Sunday, May 10, 2015

Stop, look, listen

Stop by Pants (2015)

As a junior sailor, I had to learn to interpret nautical flags. Not that we had any of those on the sabot, mind. A plastic bucket remodelled to crudely resemble an Edwardian coal shovel and some sawn-off polystyrene coolers shoved under the seats for buoyancy was as classy as it got. Neither did anyone ever hoist a flag in our direction. On Sydney Harbour, rich people in yachts just swore at children attempting to navigate a boat the size of a rum barrel and with comparable manoeuvrability through one of the busiest waterways in the world. Survival depended on being alive to risk.

One flag I have remembered down the years comprises a blue cross on a white background. Roughly translated, it means 'stop what you're doing and look at me.' I have occasionally had cause to raise the blue cross to friends when they appeared poised to capsize. It sometimes works and sometimes doesn't.

As children we were taught to 'stop, look and listen' when we arrived at a road crossing. It was good advice. It is very important to be fully engaged when attempting to share a confined space with double-decked buses and cement mixers (putty putty). I'm all in favour of daydreaming, but not whilst in transit in high density urban settings.

Switching to autopilot in the supermarket is usually fine and often essential to general well-being, especially if you live in a small town and are sensitive to spontaneous, high-pitched greeting noises occurring scant inches away. An audio book and a set of impenetrable headphones can be invaluable in this situation. I try to preserve my focus for the small print on signs that scream 'SPECIAL', and for the checkout, where 'the bank' very rarely makes errors in one's favour.

I always bristle whenever the weary checkout operator enquires,

'How's your day been so far?'

Where did they get that one from? I'm always nice to minimum-wage, zero-hours people. There but for the grace of a lifetime of parsimony and a lot of fiscal good luck go I. Even with my near-pathological standoffishness, I've a nodding connection with many of the people who work in the Larrikin's End supermarket. They're all much better people than the monster corporation that employs them deserves.

'Fine, thank you,' is what I usually politely reply, with a smile that is the emotional equivalent of badly drawn blood.

This morning, someone finally volleyed the answer I've been tossing about in my fantasies for years,

'Not too good. I've just come back from the hospital. My wife's got cancer and it's terminal.'

I ventured a surreptitious glance. He was right behind me in the next queue. An old guy. Swollen ankles. One of those walking sticks with a claw foot. Face baggy and grey from worry. He was not being facetious. It was not a prank.

I felt for Toby*, the checkout guy. He's worked there for years.

'That's no good,' said Toby, as the vile bar-code-scanning thing bleeped.

The marketing elf who thought up the inanity 'how's your day been so far?' surely must have considered that, at some point, someone who has just received the worst possible news will still need to buy dog food. That person may, in fact, be grateful for the opportunity buying dog food affords to forget that this is the shittiest of days.

'We'll find out more about treatments next week,' the man said as he handed over cash for the three tins of dog food. Toby must have been glad of the cash transaction. Mercifully, he dispensed with the obligatory, 'enjoy the rest of your day,' and merely offered up a meek but clearly genuine 'take care.'

Having a script is all well and good until routine decides to improvise. Perhaps the guy with the dying wife momentarily forgot that this wasn't an actual question - rather the retail equivalent of a salute. Maybe because of the nodding familiarity we all have with each other in Larrikin's End, his grief felt liberated to express itself with the most tenuous of prompts. In that moment, all hell could have broken loose. But it didn't. Thank fuck for express checkout lines. Cash only, one basket. Have a nice day.

Recently, an article appeared in the New Yorker flagging the hazard of (literally) being on autopilot.  A commercial airliner crashed on a short domestic flight in favourable weather conditions because the pilot forgot that you're supposed to push the stick shaker away rather than towards you when your plane is about to stall. The crew were all chatting away in the cockpit and no one was looking at the instruments. There's a comforting thought for frequent flyers. 

The article cites a new study of airline pilots' responses to emergency situations as tested in a flight simulator. Researchers concluded that the higher the level of automation, the less likely it is that a pilot will be able to recognise a problem and fly the plane manually. Not only are pilots' skills 'atrophying' - that is the word researchers used - it seems their minds are inclined to go the same way. The researchers found that when asked to 'sit and stare', humans get bored and switch off and concluded that it would be better if technology designers developed human-centred systems rather than have humans conform to a tech-centric world because we're just not built that way. Well, duh!

Perversely, pilots mostly don't fly the planes these days. Their expertise is usually required for take-off and landing only. They are the cinema projectionists of the sky except with sexier uniforms. Projectionists push a few buttons and then retire to the snack counter to ponder the minutiae of life while a plane slams into the ground in CGI Land. The worst thing that can happen if you're a projectionist is that someone will come looking for you to tell you that the screen has gone black and the emergency lights have come on. If you're a pilot that's you slamming into the ground in real time while you're talking through your marital issues with your co-workers. If a computer crashes, it's merely annoying. If a plane crashes - well that really isn't good.

Unless you're living in a padded cell, any disincentive to paying attention can be dangerous, particularly if there are large, moving metal objects involved. Research seems to be suggesting that increased automation leads to boredom and dullness of wit - states that most of us would find undesirable in any situation. Yet, the hunger for more and more automation persists along with an inexplicable desire to self-subjugate to it. When Business Council of Australia President Catherine Livingstone was asked to suggest a single measure to address the 'growing digital literacy gap between Australia and its competitors', she replied,

'Teaching four-year-olds how to code, introducing them to computational thinking, design thinking, problem solving. They're absolutely capable of it and that's when they should be learning those skills.'

At this moment I am waving the blue cross flag furiously. First of all, good luck with getting your average four-year-old interested in the fascinating patterns you can make with a bunch of zeros and ones. Yes, babies are wizard on the iPad but that is only because they've worked out how to watch the very hungry caterpillar eat a chocolate cake over and over again. If you want to introduce your four-year-old to 'computational thinking, design thinking and problem solving, I suggest you buy a jumbo pack of Lego and invite all the neighbourhood children for a play date - unless of course you would prefer them to revive the horrid memory of how you attempted to turn your own progeny into an instrument of the economy whilst they peruse nursing home brochures. And I'd keep quiet about how much fun you had when market forces still allowed an actual childhood as you're driving them to coding class.

It's time we citizens of this supposedly free society collectively push back hard on the stick shaker before we go into an irretrievable stall and while we can still remember how to fly our lives on manual. Oh, and if you want 'literate' infants, try teaching them letters and numbers - preferably using brightly coloured cubes. That way they can learn their colours, strengthen their motor skills and acquire some basic manners into the bargain. (Pass me the heliotrope block please - thank you.) And maybe very young children also need to learn that sometimes what you build falls down - for real. 

*Not his real name, obviously. This is most definitely Jason and Darren territory.