When the RMS Titanic sank in 12,500′ of frigid North Atlantic water, it was more than 50,000 tons of steel and glass and linens going down. More was lost than a massive financial investment by J.P. Morgan. The tragedy of more than 1,500 people perishing, awful as it was, did not comprise the only deaths of April 15, 1912.
The loss of the Titanic shattered a delusion that had captured many minds in an age of industrial revolution. That delusion was belief in the ultimate ability of mankind. Potentates that we know well from history, with last names like Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Morgan, Rockefeller, and Ford helped formulate that idea by giving the people glimpses of what technology could do. With that came a promise of a “utopia” of sorts, where technology and scientific advances could create a bunch of “un-stuff” (unbendable, unbreakable, un-dying, unsinkable). Now whether or not the guys driving these advances actually preached the utopian mantra, I don’t know. But many believed a perfect future was possible, just like they truly believed the Titanic to be unsinkable.
Of course, this concept wasn’t new to people in the late 19th century, nor the early 20th century. It goes way back to the plains of Shinar and a powerful king named Nimrod. If you believe the story to be factual, he got a bunch of people together and attempted to build a giant tower that would reach into the sky. The people believed that they had reached the pinnacle of development and, if the tower could be completed and reach the heavens, they would be like gods and nothing would be impossible. As you might guess, the Tower of Babel (as it came to be called) was never finished.
I suppose we’re that way too, here in the way-more-modern 21st century. We’re constantly bombarded with reminders of how advanced we’ve become and how much better our lives are. In a good number of ways, it’s true. But it gives us a false sense of security. We kind of expect things to always work. When I sit in a chair, it will hold me up. When I turn the key, the car will start and will operate just like it’s supposed to. When I turn on my electronic device, it will power up, just like the last time. That airplane that’s flown for ten years?…it’ll certainly fly today. The roof won’t collapse.
And when things don’t work?…we get angry. We slam our hands on the steering wheel. We repeatedly press the buttons of the remote in frustration. We unplug and replug, with words like “fiddlesticks!” and “rackafratz!” hissing from our lips. We forget that all of these wonderful conveniences (the cars, the boats, the vacuum cleaners, the computers) are, at their core, mechanical devices. And last time I checked, every mechanical device breaks. Some break early on, some after a long time, but all of them eventually.
What’s more, every one of those wonderful conveniences was designed by a fallible human being, and those designers won’t get it right every time. People make mistakes building cars the same way I make mistakes building software, the same you sometimes mess up cutting hair, or building a bridge, or teaching students, or raising children. I read (or heard) somewhere that a passenger jet contains 100,000 miles of wiring. Regardless of whether that’s true or not, an airplane has a ton of wiring, and someone has to hook it up. If he happens to hook something up wrong, it’s just one incorrect detail amid a myriad of other details, but it could have catastrophic consequences.
Robots are more precise, but they only do what humans design and program them to do, and maybe those people made mistakes, too. Toyota, a car company with a legendary reputation, has recently been jolted back to reality. It employs fallible humans to build mechanical devices, so guess what? They’re going to get it wrong sometimes. This morning, Mazda announced a recall of a bunch of vehicles for transmission issues. Transmissions, for all their modern-day sophistication, are mechanical. Part of the human experience is “getting it wrong”.
Sometimes we need to give ourselves a good slap upside the head as a reminder that we’re not “all that”. Our knowledge increases, our standards improve, and our technology advances. But in the end, cars break, laptops (as I just discovered) wear out, and an unsinkable ship still sinks when its buoyancy is overcome by North Atlantic waters, regardless of who funds it or who parades the decks.
We build cooler stuff, but the human condition remains, regardless of how good we think we have it.