Wednesday, September 28, 2005

How Much Information is Too Much Information?

A few years ago, I was on a flight from Denver to Washington, DC. The pilot backed the plane out of the gate and then stopped for a really long time on the tarmac. A while later, the plane started moving, but headed back to the gate. The pilot apologized to the passengers for the delay and announced that they had discovered a hydraulic fluid leak. The plane was not going anywhere until it was fixed.

I sat there at the back of the plane thinking I really did not need this information. I was perfectly fine not knowing that there was a hydraulic fluid leak. What happened to the good old "there's a mechanical problem and we're looking at it"?

The mechanics looked over the plane, we were told that the problem was fixed and the plane took off for DC. But as far as I was concerned, the flight was ruined. I had visions of the plane leaving a trail of fluid over the Rockies and, not really knowing what hydraulic fluid does for or to a plane, imagined the worst.

I'm still not sure what the pilot was trying to achieve, but that was just too much information. In this case, it was not a good thing.

Now just imagine what it must be like to be on a plane, to know that there is a problem with it - a problem big enough to require an emergency landing - to have to sit tight in your seats for two whole hours as the plane circles over an ocean dumping most of its fuel to prepare for that emergency landing, and, worst of all, to watch live coverage of your plane going through these emergency procedures on TV sets that the airline so helpfully provided on every seat on the plane.

Just too much.

I had felt miserable for those passengers on Flight 93 which crashed in Pennsylvania on 9/11. They knew they were flying to their deaths and had called their loved ones on cell phones to tell them that.

I feel equally bad for those passengers on the JetBlue flight from Burbank to New York, who, with their worst fears staring them right in their faces, recorded farewell messages to loved ones and final wishes on their mobile phones.

A case of too much technology enabling dissemination of too much information, but not making anyone's life easier.

Read the Guardian comment here, and the story here.


gawker said...

Watching your front wheels catch fire on tv while your front wheels are on fire. Can't even imagine the atmosphere inside the plane when it landed.

Sourin Rao said...

Hey Suj
I would rather have the info, ythan be told that it some generic mechanical problem. At least that way, im my mind,I can argue 'Its just the hydraulic fluid leak. Well they wont serve us beaverages on this flight' and go back to sleep.
I remember once on a flight back to India, I had 4 seats to myself on an empty flight. Getting up due to some voilent turbulance, I saw a middle aged lady in the next aisle, tearing up, with the bible in her hand, hard at prayer. She wanted me to read the bible with her, but being too sleepy to read, I passed on her. She continue to pray, while I was dozing off with seatbelt strapped and all.

Sujatha Bagal said...

Gawker, yeah...apparently a whole lot of them broke down.

Moody, that's one of my favorite lines ...ignorance is bliss.... The rest of the quote is "when it's a folly to be wise". And in my opinion, it was a folly to be wise in this situation.

Sourin, I guess it all depends on how we process the information and how much we think we know about the situation at hand. You know what hydraulic fluid leaks are, but I don't. In my mind, characterizing it as just a mechanical problem would have minimized the issue and so I don't think it would have bothered me that much. Of course, mechanical problems could be huge, but at first blush, it sounds harmless...

Anjali said...

Oh I go with the less information theory, totally. What you describe is bone chilling.
On the other hand ... is being able to call those you love before you plunge to your death good or bad?

Sujatha Bagal said...

Anjali, that's a good point. May be people feel better (those making the calls and those receiving them) that at least they had the chance to talk to their loved ones for one last time...

Sakski, but the problem is we are just given a hint - for example, hydraulic fluid leak. Just from that, it is impossible to tell how big or small the problem is unless you are a mechanical engineer. I think our reactions have to do with our mental make-up. My husband, V, for example, would react exactly like you and Sourin. He would receive the information, detailed or not detailed, but it wouldn't bother him one bit. Whereas, me on the other hand...:)