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The Titanic 100 Years On: Technology, Infallibility, and Mindfulness

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Ever since my wife introduced our young son and myself to the movie Titanic a few years ago, I have been fascinated by the story of what happened the cold, clear night the R.M.S. Titanic ran into an iceberg and sank.

There are many reasons why her wreck holds an irresistible fascination for many. In the April issue of National Geographic, author Hampton Sides shares one explanation that caught my attention:

But something else, beyond human lives, went down with the Titanic: An illusion of orderliness, a faith in technological progress, a yearning for the future that, as Europe drifted toward full-scale war, was soon replaced by fears and dreads all too familiar to our modern world. "The disaster was the bursting of a bubble," James Cameron told me. "There was such a sense of bounty in the first decade of the 20th century. Elevators! Automobiles! Airplanes! Wireless radio! Everything seemed so wondrous, on an endless upward spiral. Then it all came crashing down."

I think the traumatic reverberations of the sinking of the "unsinkable" Titanic live on in our collective psyche. We have learned all too well that the infallibility of technology is an illusion. A part of us is on edge waiting for news of the next horrific tragedy at the hands of failed technology or perhaps worse, tragedy caused by the misuse of a powerfully destructive one.

Even though the sinking of the Titanic heralded in an age of fear and uncertainty, the accident was not due to failing technology. It could have been avoided by taking common sense precautions given the known danger of icebergs that night. Why were those precautions ignored? Perhaps the allure of the supposed infallibility of the ship led the captain and others to fall asleep, to be lulled into the illusion that all would be well no matter what. Captain Smith, the commander of the Titanic, had this to say about the potential for disaster: "I cannot imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that."

Captain Smith was not unfounded in his sense of the reliability of technology. The track record of many things from automobiles to airplanes is remarkably good. But the captain seemed to discount the one wildcard that well-built machines cannot control: the state of awareness and decisions made by people controlling these machines. (Almost predictably, another ship captain made some poor decisions in the capsizing of the luxury cruise ship, the Costa Concordia, off the coast of Italy early this year.)

The anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic is a good time to be reminded of the only place we can turn to manage the uncertainty and existential storms swirling around us and thereby make better informed decisions; through turning within. By being conscious of the limits of technology and ourselves and staying awake to what is around us, we have a better chance of avoiding the hulking icebergs patiently waiting to sink the precious ships of our lives.

It is all too easy to use technology as a distraction or a crutch, as a way to zone out and avoid dealing with difficulties and making tough decisions. But the costs of this kind of slumber are high. As my wife noted while we discussed the 100-year anniversary, "You can make a Titanic mess of your life if you don't pay attention."

The wonders of technology do not give us a pass on being present in this moment and to use as much wisdom as we can muster to move forward in life by doing as little harm as possible.

Making mistakes is part of life and part of learning. There is no way to avoid it. But deluding ourselves into thinking we can sidestep mistakes by depending on false "idols" is a sure road to heartache and pain. May the 100-year anniversary of the Titanic disaster be a wake-up call for us to pay attention as best as we can and not be lulled to sleep through the many seductive illusions that life in the 21st century offers.

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