Monday, May 11, 2009

Technology + (un)natural acts = disaster

To communicate with one's fellow beings is the most natural and powerful of human instincts. Few individuals can resist the urge to converse with relatives, friends or even strangers, and solitary confinement may be a punishment that is worse than death. Not a few of those held in solitary confinement for long periods at Guantanamo Bay by the US military are reported to have become mentally ill.

Genuine interpersonal communication is impossible without paying close attention to the other person - their words and other paralinguistic cues, and even anticipating their reactions. Operating heavy machinery also frequently demands one's complete attention for not doing so could have fatal results.

Considering the limitations of the human cognitive system -- it can process only one stream of information at a time -- combining the operation of heavy machinery and engaging in conversation would appear, then to be a recipe for disaster. And as news reports as well as direct personal experience show, it almost always is. I have watched many a driver -- young and old; it's not just the 'idiot teenager' -- engage in dangerous manoeuvres on the road while a mobile phone (and hand) is stuck to the side of the head.
The typical response to occurrences (and resulting accidents) of this sort is to ban the use of communication devices while driving (or operating other dangerous machinery). But is that really a solution? Human communication behaviour has evolved over tens of thousands of years (two million if we rely on research suggesting the age of our species; or hundreds of millions of years if we consider communication to be a fundamental characteristic of all animal life); operating complex, dangerous machinery is but a couple of hundred years old, and only in the past few decades has so large a proportion of the population been doing it as a matter of course.

The solution to the problem lies not in trying to restrain ingrained human behaviour but to redesign machinery as well as communication devices so that natural behavioural patterns may continue without adverse consequences. The fundamental designs of our complex machinery dates back to the beginning of the industrial era, when very few people came in close contact with them. Further, they were made to operate like subhuman automatons in slave-like conditions where the right to engage in basic human behaviours was denied to them. As the use of heavy machinery spread and workers were permitted some measure of humanity, the main adaptation to the change was to cover up the machinery with protective physical shields -- without changing their essential operation.

All that has changed. The use of heavy machinery has been democratised and a larger proportion of humanity has been granted back their fundamental rights to being human. What needs intense innovation and redesign is the machines themselves as well as the way we interact with them even while retaining the essence of who we are.

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