Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Reflecting on Change

During the last few weeks, a couple of incidents have occurred that have reminded me of how much the world has changed since I was the age that my children are now.

The first involved my daughter who lives in student accommodation in Brisbane. This is a multi-storied block which is equipped with automatic fire alarms sensitive to the slightest amount of smoke. On the face of it, I should be happy about this. The downside is that if the alarm is triggered, automated systems take over, and the firies arrive poste-haste armed with low-tech gear (axes) and high-tech gear (walkie-talkies) irrespective of whether there is a dangerous fire or not.

This ensures safety, but the downside is the cost of a false alarm. Would you believe $941?

Last Monday night, my daughter was cooking up a stir-fry, and the (cheap) pan she was using began to smoke. She did all the right things – opened the windows and turned on the fan – but the alarm went off and the firies came. It will take quite a while to pay off the $941 call-out fee from her Youth Allowance.

Forty years ago, I set my bed on fire. I was using a highly flammable polyester bedcover I’d brought back from Vietnam, and had carelessly left an inbuilt bedside lamp on which overheated. I walked into my bedroom to be confronted by a bed well alight. My car had a fire extinguisher, so I retrieved it and put the fire out quickly, but a neighbour had seen the smoke and called the fire brigade. They arrived, inspected the damage, and left me with a brief lecture – no invoice.

On Tuesday, I had to visit a primary school in the South-West as part of my part-time Advisory work. I arrived at the school bright and early so I could plan my classroom visits with teachers before things got too busy. As soon as I walked in through the gate, I was met by a curly-headed Preschooler who ran up to me with her hands outstretched shouting “cuddle!”

I immediately stepped out of my granddad persona into my teacher role, and extended my hand to convert the cuddle to a more socially acceptable handshake saying “You don’t cuddle people you don’t know – but it’s OK to shake hands with somebody you meet at school.” I also showed her my visitor’s badge and reminded her that if she saw someone at school she didn’t know without such a badge she should tell a teacher.

Forty years ago I would have simply returned the cuddle.

The significance in these seemingly unconnected events is clear. We live in a world where rationality and risk management reign supreme. Innocence and spontaneity are as rare as hen’s teeth, and if you make a mistake – you pay.

I’m not entirely sure that this is an improvement.

Hugh White - Without America

Hugh White is always provocative, and doesn't pull any punches when it comes to criticising current defence policy. In 1995, he was appo...