The two pilots who overshot Minneapolis by 150 miles, remaining out of communication with air traffic controllers for over an hour, have blamed their silent detour on being distracted by their laptops. Captain Timothy Cheney and First Officer Richard Cole have denied falling asleep, instead explaining that they were reviewing their schedules on their computers.
Whether or not Cheney and Cole were sleepy, this "lost in cyberspace" story is a wake-up call for all of us. The amazing undertow of new technology is indeed powerful enough not only to distract many of us, but to pull us completely off-course in our lives.
The same moving cursor, clicking keys and bright light emanating from Cheney and Cole's laptops can be hypnotic to millions of Americans, who are disoriented by the lure of their computers and the false comfort of navigation systems. How many traffic accidents on roads, after all, are being caused by people texting while following the voice prompts and LED arrows of their navigation systems.
Not only are we at risk to forget where we are going on the road or in the sky, but we can lose sight of who we are, what our real goals are and what our real emotions are. As Marshall McLuhan said, "The medium is the message." The technologies we are deploying in a wholesale way across the nation and across the globe will have dramatic psychological effects we can't predict.
We're already seeing people who I believe are more violent online than they would be if they weren't "projecting" themselves into cyberspace. Cyberbullies gang up mercilessly on school kids they haven't even met. Young women on YouTube broadcast themselves beating other young women.
I have evaluated more than one client in my own practice who was charged with possession of child pornography who I doubt would ever have accessed inappropriate images were he not removed from his sense of self and his core identity by the infinitely depersonalizing distance of a computer keyboard and computer screen. Think about it_ If two highly trained pilots can veer 150 miles off course because their laptops suck them into a black hole of inattentiveness, isn't it possible that computers can lure otherwise good and decent people to very indecent acts?
I believe they can.
I have also counseled couples in which either the wife or the husband engaged in racy, inappropriate behavior online (including e-mails) that I doubt would have ever occurred without the seductive draw of being relatively anonymous, nearly disembodied and technologically "over-powered" by the use of computers and the Internet.
When we consider that much of the world's military planning and actual weaponry involves the use of depersonalizing technology and computer simulations, we should begin to wonder whether unthinkable acts could be possible (especially by rogue regimes) as people drift off course in more than one way.
Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatry correspondent for FOX News Channel and a New York Times bestselling author. His book, "Living the Truth: Transform Your Life through the Power of Insight and Honesty" has launched a new self-help movement including www.livingthetruth.com. Dr. Ablow can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.