The most fundamental component of technology, of the technocracy we occupy in our daily lives, is the software on which we operate. That software is found in your brain. Your brain is the most often neglected aspect of every piece of technology you use – for just as a thing to be perceived begs an entity to perceive it, that which is to be operated begs an operator. We, as human beings, are largely self-programmed. We integrate the data provided us through numerous means, and from this data, we draw concepts.
What happens if we start to rely too much on any piece of technology? Be it a smartphone to store our phone numbers, an application that remembers our passwords, or the network of networks on which we rely for everything from entertainment to commerce to communication … if we forsake the software that is our brains in favor of the hardware that is all around us, we become complacent.
Complacency is fatal.
Almost 20 years ago, I witnessed something that would change my attitude about complacency forever. In retrospect, the incident helped form my opinions of technology, too, which I bring to you every week in this column. It was such a simple thing and, looking back, such a potentially terrible thing.
I was leaving a four-story college residence hall. As I exited the building I stopped to see what was going on – for a crowd of people was staring up the large hillside into which the campus was built.
We watched and a few people pointed and muttered. A lone student dragged a metal bed frame down the hill. I remember him as tall and skinny. He moved with determination and without a word, the bed frame scraping the asphalt walkway as he tugged it along.
No one questioned him. No one stopped him. We watched as he walked up to the old brick-faced building, upended the bed frame, and climbed it like a ladder. The corner of the frame shattered the window of the room he was boarding like a pirate. He scrambled in through the opening.
I walked into the building. The student burst from a room on the lounge level -– the room that was, I would learn later, below the room occupied by a young woman who’d just dumped him. Crazed and screaming incoherent oaths, he stopped in the hallway.
I knew I should do something, but I did not know what. I had no gun. I had no knife. I had no pepper spray. I was not near a phone; this was before cell phones, even before pagers became common. Like the 20 or 30 people who had watched this bizarre scene unfold, I was technologically unprepared – but mentally, I was even less prepared. My software could not handle the data. The scenario was outside the normal. My brain clicked to a stop, unable to process a situation with which it had not been prepared to cope.
A resident advisor named Joel, a student with nominal authority within the hall, appeared from somewhere. “Get out of here!” he yelled. “Go! Get out! Get out!” He yelled that guy out of the building, following him and shouting until the student had fled down the street. The local police appeared shortly thereafter. Spectators pointed them in the direction of the disturbed young man.
I learned later that after the troubled fellow’s girlfriend dumped him that evening, she had locked him out of her room. He responded by trying to kick in the door. I assume that it was after he failed to break in that this unbalanced student went back to his own building, got his bed frame, and went nuts pirate-style. I don’t know what was done to him, but they did catch him, and he never returned to the school (at least to my knowledge).
I thought about that incident for a long time. I could have done any number of things, improvised any number of weapons, even simply tackled the guy. I used no technology. I used no mental software. I just stood and watched. I froze – not once, but twice when it mattered.
I was not alone, of course. No one else watching that day thought to say something, to challenge him. No one thought to run up and kick the bed frame out from under him when he started climb it. No one went for help. No one tackled him after he broke through the window. No one did anything, except Joel.
It’s a natural reaction to freeze up in times of crisis. Normally it takes only one person in the crowd to act, one person to rush forward when someone falls or collapses or has been injured, to break the reverie into which spectators stand still. That day in the residence hall, it was a guy named Joel, a resident assistant with true courage, who acted when no one else would.
Perhaps five years later, I was in a bookstore at the mall when a young boy’s loose shoelace got caught in the escalator. He yelped as the machine dragged him off-balance. I saw what was happening, snapped open my pocket knife, and went for the escalator to chop his lace free – when his parent reached him first and pulled him bodily free by the waist. I quietly folded my knife and went about my business unnoticed, but I remembered the incident. I remembered and was glad that I learned to act rather than watch.
Fifteen years later, I stood in the same bookstore. It was just last weekend, and that bookstore is dying. Its shelves are almost empty. Its cafe furnishings are being sold off plate by plate. It is doomed, a victim of technology. As the e-book kills the paperback, places like it will crumble to dust. I stood at the foot of that same escalator less than one week ago, and I remembered. I remember that lesson, so long ago now, about technology, about mental preparedness … about complacency.