What Joy Lofthouse and Other Women Did in the 1940s

Most people will recall having one of those brief moments from time to time when an unexpected insight suddenly appears and the world changes. It happened recently when I read an obituary for Joy Lofthouse who’d passed away in the UK at age 94. Back in 1943, when she was working as a 20-year-old bank cashier, she’d responded to an advertisement in the Aeroplane magazine. The Royal Air Force (RAF) was looking for women to train for the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). Despite fierce competition her application was successful and she went on to become one of 164 female pilots during the Second World War who undertook the vital task of ferrying military planes around the UK from one air base to another. Here’s a direct quote from the piece:

Alongside workaday aircraft she also flew more spectacular machines. There were Hawker Tempest Vs, North American Mustangs and Supermarine Spitfires, all 400mph fighters. She flew a total of 18 types of aircraft – relying on a map and the view out of the cockpit for navigation – and the Spitfire was her enduring favourite. (Fountain, 2017).

All well and good you might say. But take a moment to reflect on those words in the last sentence: ‘relying on a map and a view out of the cockpit for navigation.’ Several thoughts arise: at 400mph? How did she get away with it? Would it be acceptable practice now? More significant, how many people these days would be capable of routinely performing similar feats of navigation and endurance? True, a few highly accomplished pilots might perhaps do so under ideal flying conditions. Yet it’s clear that most people would be completely out of their depth. Why?

One answer can be found in a spate of reports during mid-2017 about a significant number of hapless motorists in New South Wales who believed they were headed for a beauty spot in the Blue Mountains but found themselves in a dead end lane a long way from their intended destination. Pictures appeared in local papers of stranded motorists standing around looking lost. One of the inhabitants was moved to put up a sign saying ‘this is not the Blue Mountains’! Following this train of thought leads to many similar stories where travellers have lost their bearings and landed up in embarrassing places such as lakes and rivers. Nearly everyone who has used a GPS device for navigation will have experienced some form of cognitive dissonance when the real world and an electronic simulacrum fail to match up – which they often do. What then?

Well, a certain amount of common sense is useful. If there’s a canal or a wall ahead when the GPS says it’s a road you’d be well advised to stop. But beyond any variety of common sense there’s a larger issue concerning awareness. Obviously the latter takes many forms but in this context the issue is about spatial awareness – how one’s immediate location relates to wider spaces, structures and landforms. The broad set of skills that allow us to know and appreciate our location in space is part of our human inheritance from the earliest times. But they are fading under early 21st Century conditions because machines are now taking over many of these tasks. The point is that the rise of portable devices such as GPS navigators and mobile phones means that the skills and capacities they are replacing are declining through lack of use. How many people actually remember phone numbers these days? If this remains a strong trend then many people risk becoming pale reflections of their forebears who honed their navigation skills through constant application over millennia. Which would leave humans that much weaker and under-equipped for the rigours that most certainly lie ahead.

So it’s not surprising that people are waking up to the fact that active steps are needed to rein in technical excesses. A short article for the Age David Brooks outlines a rationale supported by what he calls the ‘three main critiques of big tech.’

  1. It is destroying the young. Social media promises an end to loneliness but actually produces an increase in solitude and an intense awareness of social exclusion. Texting and other technologies give you more control over your social interactions but also lead to thinner interactions and less real engagement with the world.
  2. It is causing this addiction on purpose, to make money. Tech companies understand what causes dopamine surges in the brain and they lace their products with “hijacking techniques” that lure us in and create “compulsion loops.”… News feeds are structured as “bottomless bowls” so that one page view leads down to another and another and so on forever.
  3. Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook are near monopolies that use their market power to invade the private lives of their users and impose unfair conditions on content creators and smaller competitors (Brooks, 2017).

So if we want to get beyond the present ‘wild IT’ or ‘anything goes’ phase we collectively need to decide on how and where to set limits. In Brooks’ view

Online is a place for human contact but not intimacy. Online is a place for information but not reflection. … Online is a place for exploration but discourages cohesion. It grabs control of your attention and scatters it across a vast range of diverting things. (Brooks, 2017)

By contrast he suggests that ‘we are happiest when we have brought our lives to a point, when we have focused attention and will on one thing, wholeheartedly with all our might.’ So rather than accept the current myth that high tech offers us ‘the best’ in life we could take it down a notch or two. Perhaps it merely provides what he calls ‘efficiency devices.’ The point is not to eliminate high tech but to reduce its current over-dominance, to decide where it fits best in the wider frame of human life and culture. Active engagement with the world involves getting offline and putting away the both the GPS and the mobile phone.

If Joy Lofthouse could do without them while flying powerful fighting machines through the English weather at all times of the year during wartime, we can certainly do so ourselves. Perhaps more motorists would then rediscover how to find the Blue Mountains by using their own in-built navigation system.

Brooks, D. (2017). How evil is tech? Age, November 29.

Fountain, N. (2017). Joy Lofthouse (Obituary). Guardian, December 3.