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By Lou Washington

I’m devoting a few lines here to the 100th anniversary of the sinking of Titanic. Titanic is a technology story and it also is a story that I’ve been fascinated by for many years.

Sometime during the day of April 14, 2012 a cruise liner full of passengers will arrive on station in the North Atlantic at the last position reported by RMS Titanic prior to her sinking one hundred years ago. That ship will remain on site throughout the night.

The passengers will engage in a number of activities supposedly timed to coincide with actions recorded in the historical records that document this most famous of all ship wrecks.

Food served on the cruise will match the menus used during Titanic’s only voyage. Music will be played by musicians covering the same numbers offered by Wallace Hartley and his small but very brave band of musicians as the liner foundered and sank. Signal rockets will be fired at intervals during the final two hours mimicking the real distress rockets fired at the command of Captain E. J. Smith in an attempt to call attention to his stricken vessel and request the assistance of anyone in visual range.

Hopefully, sometime during that evening someone will utter a prayer on behalf of the souls that perished in that horrible disaster.

I’m a Titanic junkie. My love affair with this ship started many years ago. I can’t even begin to tell you how many books I’ve read on the subject. I was thrilled when the James Cameron movie was released in the mid 1990s. And I enjoyed every minute of it.

For me there is a great unanswered question that looms above this event. The frustrating thing is the question itself is not discernible. Every book I read, every opinion I hear and every theory that is explained seeks to provide “the answer” to the question. But it is all for nought because the question itself is not known.

There are also numerous questions about the specific events of that evening which provide fuel for much speculation and in some cases passionate arguments. Books have been written about many of these “what if” scenarios and for many aficionados, this is what drives their own interest in the subject as a whole. If you want to get a flavor for this diversity of opinion, just google the name Stanley Lord.

There are those that see Titanic as a sort of microcosm or analogue of the post-Victorian world. They see it as an emblem of a class based society with privilege and comfort for a few supported and delivered by the discomfort, brutality and death of many.

Others will explain that Titanic and the fate of the ship and passengers was the result of arrogance. They see it as technology lifted on high like some sort of golden calf for man to worship. They believe that the sinking was the inevitable response of a Mosaic God striking down another false idol.

I think the question is much more basic. I think we look at our technological creations with some pride, and when they fail, I think our first reaction is always why. Why, with all of quality processes, all of the engineering and design specifications, all of the testing and research and careful production techniques do we still turn out products that fail. How can a company like Apple introduce a phone that has antennae issues. How can Toyota build a car that despite test after test has documented cases of a sticking accelerator. The list is endless and the results are anything from mild disappointment to death.

Perhaps the more appropriate reaction should be; Why Not?

We place a huge amount of trust in technology every single day. I wake up in the morning and jump in the shower; I’m not scalded. I take my assorted meds; I’m not poisoned. I trust green lights on my way to work, I drive my car at high speeds depending on brakes to slow me down when needed. I jump on an elevator and it safely takes me to the third floor of the office building where I work.

All sorts of technological creations work properly all day long and we are sustained by that functionality throughout our lives. Each time we place our trust in technology, we are betting it will do what we ask it to do.

But on the evening of April 14, 1912, 1,500+ souls lost the bet.

The ship was moving at flank speed in an area known to have icebergs. The ship was constructed of a type of iron that was susceptible to becoming brittle when exposed to cold temperatures and the rivets that held the ship together where similarly compromised. The life boats on Titanic were insufficient in number to accommodate the passengers and crew. The passengers themselves failed to react with sufficient urgency to the crews request to board those lifeboats and they indeed left the ship only partially full.

Titanic is indeed emblematic of a society that depends on technology. We risk disaster every day and there is no reason to believe we will stop or that we should stop. Progress is expensive.

January 2019
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