Technology: Dangerous Effects of Progress

The Deepwater Horizon drill, the site of the BP Oil Spill disaster.

“Engineers should pay more attention to the larger world in which their devices will function, and they should consciously take that world into account in their designs,” said Robert Pool in Beyond Engineering: How Society Shapes Technology.

Traditionally engineers have tried to perfect their machines as a machine; that is, make them better and more efficient. But Pool said that there are other factors that are more important for engineers to take consideration of when designing something: How their design will affect everything else in the world.
He uses as his example a deadly chemical spill in Bhopal, India, where many things that by themselves were not dangerous (like a large chemical tank to store the chemical, having the factory close to a city, and having many switches to safeguard the flow of the chemical), but a series of unlucky events that happened just right caused the death of 4,000 people and injured 30,000 more.
Naturally, the company said that it was the individual workers’ faults why the chemical leaked and became deadly. That is the traditional model: Assume the machines are perfect, and ask why the people manning them did something wrong. When we know that machines are not perfect, they need to be checked and oiled and updated and kept. There are many manuals and possibilities of an emergency, and they expect workers to know everything that could happen. When in reality, an emergency happens because it is a dangerous machine.
As an example, having a car that can reach a certain speed. The car is seen as more efficient and better if it can reach a top speed of 120 miles per hour, than, say, one that only reaches 90 miles per hour (this is hypothetical). But there is something outside the car’s domain that does not make the fact that it can travel faster, or is more aerodynamic, inherently better: the outside world. A car traveling that fast is more prone to have a deadly crash.
Someone can complain that the driver was going too fast, that he was going above the speed limit, when he died: Yes, he could- and he did so because the machine let him do it. A van, for example, is not likely to travel too far beyond the speed limit and is therefore out of the domain of a deadly 100-mph car crash.
Pool talks about how the complexities of nuclear power plants and aircraft carriers. Certain things in the power plant are safe by themselves, but a complex structure of hundreds of different parts allows many unexpected combinations to happen. Such as, when one nuclear reactor is offline for repairs, should the engineers turn on the air coolant, because it might go to both reactors. A benign mechanism can become deadly in the wrong combination, such as in the Indian chemical spill.
Another example is the BP Oil Spill from last April, where deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico led to an enormous oil spill caused by an explosion. Regardless of who’s fault the disaster was, America is in need of more oil because of its amount of cars. Oil companies are searching for alternative sources of energy and must dig deeper wells to capture oil (Deepwater Horizon, the drill platform where the spill was formed, was drilling at 5,000 feet at the time of the explosion, according to USA Today), which can be dangerous.
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