Is there any greater emblem of the limits of technology than the weather forecast? Despite an astronomical increase in available resources – both theoretical and computational – the forecast is still frequently mistaken about what is about to happen. Indeed, internet weather allows you to see how swiftly predictions are supplanted by new attempts in the endless and thankless task of meteorological prognostication.
But when it comes to the cybervirtue of weather forecasts, the question isn't whether predictions are right or wrong, but whether our technological methods for anticipating rain and storm encourage any good qualities in us. I suppose it might be claimed that the daily forecast encourages prudence; we check to see if our plans might be scuppered by inclement weather, for instance – I am caught out by cold snaps far less often now that it is my daily ritual to load the Met Office app before getting dressed. I certainly feel that as a weather forecast cyborg I am better prepared.
There is a flipside to this, though: the eroding of our skills in reading the weather. When you do not have the cyberforecast to rely on, you develop powers of observation and intuition based upon what you see in the sky and feel on the wind. Although I know no rigorous research into this, anecdotal evidence abounds of people who developed uncanny skill at reading the skies and the seasons, particularly in contexts where the idea of checking a forecast is entirely alien.
Even if this were to prove illusory, there is another sense in which our weather skills are being weakened. In the 1970s and 1980s when I was growing up, newspapers and TV news shows presented forecasts in a code of symbols that allowed you to understand what was happening with the intersecting warm and cold fronts. It required more skill to read these synoptic forecasts than the icons and numbers we encounter now – but that greater proficiency also meant a deeper understanding of the weather patterns. You could tell, for instance, that it was a question of when and not if it would rain when the conditions were such. In this regard, I can level an accusation not at the meteorologists, who have continued to refine their craft, but the remorseless tendency to dumb down our cultural communications such that no-one need ever think again.
The moment technology giants realised that greater reach came hand in hand with less challenging information, we turned a corner in how we shared our knowledge of the world. Shared practices, skills of understanding, became less important than reaching down to the lowest common denominator. The meteorological consequences of this are a loss of skill at reading the atmospheric conditions. The wider impact of this increased dependence and reduced competence is something we shall have to weather together.
A Hundred Cyborgs, #47