The Power Of Modern Technology

Larry Price
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Wednesday - October 25, 2006
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This not a column about the earthquake. This is a column about technology and the role it plays in explaining events like earthquakes and their repercussions.

It is quite amazing how technology has taken over our lives without much discussion as to whether it is a good or bad thing. Even the accessibility of information is related to technological advances in mass communications. We have television, radio and telephone, and a vast array of networks that connect these devices. Computer technology connects everyone through the Internet, e-mail and instant messaging, and presents modern-day mass communication.

There are at least three or four perspectives on technology. There is technicism: Generally speaking, it refers to the over-reliance or overconfidence in technology as a benefactor of society - the idea that newer technology is “better” then older technology. This is particularly true in discussions about computers and automobiles with greater gas efficiency. It is blind acceptance of technological developments.

The pessimistic perspective can be found in literature, like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984. The main theme is that society is to become evermore technological at the cost of psychological health.

The optimistic perspective sees technological development as having beneficial effects for society and the human condition. That is, that technological development is morally good.

Another perspective deals with appropriate technology as one measure of the development of a country. It is here that the Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO) has decided to install the system that powers the majority of the state’s energy needs. I don’t think I have ever heard anyone explain how complicated that technology is with such grace as Jose Dizon. He is the perfect spokesperson in every regard. I’ve never met him, but he should be on everyone’s phone directory. He is probably the only person in the state who could explain how HECO’s technologically superior power grid crashed during a 6.7 earthquake off Kona.

When Mr. Dizon was asked to explain why it was taking so long to get the HECO power grid back online, his choice of words was truly impressive, favoring words like energize and methodically to describe the procedure.

My prediction is that his testimony at the upcoming Public Utilities Commission hearing will be one of the most impressive messages recorded in recent history. Some of the tough questions from the commissioners will likely center on how the HECO system decided to shut down automatically. It’s a scary thought that most of the state was plunged into darkness and lost power automatically.

Another question will likely be, “Will HECO pay for damages?” It’s a good question. After all, we all pay for electricity that is delivered. If it’s not delivered, then does it have to be paid for? I won’t be at the PUC hearing, but it’s a good bet HECO will be protected by the state’s power interruption rule, which is kind of like the notices posted at the entrances to public and private parking lots: “We are not responsible for any valuables left in vehicles, etc., etc.”

I’m certainly not an expert on appropriate technology; however, we might consider telling our sophisticated computer systems at HECO to not be so quick to punish the entire state because of a 6.7 quake. Maybe we can go back to an older, rolling blackouts system that’s based on demand and manually cuts off certain users according to a predetermined schedule.

Don’t misunderstand, I like technology. But in some cases, manual takeover instead of automated might be a more prudent option. And while a better technology is right around the corner, let’s all hope that machines will always take orders from human beings. Blaming machines when something goes amok has little value in today’s society.

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