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  • Denise Powell

Tech + The Human Element of Knowing

December 30th~ Christmas Break 2021


It was dumping snow in Breckinridge, a resort town in the Colorado Rockies, with a winter weather advisory in effect. As our family of 4 stuffed our 4-Runner to the gills and piled in, we anticipated a treacherous trip back to the front range. Luckily, we got on the highway behind 2 snowplows that guided our way through the blowing snow and icy conditions. As we neared Morrison and through the canyon toward Denver, the sun appeared. I loosened my grip on the bags piled on my lap.


In Colorado, there is a phenomenon called the Schnooks. This happens when cold weather in the mountains pushes the air down canyons and into the warmer front range, creating strong winds. Our weather app stated high winds, yet no one anticipated just how historically forceful they would be that day. As we started downhill, leaving the snow-capped mountains behind, a wind gust nearly blew our car off the road. Debris flew across the road. As we neared Denver, I noticed what looked like a large dark dust cloud northeast of us.


We picked up our dog where she stayed during our time in the mountains and soon made our way back to our home in Boulder. As we left Denver, a sign indicated that the main highway to Boulder (HWY 36) was closed due to fire activity. Halfway between Denver and Boulder we were detoured off the highway. Thick smoke clouds tumbled with the way of the wind as we neared what I thought before was just a cloud of dust and debris. This was something big.


I consulted Google Maps to find an alternate route. The map re-routed us back onto the same road we were just detoured from. Frustrated, I followed the map along the closest road along the highway. Without thinking about it, we headed straight into the smoke and ash. As the sky turned orangish-red ahead of us, my daughters started to plead with us to turn around. The dog shook with fear in the back of the car. I suddenly realized I had been overly reliant on an app that had literally led us into the evacuation zone, without any indication where the fires were headed or road closures. As we pulled into a subdivision to turn around, we witnessed people frantically throwing items in cars parked in driveways as ash fell. Then, we were stuck in gridlock traffic trying to go back in the direction we just came from. I panicked, wondering how this happened. I didn’t even think to trust my own instincts, programed to follow a GPS system that had not yet caught up with the emergency status. The lives of my entire family, including our pet, flashed before my eyes. I imagined the worst.


After what felt like several hours, yet was about 30 minutes, traffic started moving. As we drove away from the fire source, the smoke began to lift. We made it to safety and looked back at the billowing cloud that raged in the general vicinity of where we just were. I thought about the people we saw loading their cars and the homes they may not ever return to.


When we arrived home, I questioned why I chose to follow a device rather than my instincts, as well as my daughters’ intuitions. While devices can help in disasters, they may also fail. This event moved at an unprecedented speed. It’s clear the technology did not have the real time data it needed to display at a critical moment in time. It’s instances like this that big tech companies who provide tools we’ve all become accustomed to using in our everyday lives to get from Point A to Point B, among many others, an opportunity to take note of what went wrong and use the data to improve their systems.


An app shouldn’t literally lead you into the line of fire. On the other hand, it’s up to us to activate our internal human element of knowing and decide whether to trust technology or not.


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