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True or False Alert by Pat Matsueda


Our guest writer of the week is Pat Matsueda!  Pat Matsueda is the managing editor of Manoa, an international literary journal published twice a year by the University of Hawaii Press. She is very interested in the effects of rapid technological advancement on human behavior–especially ethical behavior–and identity.  Feel free to visit her personal website at http://someperfectfuture.com.  Below, she talks about her experience with a FALSE missile alert that occurred in January in Hawaii.

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I’ve written elsewhere that my Samsung 330 is not the phone one would want in an emergency.  My words came back to me in a surprising—one might say Black Swan—way on the morning of January 13.


Unbeknownst to me, the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency (HEMA) had issued an alert shortly after 8 a.m. that a missile was headed to Hawaii from North Korea. It assured recipients “This is not a drill.”


No such alert had appeared on my phone.


Carrying a bag of things to recycle, I walked down the hall and waited for the elevator, intending to go to the grocery store. I got on the elevator and saw a resident with a concerned look on his face. Holding up his smartphone, he asked me if I had gotten the alert about the missile heading for Hawaii. I said no, thinking there must be a mistake—if not his, then someone else’s.


A minute later, the elevator stopped and a couple got on. Did you hear, the man asked again, and the couple said yes. Are you sure it’s true, I asked everyone. I said that I wanted to go to the grocery store, and the man told me I could live or go to the store.

In the lobby, a security guard was herding residents into an elevator headed to the basement. A woman wearing slippers and holding a carrier was trying to get her pet into the elevator car. A strange silence prevailed—the kind in which people are afraid to speak.


I walked into the building’s parking garage, carrying my bag and thinking about my fellow residents huddling in the dank, cheerless basement. I put the bag into the recycling bin and walked back to the lobby, deciding that if the alert was true, I was going to spend the last moments of my life with my loved ones.


I returned to my apartment and sat with my children on the bed. Matsu is an orange tabby I found underneath a kiosk. He was so small when I got him that I could hold him in my left hand and bathe him with my right; he is now fifteen pounds of muscle and tomcat stubbornness. Umbra is a black cat I got from the Humane Society after my other black cat, Mei-Ling, died. When I got Umbra, she was jittery and skinny as an eel, probably the victim of maltreatment. Candace is a longhair with white fur, green eyes, and a pink nose. Given to me by a custodian at my workplace, she is a beauty, a showgirl. Aside from my boyfriend, these three creatures get all the love I have to give.


As I waited for the minutes to pass, I reflected on my life, concluding that it had generally been good and that January 13 was, after all, as acceptable a day as any to die. Then I wondered what time the missile would hit. Surely that would be posted somewhere, I thought, so I got out my laptop, logged in, and searched. The first article I looked at contained these words, uttered by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard: THE MISSILE ALERT IS FALSE.


After being yanked out of peaceful, domestic oblivion into a state of hyperawareness and preparedness, I was plunked down into a reality in which the death I had just accepted as imminent was not going to happen—all this in less than half an hour.


It was hard to make sense of, but I was lucky. In part because of my phone.


It’s my belief that a smartphone erodes your powers of control and perception by co-opting you. Promising you ever more of what you want, it makes you dependent on it. To me, this is like being given a golden crutch that compromises your independence and autonomy. You fear letting it go because it is indispensable—everyone says so—and your life seems so much better with it. So much convenience, connectivity, entertainment—your life is saturated with these things and all you need do is stay on the wave of contentment and good feeling.


The smartphone co-opts you to believe that these are the conditions of a life worth having.


Until, that is, the Black Swan event happens and your phone delivers the news that your world—with you in it—is going to be destroyed. For many residents of Hawaii, the virtual reality that the smartphone channels hit this wall on January 13.


Not everyone, however, got the news.


A student worker of mine was at the beach and missed the goings-on completely. A female friend doesn’t have a cellphone and so was spared any worry or concern. My boyfriend was at his second job on the other side of the island, getting the news from contractors and being shown the alerts on their phones as they fled the worksite. My hairdresser was cutting a client’s hair and wondering, as my boyfriend had, why the civil defense sirens were not going off.


In the days that followed the false alert, the media were filled with reports, summaries, accusations, letters, demands for firings, for accountings from the governor and other state officials—and the news that the alert had not appeared on everyone’s phones. Despite all that information—and the demand for more—to this day there is no definitive account of what happened at HEMA that morning. True to Nassim Taleb’s model, the black box encasing these events remains impenetrable.


From the things I’ve said, I probably sound like a Luddite, but I’m not one. I love my computers (desktop at work, desktop at home, two laptops) and wouldn’t want to give them up. I spend a great deal of time on them, writing, reading, and creating, and if there is a techie in my office, it is probably me.


But my Samsung 330 is just a phone. I don’t want to marry it. As far as I’m concerned, we’re just dating. And I want to keep it that way.

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