Two very different conferences; three presentations; one message. Sometimes the juxtaposition of separate events creates a new meaning all of its own.
First to Melbourne, and Brain Injury Australia's annual forum, where James Cook University professor Geoffrey Dobson was offering insights into some groundbreaking research. He's married the hummingbird's capacity to hibernate with the needs of casualties after a sudden traumatic injury.
Normally, the body would pump blood to the wound, but for a casualty this results in severe blood loss and rapidly induces shock. What Dobson's done is develop a remarkable fluid which can be injected into a casualty. It increases blood pressure, but does so at a suppressed level, like a hibernating animal. It's enough to sustain life and maintain brain function, but not at a rate that risks sending blood pulsing from open arteries.
You can immediately see the military applications of this. It would be useful in any ambulance, but Tactical Combat Casualty Care (TCCC) specifically revolves around slowing the progression of trauma until the wounded soldier can be received at hospital. That's why the US military and Special Forces have been so interested in Dobson's technique and are partially funding his research. Australia? Well... not so much.
While we have more than a hundred billion for future frigates and new submarines, when the US funding stopped because of sequestration and domestic political disputes so did the Townsville research. Our military couldn't even manage to find enough to fund a medical technician to keep the program going. Why? Well, we're waiting for America.
There's an understandable assumption the US is far better resourced than our military and so the procedures it's chosen to use will be best. There's certainly no point wasting resources to duplicate work being done elsewhere. It's just a pity that we're not prepared to occasionally back our own way of doing things.
Jeremy Holder does just that. He earned the Medal for Gallantry as a combat medic, saving the lives of six casualties while under intense fire in Afghanistan. Now he's left the commandos but has continued thinking about the intense pressure of those moments and the requirement to instinctively triage and treat the wounded. That's why he developed an immersive simulation to do exactly this.
Put on the virtual reality headset and haptic gloves and you're at whichever specific scene the computer has been programmed to run. Ambient noise sends your pulse racing faster, and within seconds participants become immersed in the exercise. The simulation offers an ideal way of familiarising participants with the challenges of bringing order to chaos and regularising procedures for decision-making in a high-pressure, realistic setting. Holder's developed a way to teach, train and test front-line first-aiders with the sort of realistic exercises you can't get from books.
"I honestly believe it will save lives", he tells me at CeBIT, a computer technology fair in Sydney. "There's a real potential to increase performance, resilience and mental health, particularly for deployed troops."
Not surprisingly, there's been a lot of interest in his product, and he's already sold it to one US state. Others are, unsurprisingly, interested. It provides an immersive, realistic experience, offers the potential to be an efficient training aid, and the complexity can be dialled up or down depending on the need of the trainees.
The speed at which new products are appearing has overwhelmed our slow, bureaucratic procedures of the past. We need to accept new ways of doing things - even things that we've always believed can be done better by people - and that was the third insight, again from CeBIT.
Think of the amount of time and effort we spend on selection and recruitment procedures; then consider how ineffective these actually are. Attempts to obtain the best candidate for the job are almost invariably sabotaged by our natural tendency to favour people who look, speak or act like ourselves.
Far more resilient procedures can be developed by using IT to initially screen job candidates, but instead we still rely on "gut feel" - even though it's been proven wrong time and time again.
Technology's not, by any means, perfect, nor is it the answer to every problem. In these three simple examples, however, it offers new ways of interacting with the world. Whether it's the complex task of slowing the heart down while keeping vital functions moving, the ability to test skills in live simulations, or completing simple screening tasks efficiently and without bias, technology is offering viable solutions for complex problems. Why can't we take advantage of this and use IT at work as more than just a word-processing program?
Any decision to cite T. S. Eliot requires judgement. His views of Jewish people were abhorrent ("the rats are underneath the piles/the Jew is underneath the lot") and his refusal to publish George Orwell's Animal Farm revealed the desperate conformity that infused his life, if not his poetry ("your pigs are far more intelligent than the other animals, and therefore the best qualified to run the farm"). Nonetheless, a line from Hollow Men could have been written specifically to describe the smothering effect of organisations and convention.
"Between the idea/and the reality/falls the shadow."
We, too, will continue living in the half-light of dusk until we're ready to embrace and accept new ideas and concepts. We need to do this quickly, otherwise the world will pass us by.
- Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.