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Tea Leaves

Typhoon highlights technology's relentless grip

Boracay calamity delivers a warning of our 'machine-learned helplessness'

Buildings on the Philippine resort island of Boracay are left in ruins on Dec. 26, the day after Typhoon Phanfone hit the area. (Photo by Dave Kendall)

In psychology, "learned helplessness" is the result of repeated exposure to aversive events, rendering people unable to control their environment even when the tools are available. The learned helplessness of technology has done something worse -- deleting core survival skills and placing the tools to deal with problems out of reach.

Our heads are in the "cloud" -- and when Typhoon Phanfone tore through the Philippines in December 2019 it blew the cloud away.

On Dec. 26, the day after what Filipinos call the "Christmas typhoon" hit the resort island of Boracay, the road from Bulabog beach to Mount Luho looked as if it had been carpet-bombed. Houses had been turned into piles of broken timber, utility poles were at crazy angles, with cables dangling across the street. There were fallen trees everywhere.

A Filipino U.S. army veteran hunting in vain for a working ATM told me he had been disabled by an explosive device in Afghanistan, but found the storm "real scary." A freelance massage therapist said her children would have been killed if a tree had fallen on her house rather than an outhouse. With the roof gone and the family sleeping under the stars, she was traumatized and frightened.

There was no electricity, phone or internet, her damaged front door could not be locked, and she was worried people would turn to crime -- with all the ATMs offline, the tourists had no access to the cash the locals depend on. She had no customers, and little money for food.

My problems paled in comparison, but still I began to feel helpless. I did not know if my hotel still existed, and I could not message or call it -- I did not even have the street address because I could not access it online. It was too dark even to work out how much cash I had left.

A mattress is laid out to dry next to downed power cables on Boracay in the wake of the typhoon. (Photo by Dave Kendall)

I was out of my comfort zone and worst-case-scenarios flickered through my mind. Fear of crime. Fear of starvation. I did not know how to hunt, grow food or build a shelter. I had no weapon and no combat training, no friends, no allies, no support network. I had become utterly dependent on technology, and nature had just pulled the plug.

This kind of "critical information infrastructure breakdown" is the eighth biggest risk to humans in terms of impact, according to the World Economic Forum's 2019 Global Risks Report, ranking ahead of man-made environmental disasters and the spread of infectious diseases. And the relentless march of technology makes us more vulnerable every day.

Increasingly, we rely on GPS and mapping software to tell us where we are, where we are going and why we are going there. Many of us no longer carry maps, and we have forgotten how to read them, if we ever knew. The "internet of things" lets us turn on our showers, adjust the temperature and play music with voice commands. But we are losing the ability to do basic arithmetic because we can always ask Alexa. When our cars become autonomous we'll forget how to drive. Is artificial intelligence regressing our brains to the level of our hominid ancestors?

In "The Terminal Self: Everyday Life in Hypermodern Times," Simon Gottschalk writes: "The fewer skills we develop to accomplish everyday functions, the more we rely on the [computer] terminal. And the more we use the terminal, the less skilled we become. It's a vicious cycle."

Workers repair a typhoon-hit building near Boracay's Bulabog Beach on Dec 26. (Photo by Dave Kendall)

In a way, Boracay was less badly hit than it might have been. In this relatively low-tech region cash transactions are still common and the blackout was not total -- the frequency of natural disasters in the Philippines means that many larger businesses have their own generators.

In the main, though, Asia is leading the world toward a cashless society completely dependent on financial technology. For now, we still carry passports and a bank cards, but their days are surely numbered. Already, you cannot get on -- or off -- many Chinese trains without passing a facial recognition scanner; the technology already exists to make all physical forms of identification obsolete.

The connected machine knows who we are, where we have been, how much money we have, everything we have bought, our behavioral patterns and our social credit ratings. And when the system goes down, we are nobodies. No identity, no money, no assets. The technological daisy chain has the fragility of a daisy.

In the aftermath of the typhoon that buffeted Boracay the conspiracy theory-driven survivalists who hoard provisions and weapons and prepare for life off the grid seem a bit less crazy. I have learned how helpless dependence on technology has made me. We do not just need to back up our data, we need to back up, period, and regain some basic life skills before the crash.

Dave Kendall is a Bangkok-based journalist, editor and producer.

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