Some years ago, when I worked at the film unit and while researching a documentary on motorways, I read some work by sociologist and historian, Lewis Mumford. An image has stayed with me. Mumford compared the space shuttle with the pyramid. Both were amazing examples of technological ingenuity, but both, he argued, were elaborate tombs, at the centre of which are dead bodies. While the astronaut is not officially a corpse, he or she is, nevertheless, on life support.

Recently, I and a colleague, got an ambulance call in the middle of the night. Someone had fallen at home and pressed his medical alarm. These alarms are clever devices that an elderly or otherwise medically compromised person carries on their person. When they press the button it connects them to a centre which will in turn alert the ambulance service. We drove a considerable distance to find an elderly man who, while getting from his wheelchair into his bed, had fallen and couldn’t get up. It was a simple enough task to put him into bed and make sure he was okay.

Let me switch to a Pacific Island village. If the same event had occurred, a younger family member sleeping near the old man would’ve woken and fixed the problem in a minute or two and everyone gone back to sleep.

In our instance, a sophisticated digital system had contacted another sophisticated digital system which in turn aroused two people. These two people then had to log on to the system with usernames and passwords, checked a number of machines and driven a considerable distance,  helped by a navigation system operated via satellite, and solved an issue which, in the Pacific Island fale, had been sorted an hour ago. However, in our instance, an electronic form also had to be filled out, taking considerable time, which gathered some meta data, detailing the incident and deciding whether our response to the situation was compliant with protocol. This would be stored in the cloud for future auditing. Then we could drive home and go to bed. All this to pick up an elderly man and put him into bed.

it did seem that an extraordinarily complex system had been used, for what after all, was a simple problem, and one easily remedied; and that this complexity, if endlessly repeated, could become the equivalent of the pyramid, a wondrous tombstone, at the centre of which lies the corpse of Western rationality.

Advertisements