Sunday, August 9, 2009

For Safety's Sake

Once upon a time, Western society was enterprising and bold. Back in those days, when life was difficult and full of privation, ordinary men and women went across thrashing oceans and vast continents in pursuit of a better life, regardless of the risks or dangers that stood in their way. We are the beneficiaries of that indomitable spirit.

Now look what we've done with it.

The Toronto Star ran an article today wherein Christopher Hume criticized the number of potential tourist attractions in Toronto that are closed to the public due to "safety concerns" - chief among these being the observation decks in City Hall and Commerce Court East. Both have been shuttered for decades for what strike me as poor reasons.

Both the City Hall and Commerce Court observation areas apparently have open areas - I can't tell for myself, as they've both been shuttered for decades - and the people in charge are treating this as some sort of insuperable obstacle that will forever stand between the public and the fulfillment of its quest to get a better view. I can see what they mean; after all, there's no such thing as an open observation area anywhere in the world. All bridges are completely enclosed For Your Convenience, and open-air skyscraper observation decks simply don't exist anywhere in the world. Nor can they possibly be retrofitted to increase safety.

wait a minute...

To me, this is a reflection of the metastatizing safety-consciousness of Western society, a society in which ever-greater "safety" has become its own reward. No price is too high, they say, in the name of safety. Should these attitudes endure in their present form, or continue to grow stronger, I'm greatly concerned about the shape of the future. I can't think of any better way for people to have their self-determination taken away by mechanical or digital assistants than to for it to be imposed from above in the name of safety.

How far, I wonder, would we be willing to take this? Is it possible that, in the future, someone walking along a sidewalk would be considered to be practicing an unsafe habit - presuming, that is, the sidewalks hadn't already been ripped up to discourage it? "Dangerous jobs" are often the first to be replaced by robotic labor, but should robotics continue to improve, how many jobs will come to be labelled as "dangerous" - and what will that do to society?

Life will never be safe. The world will always have sharp edges. As a society, it seems like we're doing all we can to pretend that's not the case, to sing happy songs that with enough sandpaper all the points will be smoothed into happy curves.

The only honest world is one in which your safety is not guaranteed.

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