Think digital technology is a cure-all? Don’t bet your life on it

14 May 2022

Read by the author

When I was a kid, we spent a lot of time parked on the couch watching WWII movies like The Battle of Britain. It was part of the zeitgeist of the Cold War to indulge in past victories over the bad guys. This is pretty much on par with watching home movies of you as a kid doing wheelies on your bike, something best left in that box in the corner of the basement. The two main things I recall about these movies are the horrible scenes of pilots getting shot – and the air raid sirens. The eerie sound is indelibly imprinted on my brain. It always triggered a rush of adrenalin with the thought that a bomber was approaching, even though it was just a movie.

Little did I know at the time that I would wind up moving to a place where they were a fairly regular occurrence – Germany. Decades later and thousands of miles from the couch where I once sat next to my brother watching pilots knock each other out of the sky on the screen, I stood on a train platform in a small town in Germany.

And an air raid siren went off.

I didn’t exactly panic, but I can’t claim it didn’t make me a little nervous, either.  Instinctively looking up, I didn’t really expect to see anything, but years of TV training had taught me what to do. At least I didn’t run for cover.

Why in the world do they still even have these sirens – and why are they using them?

After two minutes, it went silent. I returned to my train platform reverie, gazing at the landscape until the train arrived.

There may no longer be bombers flying overhead here, but other forms of danger have taken their place. After the 9/11 attack, Germany strengthened its precautions for such emergencies. Nobody knew to what extent such terror would increase in other Western countries.

New dangers call for new technologies to warn of them. At least that’s what the thinking was. Surely digital technology could deliver a better product than the air raid siren. Along came the KATWARN smartphone app to alert people in an emergency. I felt very clever installing this on my phone, a feeling which lasted for a whole five days. During that time I was inundated with a barrage of messages about pseudo-emergencies that had nothing to do with me. Annoyed, I first muted and then deleted it. If there was a real emergency, a muted app was not going to be much help. Perhaps modern technology wasn’t up to the task after all.

Or was it? Shortly thereafter, an actual emergency presented itself. During dinner with my husband in Munich on a Friday night, I checked my phone and saw a message from a friend from work.

“Are you still in town?” she texted.

“Yes…why?” I responded. An odd question, I thought.

“There’s been a shooting at the Olympia Einkaufszentrum. Might be more…there’s a manhunt underway. Public transport is being shut down.”

Turns out my smartphone was useful after all, but not with a state-of-the-art app, just good old-fashioned, word of mouth – even if arrived in digital form.

It was July 22, 2016. A teenager had managed to get his hands on a gun – not nearly as easily done here as in the U.S. – and had shot nine people. Against the backdrop of the heightened tension of the time, the Bavarian government resorted to the strictest of measures, the likes of which I had never seen.

All trains, buses and streetcars had been taken out of service. One empty streetcar after another clattered past, several buses following in their wake. Our strategy was to walk the mile to the main train station where there might still be taxis or regional trains. The route took us past several hotels where we planned to enquire about a room, just in case.

We clashed on how to handle this situation. I was terrified of another gunman and wanted to stay put. But my husband had vivid memories of the 1970s and the leftist Baader-Meinhof gang that terrorized Germany for years. His anger and resentment at those attacks had been reignited. He remembered things like being pulled over on the Autobahn by nervous police officers, guns drawn, who were being targeted by the terrorists. People knew they had to get out of the car slowly and deliberately to avoid even the slightest hint of a threat.

“That’s what the terrorists want,” he said. “They want everyone to be scared. We have to show them that we’re not afraid by walking normally on the street.”

But I was scared. I wanted to be more cautious by staying inside. It was all I could do to force myself to walk.

Passing through Munich’s pedestrian zone, we saw that all the shops were open late, lights blazing, but the large plate glass doors were closed. Behind them, people had gathered, following the authorities’ recommendation not to go out until all was clear. They stared out into the night, watching passersby, wondering if another shooter would be among them.

These people had barricaded themselves in, away from any danger, and here we were, strolling along in a supposed war zone. I felt so vulnerable out there behaving as if nothing were wrong.

A taxi drove past; some people got out. Running to it, we practically threw ourselves onto the hood, begging for a ride home. To our great relief, he acquiesced. Apparently we, a middle-aged couple scared out of their minds, didn’t exactly look like terrorists. On the way home, we passed hundreds of people walking at the side of the road – forced to walk since all public transport was closed and all taxis (well, almost all) had been taken out of service.

In the end, it turned out that the shooting, tragic as it was, remained a solitary incident. Over 2,300 police had been deployed and even the anti-terrorist unit GSG9 had been activated.

This brings us back to the good old-fashioned siren. Not everyone has a smartphone, and even if they did, they can be muted and turned off. People also take showers and naps. And no app would help inside a restaurant where people are focused on each other and their food, not their phones. Or should be.

More modern technology is not necessarily better. The average user of Excel taps into just a few of its functions. The same goes for Word and PowerPoint, unless you’re a consultant, in which case you use as many of those nifty flying shapes into your presentation as you can to dazzle your client.

In the final scene of the final episode of the series How I Met Your Mother, Robin is living in an ultra-modern New York apartment. Ted has finally come to the realization that he loves her and rings the doorbell to tell her so. But when she tries to use voice control to make the camera at the door transmit images to the TV, nothing happens. She resorts to simply opening the window and poking her head out to see who’s there. And besides – that’s so much more romantic!

Sometimes the old-fashioned way is best.

In this same vein, Germany is now reactivating its siren warning system. A siren in the restaurant the night of the shooting would have immediately alerted everyone to the potential danger. There will soon be a federal standard of five different siren patterns to warn of everything from a nuclear attack to a fire. It was a fire alarm that I had heard that day on the train platform.

I listened to these five proposed siren patterns; I’m pretty sure I know what each one means. The long one means nuclear disaster, the one with the short bursts mean fire, I think. But what were the other three again?

Forget it. If I hear a siren, I’ll just text a friend and ask them if they know what’s going on.

Brenda Arnold

Photo credit: Painting by Herbert James Draper, Ulysses and the Sirens, public domain

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