Today is the fourth anniversary of 911. Ironically, it’s a good time to look at a more recent disaster.
Katrina shows us the benefits and limitations of modern technology.
Computers let us communicate in ways unimaginable even fifteen-twenty years ago. But computers can’t generate their own electricity.
Technology can let places like hospitals continue to operate even when the electrical supply doesn’t, but it can’t make people put generators in places where they won’t be flooded.
Technology can transcend geography, but doesn’t change the geographic facts of life, like living below a flooding lake in places where the Red Cross refuses to set up shelters simply because they were doomed to flood.
Most importantly, while technology can allow men and women to do more and better, it doesn’t make them do either.
You can have the technology to communicate instantly to a decision-maker, but technology doesn’t make him or her decide instantly or even anytime soon. Technology can get people in touch with each other, but it can’t make them agree on what to do, often, it just lets them fight faster.
You can have the technology to protect a community from some ravages of nature, or evacuate large numbers of displaced people, or feed them when they reach shelter, but technology can’t make those responsible pay to do so, or plan to do so, or make it a high priority, or decide to buy something else with their budget, or stall until someone else foots the bill.
Technology can tell people to get out, but technology cannot make people pay attention, or decide that their lives are less important than their parakeet’s.
Technology can transfer money instantly, but it cannot make people do what it takes to get instant access to it, or make those responsible for issuing pension or welfare funds pay a few days ahead of time so the elderly and poor can have some money when the mailman can’t come.
You can have the technology to pick people up off roofs, or airlift soldiers in to establish order, but technology can’t make people put a ladder and exit in an attic so they can get onto the roof. Nor can technology change antiquated laws that make it a felony for the military to help out unless the President essentially declares the place to be in a state of rebellion.
Perhaps most importantly for those not affected, technology can tell the world what is going on, but technology does not make those communicating wise. It cannot make those reporting informed, nor make them report what is important, relevant, or even truthful. It is always harder to inform than to excite, and most of what controlled the events of last week do not make for compelling television.
In short, technology is just a tool. It can only permit; it cannot force better decisions and events. Only man ultimately decides how well or badly it is used.