Estimating Risk in the Face of Technological Complexity:  The BP Oil Spill

Friday, May 28, 2010

By Steven H. VanderLeest

The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that started with a well blowout on 10 April 2010 now appears to be a greater volume of oil than the 1989 disaster when the Exxon Valdez ran aground on a reef and dumped over 250,000 barrels worth of oil into the waters of Prince William Sound off the coast of Alaska.  This makes it the largest oil spill in US history (though not the largest spill globally).  We do not yet know the full extent of the environmental toll since oil is just starting to wash ashore in the marshlands of Louisiana.  The upcoming hurricane season could accentuate the problem by driving oil further inland.

Disasters like this are often related to the technological complexity of the system.  This oil rig was a deep water well, extending over 5,000 feet below the surface.  Even though we have extensive knowledge of oil drilling in this country and the company involved was certainly experienced, it appears that once again we were pushing the envelope.  As oil has become harder to find, the wells must go deeper, thus going beyond the current bounds of experience.  For example, one of the methods BP attempted to cap the blown well, by lowering a large dome over it, had been used successfully before, but never at this great of depth.  The greater depth resulted in unforeseen problems with methane crystals forming inside the dome, causing it to become clogged.  Complexity also appears in the organizational structures.  BP leased the rig from Transocean.  Perhaps this was a good business arrangement or perhaps it also provided some legal separation to lower risk of liability in the event of an accident.  The US government was involved with regulatory oversight before the spill and environmental cleanup after the spill.  The news media provided informational coverage, resulting in public pressure to limit the damage from the spill quickly and effectively.

Measuring and limiting the risks inherent in complex systems is a difficult task.  It is not merely a science but also an art, as it requires creative imagination so that unforeseen consequences are now foreseen.  We regularly engineer new technologies or adapt old technologies to new situations.  Each time, we face the question of what could go wrong (and how we would deal with such a failure).  The difficulty of estimating the probability of a given failure makes it tempting to forego the cost of a backup system to deal with the potential failure.  The risk of some types of failures might be so low and the cost of preventing or handling such a failure might be so high that we cannot justify the added protection. 

Some argue that safety has no price tag too high, but that is not the reality.  We implicitly estimate safety’s value in most technological products, both as individuals and as a society.  For example, we are aware as individuals and as a society that there is a noticeable risk of injury or death from accidents while driving in an automobile.  That risk could be significantly reduced if we required cars to be built like tanks and also severely limited their maximum speed.  But we choose to accept a higher risk in trade for lower cost and greater convenience.  In the present case, each stakeholder accepted some risk (perhaps too much so), including BP, Transocean, the US federal government, and even BP customer’s, all of us who purchase oil via its derivative products such as gasoline.  Thus we all bear some share of responsibility for that risk and the consequences of failures. 


Wednesday, May 19, 2010

By Steven H. VanderLeest

Colin Gunton claims that Western communication and technology have helped to disseminate a “unitary and homogeneous public culture.”  (Colin E. Gunton, The One, The Three and the Many: God, Creation, and the Culture of Modernity, Cambridge :  Cambridge University Press, 1993, p. 33-34).  It is unfortunate that he lumps communication and technology together, since the two are not really comparable concepts.  Rather they overlap with each other. Many forms of communication are technologically based; many are not.  Technology can communicate function via form, but often it obscures intent.  Only in the broad sense that both are cultural activities can we compare the two, but then surely there are many more modern activities that lead to bland uniformity.

Perhaps Gunton means to specifically accuse that overlapping arena of communication via technology as the culprit that homogenizes our culture, rather than one or the other in isolation.  Indeed, a consumerist mindset regarding technology can certainly result in a bland similarity, where little stands out and variety is scarce.  Is this a necessary implication of technology or is it a result of our economic system that drives to low cost by standardizing production?  Mass production has frequently had this effect, from at least the time of Henry Ford: “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black.”  (I was also trying to think of some examples of films that illustrate the deadening influence of consumerism – I’m hoping one of my readers might suggest a couple?)  The state can also drive extreme standardization in the enforcing of the will of the many to overcome the distinctiveness of the individual, as in classic 20th century dystopian novels of Huxley (Brave New World) and Orwell (1984).

A central tension in Gunton’s book is between the individual (“the one”) and the community (“the many”).  Although Gunton makes out technology to be an accomplice in much that ills modern society, we need not then despair of using technology at all.  The individual can tame technology, customizing it and personalizing it so that one’s distinct character comes through.  Technology can help us both express our individuality and at the same time continue to honor our humanity as it is defined by our relationships with each other.  For example, social networking technologies such as those provided by Facebook , Twitter, or LinkedIn allow connection to a community while also establishing an individual’s own distinct style and characteristics.  Collaborative tools such as Google shared documents allow individuals to contribute to combined efforts.  Blogs allow individuals to express their thoughts, sharing them with readers who can comment back.  Multiplayer video games can foster teamwork and camaraderie, particularly when they provide collaborative game-play modes that allow players to work together to achieve a goal.

Technology can be a powerful tool to achieve the right balance between individuality and community, but it must be wielded with care and forethought.  All too easily we can slip into isolation as individuals, using technology to shield ourselves and to hide, avoiding human contact and believing we can be self-sufficient.  At the other extreme, all too easily we can be lulled into complacency, following the crowd without thinking for ourselves, mindlessly accepting technology and dampening our own personalities to fit the demands of the machine and the expectations of our social peers.  The cure?  Perhaps we need to be more assertive in customizing and personalizing our tools in ways that also fit into a mosaic of the people around us.

High Impact

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

By Steven H. VanderLeest

Which technologies have had the greatest positive impact on human society?  It is difficult to answer that question because we tend to be rather provincial both in space and time, focusing on local and recent inventions.  In order to evaluate the question properly, we need a little perspectival distance.  For example, in 1997, in a Yankelovich Partners study of technologies that made life easier for Americans, the top three technologies were the microwave oven, the telephone answering machine, and the automatic teller machine (ATM).  Slightly more than a decade later, Americans still use microwaves heavily, but the telephone answering machine is becoming rare as more and more people use cell phones with voice mail.  (Though I suppose you could still count voice mail as an answering machine, at least in terms of function, if not implementation.)  The ATM also gets far less use as we have moved further into an electronic cash society, using credit and debit cards to swipe our charges either physically or virtually.  In 2005, PC World developed their own list of the “50 Greatest Gadgets of the Past 50 Years” .  The top five included the Sony Walkman (1979), the Apple iPod (2001), personal video recorders such as ReplayTV and Tivo (1999), the PalmPilot (1996), and the Sony CD player (1982).  Many of the gadgets on their list have also faded into history.  In 2003, the National Academy of Engineering produced a list of the ten greatest engineering achievements of the 20th century, starting with electrification (the power grid), the automobile, the airplane, and clean water supply. 

It is interesting that our lists often emphasize convenience and entertainment.  Should we still count these as positive impacts?  What constitutes improvement or progress?  How do we measure our success?  Do our inventions provide a better quality of life?  Do our new technological products extend life or improve health?  Do they help us to flourish? 

While many technologies are transient, eventually giving way to newer products, most of the important technologies throughout history have also been building blocks for more development, so part of their impact was the inspiration for follow-on products and inventions. The development of written language has a long history connected with technology, starting when the ancient Sumerians first created visual symbols in clay to represent a concept (perhaps verbally expressed up until then).  Technologies for writing out our word symbols have progressed from stone to papyrus to paper.  Inks have been developed along with writing instruments from quills to pens.  Gutenberg’s printing press (around 1440) was a sea change that sparked intellectual and religious revolutions and reformations, coming 45 centuries after Cuneiform first appeared in Sumer.  Less than 6 centuries later, the digital revolution appears poised to make another revolution in the written word, with more and more people reading on-line instead of on printed paper.

As we continue to unfold God’s good creation, following the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:28, we can anticipate that our technological developments will continue to build on earlier products and ideas.  Technology is a social activity in the sense that there is a community of developers across the globe and throughout history that collaborate by observing each other’s ideas, modifying and tinkering here and there to come up with a new twist.  Inventors do not produce a new technology from thin air, but from Gutenberg to the Wright brothers, they gather existing threads of ideas into a new strand, standing on the shoulders of their predecessors.  This sense of community can be an important bridle on pride so that we can celebrate technological developments appropriately, appreciating the genius of the inventor, but also recognizing the foundation on which they build.  I thank God for giving us the materials to build wondrous and amazing things, and for giving us inventors and engineers like Thomas Edison, Charles Babbage, Guglielmo Marconi, Margaret Knight, Steve Wozniak, and many, many others.

Designing Road Rage

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

By Steven H. VanderLeest

Recently two drivers entering a local freeway became so upset with each other that they caused a major accident, though fortunately no lives were lost.  It started with one vehicle entered the highway without noticing the other, nearly forcing him off the road to avoid a collision.  Both drivers then began a deadly dance of revenge, driving erratically, slamming brakes, cutting each other off, and tailgating.  Their road rage resulted in one of the vehicles hurtling across the median into on-coming traffic, causing a multi-car accident and serious injuries. 

The apostle Paul calls the church in Ephesus to put aside anger, and through that letter we are all exhorted to avoid rage.

Ephesians 4:29-32, New International Version

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

In her paper on technology breakdowns and catastrophes, Calvin Professor of Engineering Gayle Ermer notes the human factor in automobile accidents:  “Reckless drivers and road rage also contribute to a small number of accidents. Addressing these failure contributions is not as much about redesigning the technological system as it is about encouraging people to choose to do the right thing when driving and to develop Christian virtues, which would make people better drivers.”  [Gayle E. Ermer , “Understanding Technological Failure: Finitude, Fallen-ness, and Sinfulness in Engineering Disasters”, Proceedings of the 2006 Christian Engineering Education Conference, pp. 129-142]  Ermer stresses the individual responsibility of the technology user to treat tools with appropriate care.  A power tool must be handled with respect, whether it be a table saw or a two-ton vehicle speeding down the expressway.  In the blink of an eye, a careless woodworker can lose a finger; a careless driver can lose their life.  We are accountable for our actions and cannot simply blame the tool for injury or damage.  I am rarely convinced by the modern version of the “devil made me do it” when people point the finger of blame away from themselves and towards the technology, or the system, or their genes, or their meds. 

On the other hand, without relieving the technology user of accountability for their actions, I believe there is some additional responsibility that can be laid at the feet of the technology provider.  The designer, distributer, and maintainer of technology should consider whether they contribute to ill-effects from the use of their product.  Lambert Van Poolen, a retired Professor of Engineering at Calvin, first got me thinking about how the design of the automobile might be a factor in road rage.  He noted that our cars, especially in the United States, are little homes on wheels:  comfortable seats with music, beverage holders, climate control, and other conveniences all at our fingertips.  We are cocooned into our vehicle and isolated from the other humans on the road.  We use air conditioning and roll up our windows, making it more difficult to hear our fellow travelers on the road.  We use window tinting so that they cannot easily see us.  Our designs give us a sense of anonymity on the road.  When we start viewing the other drivers on the road more as obstacles than as fellow humans, we make it easier to slip into bad behavior towards them.  When we believe we travel unrecognized, we are more tempted to do things we wouldn’t dream of doing when in the company of acquaintances. 

Is it possible to design the technology any differently?  Perhaps we are doomed to live with this inherent danger.  In order for a hammer to perform its intended function of pounding nails, it must also be a tool that could kill someone with a blow to the head.  We cannot eliminate the danger without eliminating the beneficial function as well.  True in this simple case, but for many technologies, there are alternate approaches that reduce or eliminate the drawbacks without compromising the beneficial function.  For example, the common table saw can be redesigned to significantly reduce the chance that one loses a finger.  I wonder if we could design our cars and roadway systems to significantly reduce the chances of road rage? 

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(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest