How do situations get away from the people who are supposed to be responsible for them? The New York Times reported that the mayor of North Ogden, Utah, had been killed by an insider attack in Afghanistan, where he was serving with the Utah National Guard. Between “insider attack” and “Utah National Guard” there are at least two different stories of pure, catastrophic failure—failure that has been treated a background fact of life, for which no one really is to blame, for years and years now.
Other forms of complacency can still manage to be shocking. The Boston Globe had an almost unendurable story by a writer reconstructing how his wife died of an asthma attack outside the locked doors of her local hospital emergency room—left alone and unaided there by a combination of understaffing, bad design, failed procedure, and defective technology.
The outcome defied belief, but each piece of indifference or misplaced confidence that led to it was bleakly plausible, none more so than the typical, idiotic faith in technology. Locked out of the hospital and struggling to breathe, the woman called 911 and told the operator where she was and what was happening: “I’m just at the door. I feel like I’m dying.” Her words, uttered with her last breaths, were lost in the shuffle among operators and responders, who went chasing instead after the location ping from her phone. The location signal to 911 is known to be unreliable data—much less accurate than the location signals used for commercial purposes—but still, after all, it was data. And data is what we answer to.