Titanic’s century-old metaphor misses the point

By Edward Hadas
April 12, 2012

By Edward Hadas

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Life is like boarding a boat that sets sail and sinks. That Zen-like wisdom came to life, and death, for the roughly 1,500 people who drowned a century ago when the RMS Titanic sank on its maiden voyage. As it says in the Bible, “Even the wise die; the fool and the stupid alike must perish and leave their wealth to others.” There’s nothing like a disaster on a luxury liner to bring the lesson home.

But many people, from then to now, have decided the real lesson of the disaster that met the largest and most elegant ship then afloat – and on its first Atlantic crossing – was more topical than eternal. The technological hubris of a vessel designed to be virtually unsinkable was supposedly punished by nature’s nemesis, in the form of an iceberg.

The arrogance of humans about the world in which they live may yet doom the race, but the experience of the Titanic teaches the opposite lesson. After it sank, the civilisation that built the ship did not revert to magic or decide to simplify. It went full steam ahead with its reliance on technology and bureaucracy. Enquiries were held, leading to changes in practices and equipment. The changes worked. Sea passage, like land and air travel, is safer now than then.

Really, though, an iceberg was hardly likely to disrupt a worldview that had been becoming more firmly entrenched for over a century. A more plausible threat to that view came a few years later: the most destructive war in history, in the most advanced countries. That was followed by the advent of some of the most oppressive governments ever seen and then another, even more destructive war. But the death of more than 100 million people in those two epic conflicts hardly slowed the increase in the sway of technology and bureaucracy.

These modern forces have done and do much good, leading to richer, longer and, yes, safer lives for almost everyone. But technology cannot eliminate human error, neutralise nature’s destructive power or guarantee everlasting peace. More Titanic moments are almost inevitable. They should be taken for what they’re really worth.

Comments

So, what you are saying is that the arrogant human race has really learned nothing from its disasters. Instead, they blithely continue on in exactly the same pattern until the next disaster.

You are right that “the arrogance of humans about the world in which they live may yet doom the race”, but wrong that “the experience of the Titanic teaches the opposite lesson”.

All the human efforts you mention are simply variations on a theme of human folly that we are somehow better than all the forces of nature.

Posted by PseudoTurtle | Report as abusive
 

The Titanic was an omen marking the imminent end of the “Old European Order”, the Gilded Age, the fall of the crowned heads of Europe controlling vast global empires; an omen that indicated how it would end (in a sudden, unexpected collision that caused a chain-reaction catastrophe first called “The Great War” or “The War to End All Wars”, later “World War I” ).

Another omen: the sudden inferno that utterly destroyed the swastika-bedecked LZ 129 “Hindenburg”. It presaged the Hitlerian catastrophe about to engulf and consume Europe, especially the European Jews.

Which begs the question: what omen will suddenly announce itself, hinting at our fate … .

Posted by hogsmile | Report as abusive
 

Isn’t the Titanic a bundle of metaphors actually?

But the one that probably scandalized most and is still a central part of the movies appeal – to me at least – was the glaring light it shined on class distinctions and the privileges class could buy.

World War I meant the end of the “Gilded Age” and drove the last nails into the casket of aristocracy. The people who’s passage actually made the profits for the White Star line were the lower cost passengers. The Ist class passengers demanded so many comforts and services, the line apparently only broke even with their fares. That was the case with most of the major shipping lines. You have to remember that the major communist theoreticians and other writers like Veblen were not greatly impressed with the high consumption, high spending ways of the new industrial aristocrats. The future communist leaders must have heard the news of the sinking too.

I read years ago that the ancient Roman’s knew about the potential of steam power but really didn’t have the social need for mechanization. Hero’s Heliopile and a set of doors that could be steam operated in a Greek temple were as far as it got. Their greatest achievement was to civilize the human animal. They had enough difficulty insuring that the inhabitants of the Empire were able to live productive lives using their own labor and they never tried to invent labor saving devices. The population was so large that cheap human labor could be employed whether it was slave or free. They had economic instincts but no real study of it as I understand it. Aristotle discussed money but I haven’t read the book.

In the past, technology seems to have been something that made slow inroads into human activity. Building techniques did not change greatly from roman practice until the start of the 19th century and the introduction of iron as a structural material. It wasn’t even 50 years later that technological progress started to face resentment from craftsman, laborers and others who were being displaced or made obsolete by technological improvements. And I really can’t say that technology improved the beauty, comfort or convenience of cities at first. It wasn’t until later that land use laws, taxation policy, and health standards could be improved in the cities that big business/big technology were creating, that really made them more healthy and habitable. The owners of technological sophistication tended to treat the world like the ships they were building. The greatest sophistication and even aesthetic care was given to their own quarters and class ranked the rest of the population in quarters of diminishing splendor. Workers housing was steerage grade for the most part. 19th century business made class distinctions far more obvious.

The NAZIs made an obscenity of technological sophistication with the invention of the automated guillotine and the death factories at the concentration camps. The US has employed weapons like napalm and daisy cutters to make war more efficient too. Technology seems to cut two ways always.

I have no real fear of technology that isn’t trying to intimidate me or dominate me and enslave me to bills. I never made a vow never to use it but I never buy technological devices until I think I can use them well or get a lot out of them. But technological innovation seems to be calling the shots for everyone now and has taken on the characteristics of the fashion industry. People can be utter ditzes and begin to think that, because someone doesn’t own the latest gadget they couldn’t possible matter as a thinking human being.

Human beings are inconvenient and expensive to hire and train so the tendency is for employers the buy “slave” machines instead. But enough employers are doing that world wide that the machines won’t have to be smarter than humans, just cheaper over all, for them to do real damage to human beings. Human beings will only look more inconvenient and disposable, just like machines.

I live with mixed technology. I heat with a wood stove. I used to heat with a built in gas space heater but it used too much electricity and was loud. I obviously have a computer. I used to have a TV but that is now out of service expect to play old VHS tapes I don’t want to throw away. I use electric power tools frequently. I have modern but old kitchen appliances that work very well even though the frig is about 25 years old and the stove over 40. All I’ve had to do is keep them clean. I once repainted the sides and I replace a burner coil that spontaneously burned out a year ago. Why should I ever need a new one? The stove could last decades longer. Is it a crime against consumption if I keep it as long as possible?

But what I truly hate about the modern way we do things in this country is the fact that large scale marketing, large scale merchandisers and producers, and sometimes even the law are creating an American life that is becoming standardized, ubiquitous and lethal to anything that isn’t as large in scale and reach. It is creating a nation of passive consumers. The only innovations that seem to matter are those that further the aims of the mega producers. It tends to discourage do it yourselfing unless it can sell you all the tools and materials you need. Towns and Cities prefer turnkey occupation rather than a slower and less costly owner built, over time approach. But if the country were not so mortgage dependent, it’s GDP would shrink gigantically.

I almost fear it could become a requirement in future world: unless you have proved your “consumer creds” you will not be permitted to join the ranks of the employed.
This society requires the purchase of many expensive consumer goods just to stay current that it may be here.
It’s almost getting consumption ahead of production. If you are heavily indebted it is actually a case of having to “eat” so much more than you can actually get back just so you can eat another day.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive
 

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