Why do we not make the most of technology? Part 2

This morning I went out for my long run of the week. I had a hiatus in my running at the beginning of the year due to, well, probably old age, but injury sounds more athletic. So, I have been gradually increasing the distance I actually run around my regular loop. I probably could have managed to run two-thirds of the way around without stopping this week, but I made my usual stop at the lake to watch the grebes. At this time of year, they are starting to perform their mating rituals, so I will have to make a special trip with my camera and try to get some good pictures. I have taken lots of pictures over the past few years, but only a small proportion have grebes in them; just as I am about to press the shutter, the little birds dive! If anyone wants any pictures that show how waves interact as they propagate let me know. I have lots stored in a directory called ‘grebes’.

My second period of walking came when I entered a quieter part of the woodland. I know it is not quite a spot of outstanding natural beauty but, once the blood had stopped pumping in my ears and my breathing had returned to a quieter cadence, I could experience the peace and quiet, the environment and the birdsong. Suitably refreshed in body and spirit, I ran the final stretch with a bit more effort than I might otherwise have done.

I made my foray into the natural world supported by technology. I have clothing designed to wick away moisture, keeping me warm even when I stop to look at the grebes. My shoes have the latest cushioning and grip, and even the bright blue colour is likely to be the result of some innovation in dye technology. Then there is the information technology. My watch has GPS and a heart rate monitor and, if I wasn’t writing this article, I could be analysing my stats, average and maximum heart rate and speed, and comparing them to previous weeks’ data to see if I am actually making progress. This is where technology, instead of just helping us in our activities, can begin to insidiously modify our activities and behaviour. If I were built of stronger stuff, the fact I was measuring the various parameters of my run could have caused me to push on instead of stopping at the lake or in the woods. I would have had the satisfaction of improvement, but I would have missed out on the pleasure and the sense of well-being that the grebes and the woodland provided. Technology has not yet worked out how these latter two aspects can be measured, despite the fact that they may have more of an impact on my health than speed or heart rate.

Two books, recently published and reviewed in the newspapers, have highlighted the negative impact that technology can have on us. Nicholas Carr, author of The Glass Cage: Where Automation is Taking Us, tells us that in America, where medical records are computerised so that better care can be delivered to patients, doctors cut and paste chunks of unaltered text from medical textbooks into their reports. Hence, one patient with a particular condition is likely to have the same notes as another person with the same condition. Individuality, which was there when the notes were written by hand, has now been lost. Could this happen with NDT reports?

In the second book, I am finally vindicated. Author and neuroscientist Daniel J Levitin confirms what I have often thought and have often been berated by my children for not being able to do: we cannot multi-task. Instead of doing two or more things at once, we just rapidly switch attention from one task to the next. This has two effects on us. It raises the level of the stress hormone cortisol and it raises the level of dopamine. Most people are aware of the deleterious effects of the former, whilst the latter provides a reward for losing focus and for constantly seeking the next external stimulation. When you are next in a meeting and the people around you are busy playing with their Blackberries and smartphones, they are not being efficient: they are slaves to a neurochemical. The book provides more examples of how multitasking due to technology has a negative effect.

It is not hard to see how technology could negatively impact on the application of NDT. Even the technology incorporated into modern NDT instruments and systems can encourage laziness and give us a false sense of security. A paper by Bertovic et al, given at the World Conference on NDT in Durban in 2012, describes what is referred to as automation bias, ie the operator places uncritical reliance on the performance of software designed to assist in the inspection task.

Technology, in itself, is neutral: it is the application that is either good or bad. We all need to be aware of the negative impact that technology can have on our own behaviours and, when technology is deployed in the workplace, it is important to have proper training in its strengths and weaknesses and how best to use it to achieve the desired outcome.

Please note that the views expressed in this column are the author’s own personal ramblings for the purpose of encouraging discussion within the NDT Newspaper. They do not represent the views of Amec Foster Wheeler or the HSE who funded the PANI projects.

Letters can be mailed to The Editor, NDT News, Newton Building, St George’s Avenue, Northampton NN2 6JB. Fax: 01604 89 3861; Email: ndtnews@bindt.org or email Bernard McGrath direct at bernard.mcgrath@amec.com

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