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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Technology Triumphs and Tragedies

I was watching PBS last night (what else?) and there were two programs back-to-back that couldn't have painted a starker contrast between the triumphs and tragedies of technology.  The first program was about the Phoenix mission to Mars.  The second described the aftermath of the recent earthquake in Haiti.  As a species, we can successfully place and control a spacecraft on a planet 400 million miles away but we cannot get food, water, or medical relief to a devastated country little more than 400 miles from our shores. How can that be?

The Phoenix Mission is not new news.  The spacecraft landed on Mars on May 25, 2008.  It was fully operational for 151 days before the paling sun of the Martian winter failed to sufficiently recharge the lander's batteries. The lander, never designed to survive the winter, fell silent.  But in those 151 days, the lander analyzed soil conditions, searched for water (which it found), analyzed the atmosphere, and took millions of images.  The mission was a complete success.  The PBS program gave a behind-the-scenes look at the engineers and scientists who built and launched the Phoenix.  You could feel the tension and then the jubilation in the team as the Phoenix made its approach and perfect landing on the Red Planet.  No one on the team will ever forget the experience. You can check out the Phoenix team's website at the University of Arizona here.

The Frontline episode, entitled simply, The Quake, (you can watch it online here) looked at the relief efforts immediately following the most devastating earthquake in Haiti's history.  I now know what anarchy looks like.  The Haitian government was non-existent.  President Preval didn't communicate with his countrymen for a full week after the disaster.  The UN mission in Haiti was so hard hit it lost its  ability to respond.  The UN lost over 100 people including its two top officials in Haiti.  The hastily-appointed UN leadership decided that trying to coordinate any relief effort in the first week would only create a bureaucratic mess and so they did little and let relief simply finds its own path to the disaster.

The disaster is, of course, not over in Haiti.  Port-au-Prince still lies in rubble.  A million people, half the city's population are living in tent cities.  Water and sewage systems are non-existent with the rainy season on the way in May.  How much can one country endure so much suffering?  The Haitian president spoke at the United Nations this morning about the continuing need for relief and long-term rebuilding.  The question for organizations wanting to help is how to do it effectively.

After watching these two programs back-to-back, I felt like I had some sort of psychic whiplash.  The Haitian disaster of course cannot be blamed on technology.  But the response to disaster depends completely on functioning communication, transportation, and medical systems.  These embody countless levels of technology.  When relief falls short, as it did in Haiti (and New Orleans), our technology stands exposed for all of its inadequacies.  Coping with disaster requires planning and resources for something that has not yet (and may never) happen.  We tell ourselves that there are so many more immediate problems to deal with that maybe we can postpone the disaster planning until next year.  Haiti and New Orleans also pointed out what might be called a "failure of imagination."  We simply can't fathom that an entire city of several million people can be destroyed.  How do you plan for something of that magnitude?

Maybe we will never be able to react to disasters on this scale quickly enough. But I watched the Phoenix spacecraft team practice and drill endlessly for any possible contingency they might have had to deal with in the landing sequence.  Fortunately, everything went smoothly but they were ready if it had not.  I only wish there had been a "mission control" of similar capability in the UN that was running disaster contingencies.  Maybe there were, but it sure doesn't seem to have taken into account the magnitude of a disaster of this size.

The programs were a pointed reminder of both our technical skills and our impotence.  I think we can, and must, do better in the future.

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