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Brutal reminders that technology will always fail - eventually

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Did you see the papers last weekend? The front page of Saturday's Times featured a picture of several cars trapped on the snowbound M11 in Cambridgeshire. Inside, on the first page of the 'Weekend' section, was a photograph dating from 1911 that showed three members of Captain Scott's last expedition inside a hut in the Antarctic.

On Sunday the papers was filled with the disaster that befell the Space Shuttle Columbia.

What with 19-hour car journeys, demands that the Antarctic huts of the great polar explorers be restored, and the shocking deaths of seven astronauts some miles above Texas, it was not a good weekend for technology stocks.

But then bad weekends for technology, like wet winters, seem to have become more frequent since we started to believe in global warming. Take the twin towers of the World Trade Center, for example. Whatever their alleged design deficiencies, they led a blameless life for a quarter of a century before succumbing to a terrorist attack. The same thing with Concorde. It, too, got along fine for 25 years before the Paris crash.

And, again, with the space shuttle fleet - after the Challenger tragedy it flew on without a serious problem for 17 years before last weekend. Even those notorious rattletraps, Russian nuclear submarines, held together with string and sealing wax, still seemed to be able to clock up the miles until the Kursk blew up. Now the rest are parked in Archangel, possibly forever.

The same pattern can be seen in the case of the great stock market crashes. Until they happen they seem inconceivable; as soon as they have happened, nothing could have been more obvious or more likely.

Thinking this way, you can construct chains of events that link the relatively trivial with the truly catastrophic. For instance, one might run from the chattering teeth of the company car driver stuck all night in an immense line of traffic, to the fate of the 14 occupants of the two destroyed NASA shuttles, to the hundred tourists who died in the Paris Concorde crash, to the crews and passengers of the Comet jetliners that exploded in mid air in the 1950s, to the crew and passengers of the airship Hindenburg, to the Great Crash of 1929, to the death toll on board the Titanic, and so on.

But what we are doing when we enumerate disasters such as these is trying to deal with the disconcerting thought that all technology eventually turns against itself, like an ungrateful pet turning on its owner.

We may think why could Columbia not have had a bit of the luck so copiously ladled out, to Apollo 13? Because Apollo's time is passed, is the answer.

Technology, it becomes clear to us at times like last weekend, is not impressed by penny-pinching ideas such as running the shuttle fleet for another 25 years.

Nor is it grateful for the massive investment drawn into projects such as the £5 billion International Space Station.

Technology consists of transitional ideas and intermediate solutions. It makes transitional objects that cannot be kept or exhibited, but must be continually improved or made extinct and replaced.Once a design achieves iconic status it is doomed because it ceases to evolve. We could see this last weekend in the snowbound motorists standing in for electronic simulations of themselves, or in the defensive talk about the superannuated NASA shuttles that will never fly again. But, most blatantly of all, in the plan to renovate and preserve the Antarctic huts of long dead explorers, and in doing so to prolong the illusion that the past is not irretrievably dead but still with us and available from the gift shop.

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