Author Archives: Charlotte Linde

Charlotte Linde is an anthropologist and linguist at NASA Ames Research Center. Her informal title is Socio-RocketScientist: probably the only one in the world. She is the author of two books on narrative and memory: "Life Stories: The Creation of Coherence" and "Working the Past: Narrative and Institutional Memory," both Oxford University Press.

Is the Captain Crazy? Am I In Charge?

Probably everyone reading this has had the experience of receiving a command or an instruction from a legitimate authority that elicits the response: “Are they out of their minds?” If it is a bureaucratic authority, like the IRS, reflection suggests that there is no “they” to have a mind that they could be out of. This kind of authority is the result of a code of rules that is not monitored for consistency, and there may be no one who is charged with determining whether the application of a particular rule makes sense. This is the authority of the faceless “They”. But there is the even more frightening situation in which one’s manager issues an order which makes no sense, or which appears to be operating in a different universe. (As a linguist, I note the existence of a lexical item for one particular style of managerial insanity: the “bring (more...)

Why Should I Obey a Machine?

ÜBERLINGEN MID-AIR COLLISION 2002 It is evening, in the sky over southern Germany. Two commercial aircraft are flying on a collision course: a Russian charter flight from Moscow to Barcelona, and a DHL cargo flight from Bergamo to Brussels. Their courses should be corrected by an air traffic controller in Zurich, but he is doing the job of two controllers, at two different work stations, as his equipment is degraded by ongoing maintenance work. Both planes are equipped with TCAS, an automated warning system that is the last line of defense if air traffic control fails to separate planes soon enough. Less than a minute before the crash, the air traffic controller notices the collision course, and gives the Russian crew a command to descend. Seven seconds later, the automated warning system orders the Russian crew to climb, while ordering the DHL crew to descend. The Russian crew begins to (more...)