Can technology make the world a safer place?

There’s something paradoxical about having conversations with strangers. It’s short lived and transactional but its impact can last for a lifetime. One of those rare human encounters where we don’t care being judged for speaking our heart.

Last week, I took a taxi from Aberdeen airport heading home – a memorable ride.

I got inside the car and asked Suzanne (name anonymised) about her day. Suzanne told me how much she enjoys airport runs and how she used to hate driving in the city dealing with drunkard men. ‘Horrible, absolutely horrible’, she said. ‘I don’t understand how good people can turn so horrible after drinking alcohol. What does alcohol do to these men?’

She talked about her time as a city driver and how often men would abuse her and touch her inappropriately in an experience that lasted only for a few weeks. One drunk person, she said, ‘licked my cheeks as I was driving’ when she decided no more city driving. I asked her why she didn’t report the problem. She turned back (on a motorway cruising at 70 miles), looked into my eyes and said, ‘Who would listen? It’s a man’s world.’ And then she smiled and said, ‘I would never ever go back to city driving. Airports are so much safer and more enjoyable.’

One wonders, is this the ‘developed world’ which prides itself as a ‘civilised society’ because it has found answers to taming human behaviour through ‘science and technology’? More data and a quest for weak signals, we are told, will improve our lives.

Our data hungry society believes that once we report an incident, we will make the world a safer place. ‘See it, sort it, report it’ – a familiar slogan that most Londoners breath each day.

Imagine how it must feel to read that flawless safety performance report after being licked, groped, molested, abused, or harassed.

Where and how do we draw the boundaries between work as imagined and reality as experienced? How do you mind the gap? What frameworks do you deploy?

Next, Suzanne says (and without asking any more questions), ‘you know women are worse. They get drunk and then they go absolutely wild. Some will hit you, and others will strangle you with the seatbelt. This is the reason we drivers are exempted from wearing seatbelts, so we don’t get strangled by the passengers.’

How interesting that we are kept busy shopping for fail-safe systems in a world where the boundaries between ‘lifesaving’ and ‘life-threatening’ technologies are foremost a matter of morality and ethics.

The problem-solver inside me could not resist asking Suzanne, ‘how about installing a barrier that would separate you from those passengers?’

I could see Suzanne’s smile through the mirror as if I came from another planet.

I’m not a Luddite opposing technological progress but is it realistic to expect technology to solve problems of ethical and political nature?

What would you say to Suzanne?

I don’t know.

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