Wondering about alarmapathy

About three weeks ago my ICD alarm went off, most inconsiderately, at about 1.30 am Central Time, while I was holidaying in Texas. I’d been feeling great until then, but could not prevent a frisson of concern. Spoke to the cardiologist, agreed that we would keep a quiet watch on things; as long as I felt well, I could afford to wait and have the device checked at leisure upon my return home.

The next morning the alarm went off again. My wife noticed it happened at around the same time; again, I didn’t worry too much about it, since I continued to feel well. But I resolved to stay up on the third day, wanting to see if the alarm went off precisely at 1.28 am (as shown on the hotel room’s alarm clock). My rationale for staying up was simple. If it happened at the same time, then it couldn’t possibly be anything to do with me, my heart or the position of my body while I slept; all fingers would point at “device malfunction”.

And that’s the way it turned out. Stay up. Wait for alarm to go off at 1.28am. Observe it going off precisely on time. Breathe a sigh of relief, nothing to do with me, minor device malfunction, let’s have it looked at sometime over the next month or so.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The device was doing precisely what it was designed to do.  The alarm was real.

That fascinated me. Because I was so sure that a regular repeating alarm couldn’t possibly be a cause for concern. And so I had to find out more. What was happening and why.

Apparently what was happening was this: The device would keep checking regularly for various rates and levels and strengths of things, comparing the measurements against preset tolerances. If any tolerance level was breached then a specific alarm would be sparked off. All fine so far.

Many of the reasons for such alarms going off were not particularly time-sensitive. So, in order to “improve the customer experience”, I guess, the device is designed to let the patient know about the problem at a civilised and reasonable hour. 8.30 am in the patient’s home local time. In my case, GMT. Which is 7.30am British Summer Time. And 1.30am Texan time.

All’s well that ends well. The device did what it was designed to do. I was alerted to there being something not quite right, had it checked, and I have all the time in the world to take corrective action.

But the whole incident made me think.

We live in a world where more and more devices are being churned out; the devices are getting smaller and cleverer day by day; many of them act as decision support tools, dashboards, alarms, control panels, you name it. More and more of the devices support some sort of wireless communication, and many of them are “connected” to the web.

Everything’s becoming real-time and alert-driven and context-specific. But.


While all this is happening, we aren’t keeping up. We don’t really know what many of the alarms mean. What the tolerance levels are. What the rules are. What we should do when an alarm goes off.

I have lost count of the number of times I’ve sat in a car whose dashboard is littered with various alerts and alarms. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve seen kitchen appliances whose control panels are flashing whatever they flash. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve seen televisions and video recorders and DVD players and radios and computers with bits and bobs flashing away merrily.

I have lost count of the number of times people pass serenely by shops and flats and offices where there’s an alarm going off, pass so serenely it seems that they must be deaf as well as blind.

It makes me think. More devices. More alarms. More alarm-apathy. There’s something wrong with the picture. Never mind the waste of energy (which itself is a good enough reason for us to do something about it). What concerns me more is that we are getting so sensitised to alarms that we don’t do anything about them. We don’t investigate the whys and wherefores, we don’t take corrective action, we just sail on merrily along.

This is not just about electronic alarms, by the way. Our bodies are designed to send us alarms; there are behavioural and social alarms at home, at work, in society at large.

The alarms are there for a reason.

So is the apathy.  Apathy sets in when we have too many alarms, too many meaningless alarms. Alarms should be risk sensors that help us make decisions that carry risk. Instead, we may be moving towards a world where nanny-state numbness is moving on to devices, and as a result apathy will increase.

You know what I mean. You know that we live in a world where a “talking” bag of peanuts is no longer science fiction, where the bag says “Warning: The bag you are opening contains nuts”. Where you can’t take something out of the microwave oven without someone intoning the words “Warning: Contents may be hot”. Where swimming pools will recite the mantra “Warning: contents wet” as you enter.

We need to be careful. Otherwise our alarms and nanny-state-hood will have appalling consequences, as alarmapathy increases to terminal levels.

7 thoughts on “Wondering about alarmapathy”

  1. JP, that was a nice bit of meditation; I think one way of summarizing the morale of the story is that, when there are too many things that demand a person’s attention, that person pays attention to none of them (hence the apathy).

  2. makes me think of the design fault that allows timezone information to be embedded in so many portable devices!!

    (I was once famous within Microsoft for being the ‘whinging Aussie with the TimeZone issues) – and have thought about the way software handles timezones and daylight savings transitions way too much!!

    Fang – Mike Seyfang

  3. Glad to hear I am not alone. It is not just the number of alarms, but also the fact that people don’t know what the alarm is for. And they find it hard to find out what it is for. We need fewer alarms and simpler ones.

Let me know what you think

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