Unintended consequences of technology

Just a few observations and an announcement.

The observations concern things that have or may change our lives. The first I’ll mention is in the field of communications.

I remember watching the first episode of “Star Trek” (yes, I’m that old) and seeing Kirk and Spock using small, hand-held devices that allowed them to call anyone just about anywhere.

I wasn’t alone in thinking that these would be great to have. No longer would we have to use the telephone in the kitchen in order to speak with someone. Instead, we could reach into our pockets, pull out our “communicators,” and we’d be talking.

Sooner than we thought possible, the technology arrived and, now, just about everyone on the planet has a mobile phone that is far more versatile and powerful than the writers of “Star Trek” ever envisioned.

Unfortunately, the writers missed considering the “Law of Unintended Consequences.” Had they done so, we’d have seen an episode wherein everyone on the bridge of the Enterprise was busily talking, texting, or playing a game while the ship collided with an oncoming asteroid.

Another thing that comes to mind is the Global Positioning System (GPS).

In 1985, I was assigned to a ship that had a prototype GPS suite onboard. We were surveying off of the West Coast using a very accurate (at that time) electronic positioning system and were tasked with helping verify the accuracy of the prototype GPS instruments.

Back then, the complete constellation of GPS satellites were not yet in orbit and, so, we often had to wait until several of the ones that were appeared above the horizon. When they did, we’d turn the system on to see where the GPS thought we were.

I clearly recall the first time we did this because the results were instantaneous and the accuracy was (for an old school navigator) mind-boggling. There wasn’t a doubt that what we were seeing was going to revolutionize navigation — both in the air and on the sea.

What we didn’t foresee was the fact that they’d end up in our cars coupled with a pleasant voice that would guide us street by street to any destination we were looking for. Neither did we see them in our phones thus allowing “others” to track us as we moved about. Unintended consequences again.

More recently, I had the opportunity to drive a Tesla (all electric) sedan. It was beyond impressive. Solid, comfortable, quiet, safe, quick and responsive. The owner took the time to explain many of the vehicle’s features and its support system that I’d not heard about.

Among them: The number of charging stations is such that you can drive across the country (at no cost) without fear of “running out of gas.” Range is over 230 miles. Updates to the car’s systems are downloaded automatically, and safety is a prime concern of the company.

Recently, there’ve been stories in the news regarding safety issues with GM vehicles and a very small number of Teslas that’ve caught fire after being involved in collisions — something, of course, that never happens with gasoline or diesel powered vehicles.

GM is currently being taken to task for not quickly addressing the problem with their vehicles. Tesla, on the other hand, is retrofitting their vehicles with a titanium underbody shield and aluminum deflector plates to help prevent the batteries from being damaged.

Admittedly, prices for the Tesla are still high, but a less expensive version is being developed. Further, battery design and vehicle range will continue to be improved and the number of on-the-road charging stations will increase.

I may be wrong, but I think that electric cars are going to become a lot more common sooner than we think.

All of the above — and many other things — help remind me that, with all of our problems (and there are many), we still seem to be moving ahead — not as well or as quickly as we should be, but still making our way.

Finally, the announcement: This is my next-to-last column. For a number of reasons, it’s time for me to step away from the keyboard and let someone else fill this space.

More next week. Until then…

Larry Simoneaux lives in Edmonds. Send comments to: larrysim@comcast.net

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