Complex times

The story is told in our family that when my grandmother, Epifania, first boarded a bus for Manila to consult a doctor for her throat ailment, she took off her slippers and left them on the ground as she stepped onto the bus. It is probably not true, but it made sense. This was what old folks used to do in the provinces when they ascended the stairs of any house. I don’t think my grandmother, who rarely left her home in Pampanga to go anywhere, had previously seen the inside of a bus.

In contrast, my grandson, Xavier, who is barely three, rides a public bus to school every single day, and has taken more than 30 flights in his brief lifetime. Though he lives abroad, he is not unlike other children of his generation who travel a lot with their parents for any number of reasons.

Indeed, apart from the fact that more and more people are going to distant places nowadays—by land, by sea, or by air—they also begin to travel at a very young age. My two granddaughters, Julia and Jacinta, were in pre-school when they took their first international flight, whereas I was already in my 20s and a graduate student when I first traveled abroad in the late ’60s. My late father, who was a lawyer, had never been to another country. These days, it is easier to imagine a young woman barely out of high school leaving her remote village in Mindanao to work in Abu Dhabi than for her to settle down in Manila or Davao City.

What all this suggests is that the transportation of people is going to be one of the most complex systems in the modern world. Complexity exists when the number of elements at play in a given state of affairs is so great that any effective monitoring of the interplay of these elements is necessarily selective. The selectiveness takes the form of models that focus on some relationships, while staying provisionally blind to others.

Nothing perhaps illustrates this fundamental change in the way we live than the closing image of 2014—an AirAsia passenger plane (Flight QZ8501) abruptly vanishing from the radar and losing contact barely an hour after taking off from Surabaya in Indonesia for what was supposed to be a short hop to neighboring Singapore. Its disappearance instantly brought back surreal memories of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370, which vanished into thin air with 239 people aboard on March 8, 2014, and has not been found. How is it possible for such a huge plane equipped with the latest communication system and transponders to go missing and leave no trace, whereas a stolen or misplaced mobile phone can easily be located by a simple app?

There is no easy answer. A whole telecommunications infrastructure can pick up the emissions of a missing smart phone, but it seems there is no corresponding system in place for aircraft. I used to imagine that now that airlines offer Internet service in their flights, their pilots should be able to maintain uninterrupted contact with their ground staff. But, apparently, that is not the case.

A New York Times report explains it thus: “Airlines use satellites to provide Internet connections for passengers, yet they still do not stream data in real time about a plane’s location and condition.” Why not? “Most airline executives say there is no need for planes to constantly transmit their locations and that, with tens of thousands of planes in the air each day, such a deluge of data could cost billions of dollars. In addition to being tracked by land-based radar, most jetliners also have transponders, radios and text data-links that periodically send the plane’s coordinates and information about engine performance.”

The AirAsia jet went missing soon after the pilots requested permission to change routes and altitude to avoid turbulence caused by stormy weather. Were the pilots warned about the weather condition in the areas they were traversing? The probability is that they were but, given that the flight was not canceled, the risks involved must have been underestimated. Or, maybe the pilots made an error, though that is quite unlikely.

Aviation technology has significantly reduced accidents due to pilot error by introducing systems that allow the new planes to automatically adjust to changing flight conditions. The latest avionics that come with the new aircraft basically confine aviators to the function of monitoring the instrumentation panel. In a manner of speaking, the aircraft flies itself. For the most part, this is a great advance in systems. But this technology can also produce a disability—as someone said, pilots are less inclined to look at the sky outside to check the weather when they know that the instrumentation panel can give them accurate readings.

The term that is used is “fly-by-wire”—a system that relies on an electronic interface to control a flight and does away with the manual controls. As a Wikipedia entry describes it, this system “allows automatic signals sent by the aircraft’s computers to perform functions without the pilot’s input, as in systems that automatically help stabilize the aircraft.”

As a motorcycle enthusiast, I welcomed the day this cutting-edge technology found its way into the two-wheelers I ride. My first big bike was a 2001 Ducati Monster S4 that, except for its speed and handling, was not very different from the small motorbikes I rode as a young student. But the new bikes in the market are now equipped with a “ride-by-wire” system that stabilizes the machine under varied riding conditions with minimal inputs from the rider. These are complex machines and they are safer to ride, but, for some reason, I have never been comfortable about leaving everything to technology.

Happy New Year!

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