can we become simultaneously more and less sophisticated? In his New York Times piece "Curses, Fooled Again!" Peter Funt writes that "the omnipresence of technology has reached a point where people will accept almost anything." His topics wouldn't scare a frequent flier, but his observations are pertinent to our relationship with technology. His father, Allen Funt, started "Candid Camera" on TV 60 years ago. When Peter Funt produced new "Candid Camera" shows this summer, he worried that today's tech savvy audiences wouldn't fall for some of the ridiculous pranks he planned. But they did. He and colleagues showed salon customers an "untanning machine" they said would suck dark pigment off skin in seconds. He told shoppers they would be charged a $10 in-store-fee for not buying online, and they bought his line. He went to a dentist's office, gave patients iPads, then told them they'd have to conduct their own exams online. Several were ready to inject their own Novocain before he confessed the joke. Posing as a sanitation worker, he told residents in Queens, N.Y., they had to separate household trash into eight color coded bins including one for "chicken waste." He gave New Yorkers petitions to recall state officials, and most supported the recall, even though all the names on the petitions were phony. In California an actress posing as a candidate got dozens of campaign signatures without identifying any positions, a party, or her last name.

Funt says while his father used to distract people, now they do it themselves fiddling with cell phones and other devices, comfortable with their exceptional electronic capabilities, and giving less than full focus to what's going on around them. So people are still friendly and good-naturedly willing to be sucked into "Candid Camera" stunts, he observes, but they're also more vulnerable to personal mishaps and genuine scams.

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