This morning at work, around 10:30AM, there was a false alarm in our office that appears to have been limited to the third floor of the building, where I happen to work. Most of my fellow members of the finance department exited the building on the off chance that it signified a real concern, while I remained at my desk along with most of the other people on the floor, who appear as best as possible to have ignored the varied and intermittent alarms that rang out several times for a short duration, like an uncertain trumpet, and then fell silent once again. On the surface, such an event seems like nothing at all, but it does present a case study for how such situations, those little annoyances and chance events of life, can be suitable to be studied in many layers and to provide insight far beyond their immediate apparent lack of significance. And this I seek to do today.
First, let us look at the context of the situation. As it happens, there are at least two contextual reasons why someone might have accidentally hit upon the alarms in the incompetent way that it happened this morning. For one, it happens that yesterday morning we had received a confidential message (that, alas, I cannot quote in full) that stated we are to have an upcoming fire alarm at our business next week at a time before that which I will be arriving at work. For another, the elevator closest to my cubicle has been disabled for several days (forcing me to schlep my books up and down the stairs in the meantime), and I judged it highly probable that either one or both of these factors was responsible for today’s false alarm. Either someone was trying to get a bit of practice ahead of the upcoming test or someone was attempting to work with the circuitry of the elevator and in either case the person messing with the circuit panel had no idea what they were doing. This may be a somewhat cynical judgment, but in my experience the cynical response to assume that one is not dealing with competent people is generally the accurate response, although one has to at least grant the possibility that this will not be the case. It so happens that my cynical judgment that someone was preparing for the upcoming fire alarm and accidentally set it off because they did not know what they were doing was validated by an e-mail that came after the fact.
It is worthwhile to note that there was a stark difference response between the finance department, where almost everyone decamped from the building on the very slim possibility that there could be an actual threat of fire limited to the third floor of the building and the lack of response from everyone else who also works on this floor. It would appear that people involved in finance, where the accurate accounting of money and the generally conservative behavior of people and the high value we have of our own life and safety, act differently from those for whom an unscheduled break of several minutes at an inconvenient time can threaten the sales that one is attempting to close as an agent. It is highly possible that there is a different risk profile between someone involved in finance and someone who is a sales agent that would make the finance employee more risk adverse or more timid than someone in sales, who tend to be encouraged to be more aggressive anyway. Someone with an interest in evolutionary psychology would be predisposed to ponder about the survival benefits of being timid and risk adverse as opposed to taking the much better odds that one was dealing with a situation that was not dangerous at all. While one may be right the vast majority of times if one ignores unlikely alarms, one only has to be wrong once to be in grave peril from a genuine threat.
If we are inclined to relate disasters to children’s literature, we might call this the chicken little problem, or a return of the boy who cried wolf. The proliferation of false alarms reduces the credibility of real ones. For a variety of reasons, our age is no stranger to false alarms. We live in a world where news cycles are devoted to apparent crises and where everything seems to come with an apocalyptic threat. Fearmongers continually bemoan the threat of catastrophic climate change, and the vast majority of people learn to tune them out. Our cell phones and highway signs are filled with Amber alerts that point to a fear about vulnerable children, and we are on the lookout for those whose habits and patterns are suspicious. Our political world, in countries and supranational institutions around the world is full of paranoid fears of the behavior of others that may threaten our safety and well-being, and other people are just as paranoid about us and our intentions. The fear of outrage campaigns or lawsuits tends to encourage people to walk on eggshells, where any misstep is viewed as a threat that must be dealt with, to the corresponding decline of our ability simply to get along with others. On top of all this, we live in a world full of false prophets who love to prognosticate doom and gloom for society at large or for institutions and political parties if they do not undertake some action that the false prophet supports. The fact that we continue to muddle along while living in an atmosphere of continual crisis and discontent tends to make us permanently on edge but at the same time wary of the tendency for so many alarms to be false. And that combination of anxiety and cynicism is by no means a positive development, even if it it is a suite of qualities I happen to possess in my own approach to the world and its problems.
What are the solutions to such a state of affairs? We would all be better off if instead of seeking certainty in pronouncing alarms that we remain humble about the timing and extent of matters. We ought to be made aware if we are heading into danger or if there are potential threats, but we need to know that we are dealing with questions of probability and timing so that we are not continually whipped up into a state of panic about something where the panic is itself the most troublesome result, and where our frayed nerves lead us to be less gracious and generous with those we happen to be around. We would also be better if people were more competent and less prone to make false alarms. This is as true whether we are dealing with religious people who look at the state of our society relative to Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, or people who are messing with the electrical systems of the building where I happen to work. People who are competent at what they are doing cause fewer false alarms, and that is for the better for all of us. In addition, we can all be aware of our own tendencies and the extent to which our response to alarms can be lessened with time, to our own potential detriment when we are not dealing with yet another false alarm, but instead the real thing.