Air travel – computer says No

The aviation standstill was not caused by facts, but by a computer simulation. Increasingly powerful computers now take decisions off our hands. Not only in the air, but in everyday life, too. So we need an overseer to control computer decisions, urges the FAZ.

Published on 19 April 2010 at 13:58
Have a lovely weekend. Departures board posts flight cancellations at Charles de Gaulle airport, Paris, 17 April 2010.

Klaus Walther, Lufthansa’s corporate spokesman, believes in technology. So when he looks up at the empty sky over Europe and bemoans the want of intuition and common sense that grounded the planes, ears perk up. Walther just wants to fly. And yet his protest against the flight ban is a milestone in the nascent criticism of digital-age technology, a chapter in the history of modern society’s systematic handing-over of power to computer models. Needless to say, the airlines have their own interests at heart. But Walther has never been known to put profit before safety. And those unwilling to board a plane at the moment ought to get this straight: the invisible cloud completely paralysing air traffic is not composed of ash and dust, but of numbers crunched in a computer. The chain reaction unleashed by a volcanic eruption today might be triggered by plenty of different eruptions tomorrow: geological, economic, social, you name it.

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Nature versus modernity

“In line with the tradition of giving names like Niño ou Katrina to the tornados and cyclones that regularly ravage the Caribbean, the cloud of Icelandic ash should be called Hubris,” writes Jean d’Ormesson in Le Figaro. “It is hard to think of a better name for a natural phenomenon that has the capacity to disrupt the air transport network — one of the major technological achievements of the modern world — than the ancient Greek term for a lack of humility before the gods.” For the French writer, “the Hubris cloud is a stark reminder of a reality we would prefer to ignore: that nature is a violent force with the potential to put paid to any notion of the human race as master and the owner of the planet. For those who imagine that nature has been tamed and harnessed, it is an ironic and relatively gentle reminder not just of a weakness in our defences, but of a breach that reaches to the very heart of the empire of human ambitions.”

“We should acknowledge that this hellish scourge has not erupted without reason, but has been prompted by forces beyond our control,” points out Romanian writer Adrian Păunescu in Jurnalul naţional. “There is no safe haven from the disquiet and unease of the Earth which can strike everywhere — from Haiti to China, and also in Greece. We now have to contend with the increasingly unnerving notion that we have little knowledge of our true situation which, in the face of global dangers, can only be addressed on a planetary decision level (…). Such is the arrogance of an unreasoned pride in human achievements, which never expected the sudden obsolescence of capitalism, socialism, futurism… and everything else.”

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