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The Limits of Technology

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Over-reliance on technology will come back to bite you later – that's a common warning in popular literature (Think Jurassic Park), and there is good reason for it. It happens all the time. And yet, our lives have become very dependent upon technology, again with good reason. A well-designed system operated and maintained by qualified personnel is a verifiable benefit to society.

The problems arise when those in charge of such systems seek to reduce their overhead by eliminating those who know the system best. Sometimes, there is another, more sinister reason to cut down on those in the know.

An easy acceptance of technology's reliability clouds the minds of those not directly involved in its operation and maintenance. They don't understand the requirements and limitations of the Next Best Thing to come off some manufacturer's Asian assembly line. I know of what I speak, for I work with technology in the real world, and I encounter this condition all the time.

There are many examples available to illustrate this scenario, and I'll pick just a few.

A new type of X-ray device which scans the body is being installed at airports all over the country. Some experts downplay the danger of using X-rays in this manner, and yet others ask: why add to the existing risk when there are other technologies available?

Align me with the latter group. Economics alone will eventually cause someone – many someones – injury, especially when the costs of maintaining the calibration of such a system become evident. At some point, the lack of maintenance could cause radiation burns due to over-exposure or a shielding failure. It would then be much cheaper for the maintenance management to pass along to the corporate headquarters the costs of defending against tort litigation than it would be to spend far less money from one's own department budget to properly maintain the equipment. Besides, it could eat up what little money is available for the annual bonus for the department executives. I have seen this happen in my own real-world job, so I know it goes on.

But there are other dangers such a system presents. Check out the photos on the linked page. Despite the so-called security checks that the operators of such a system may put in place, technology always has a way of overcoming such barriers. It will only be a matter of time before someone puts up a website with some of the more salacious views of passengers' physical attributes.

But the bottom line is that such a system is an old sow with some new tech lipstick applied to it. The existing X-ray system was installed in the 1950s, and its limitations are shared with the new. It can't detect the signature odors of explosives, so a "sniffer" system was added on which sampled the air as a passenger went through its detection array. But don't start feeling too secure with this next Richard Reed, for the system broke down too often to be of any real value.

The real key to this situation is that it doesn't meet the basic qualification for field application. It isn't ready for use. A statement from a company spokeswoman gives it all away: “We are committed to testing it." Testing is intended to determine whether something isn't finished and needs correction, and the purpose of the testing is to find the problems and correct them BEFORE the system is put to use.

Such was the case with the recent Congressional election between Republican Vern Buchanan and Democrat Christine Jennings. Despite a poor graphic design of the ballot screens – a condition which could have been easily discovered through simulation – the "experts" have decided that any screw-ups in the balloting can only be attributed to the voters.

That's "ONLY" to the voters. Sure, blame the failure on the oldest component of the creaky, cobbled-up system. It HAS to be the oldest part that fails, right? (Psssst! The correct answer is NO!)

Last May 25, Amtrak suffered a power failure which stranded tens of thousands of passengers on board 112 trains. Many of the stranded were stuck for hours in tunnels under the Hudson River. The oldest components of this system are 80 years old – such as a power substation located at Lamokin, near the Pennsylvania-Delaware border – and one would think that these parts were the ones that failed, right?

Wrong. It worked exactly as it was directed by the four-year-old computer control system which controls the operation of Amtrak lines between Washington and New York City from Philadelphia. It was the computer which didn't do the job intended. Officially, a flaw in the software failed to read an instruction entered 36 hours previously, but the real culprit was in the design of the software. It didn't allow for any redundancy, any accountability, or any oversight.

Beginning to sound like Florida's voting machines?

As Amtrak's Vice President for Operations William Crosbie put it, “In the old days, you had switches and gauges.” It's a bit simplistic to put it that way if one wants to get technical about it, but with monitoring equipment and trained personnel immediately at hand, the problems would have been detected and corrected before any major disruption in the flow of commerce could occur.

Why was there no one in position to move quickly? Because there was so much reliance on technology to do a dirty job once performed by the filthy working class. Amtrak – like too many other firms in America – cut back the on-site maintenance personnel, so no one was stationed at the generating facilities when they crashed, one after another, due to the massive electrical load to which they were subjected. No one ever considered the possibility of such a large failure, so no one was on hand to reset the breakers to resume operation. One systems tech had to plow through rush-hour traffic in Queens to restart the substation at Amtrak's Sunnyside Yard. As anyone who lives in a large metropolitan machine knows, such an impediment to forward motion doesn't help when speed is of the essence. Just remind yourself that they are doing everything they can the next time you are stuck in a tunnel under the East River!

There is also the problem of training the personnel. Who would think that the expense of training the crew for something that "can't happen here, thanks to our gear" would ever be needed? Amtrak crewmen aboard a diesel locomotive sent out to tow in a New Jersey Transit train stuck in a tunnel had never operated it before, and didn't know how to release the brakes.

The bottom line is that the Amtrak maintenance crew were following the directions of the manufacturer, and the directions led to the power failure. When asked about certain specifics of the procedure, the manufacturer's reps had no answers to explain why these specifics were necessary.

Back in the '60s, it was a common understanding that authority needed to be questioned. These examples show the reason. The questions asked just might cover some aspect of a system which escaped review by the experts. But until the people suffer enough, they don't ask why. Just keep those trains running on time and no one will ever question the vote tabulations. They will trust that the voting machines, like all the others they use during their daily routines, will have done their jobs correctly. Sadly, they may well be right, but only about the political machines which use the voting machines to protect the corporate machines from the population machine.

Should some slap-dash gamma-ray generator be set up next to your house in the near-future (to provide you with the power necessary for that new-fangled plasma wide screen you just indentured yourself for) develop a little problem with its remote-control equipment, and the core goes into meltdown, and the shielding fails, you will understand that it may take a while to locate a qualified nuclear engineer and get him to the reactor to get it back under control. He's stuck in traffic while on another call.

You just better hope that he has read the manual and knows how to apply the brakes when he does finally get there! The nuclear power plant dates back to the 1950s, after all.

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