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Cruise Ship Tragedy a “Normal Accident”?

This week the Costa Concordia, a luxury cruise ship carrying 4,200 passengers, hit a rock and capsized off the coast of Italy killing at least 6 with 29 still missing. This is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, a terrible accident, but should it and other accidents like it be unexpected? In this post Nathan Palmer examines the Costa Concordia incident using Perrow’s theory of “Normal Accidents” to suggest that as the world becomes more technologically complex, accidents like this will becoming increasingly common.

Costa Concordia 2012

These are precarious times, my friend. Just this week a cruise ship capsized, a major online retailer got hacked, and burning space junk will fall from the sky this weekend. Last year at this time the world watched in horror as the Japanese Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant melted down after an earthquake and tsunami. Weeks later a nuclear power plant in Omaha, NE was at risk of a meltdown due to flood waters from the Missouri River. All of these incidents were referred to as “accidents”, but should they be?

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Merriam-Webster’s defines an accident as, “an unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly…” Sociologist Charles Perrow asks the question, “shouldn’t we expect accidents, disasters, and tragedies like these?” [1. This article is written with the utmost respect for the lives lost and the anguish that all of these events caused. The author is only trying to make the point that these events probably should not be thought of as unexpected at the macro societal level. Expected or not, these events hurt people and cost lives and demand our reverence.] I’ll explain what he means, but first let’s take a look at technology from a sociological perspective.

Technology, to sociologists, is nothing more than a set of social systems. Whether we are talking about a hammer, psychoanalysis, or a space shuttle launch all forms of technology are pieces of culture that require social systems to understand how to use them. We are tempted to see technology, especially mechanical technology, as being inhuman, but at the core any piece of technology is a byproduct of the culture they were created within.

Technology is developed by social beings who use their cultural values, assumptions, and beliefs to make sense of the technology and how to use it.

You may be tempted to think, “technology isn’t culture; it’s math and science.” To which I’d ask you, “what is math and science if not a culturally defined set of ideas that has been earned by centuries of social collaboration between humans?” We used to believe the earth was the center of the universe and that a sneeze was the sign of evil spirits that could be warded off by saying, “God bless you.” Science and math isn’t an absolute truth, but rather a set of hypotheses that reflect the cultures they came from.

Sociologist Charles Perrow theorized in his book Normal Accidents that as the world becomes increasingly technologically advanced accidents, disasters, or technological failures will similarly increase. Perrow’s research looks at how closely coupled the components of a technological system are and how each component of the system interacts with one another.

Coupling can be thought of as the distance or slack between individual components. Systems can either be loosely coupled, like cars on a sleepy rural highway, or systems can be tightly coupled, like cars on the freeway at 5pm in L.A.

Interactions between components of a technological system can be either linear or complex. Linear interactions are marked by being easy to replace, substitute, segregate, and the components have little to no feedback or reaction to one another. The United States Postal Service is a fairly good example of a linear system. If a single postal carrier dies from a heart attack, the entire postal system will not collapse. The carrier could be replaced or another carrier could easily be substituted. Complex interactions on the other hand are very difficult to disentangle and highly interdependent on one another. While I’ve never tried it personally, watching Breaking Bad leads me to believe that making crystal meth is a highly volatile process where if one chemical reaction goes awry the batch might explode. [2. But that’s just a TV show, if you have knowledge on meth production feel free to bring up any qualms you may have with my characterization in the comments section. Just kidding.]

Perrow’s point is that as systems become tightly coupled and/or complex we should not be surprised when disasters happen. All technology is developed and run by humans who are capable of mistakes, of misinterpreting the policies and procedures manual, and of brazenly thinking the rules don’t apply to them. The last one appears to have been the cause of the Costa Concordia cruise ship tragedy. Early reports allege that the captain decided to bring the ship far too close to the coastline where the water was too shallow for a vessel that size.

So if just one person, allegedly the captain in this case, makes a bad decision, can we really blame it on the technology? This is sort of beside the point Perrow is making. A cruise liner carrying 4,200 people and 500,000 gallons of fuel is a tightly coupled and a highly complex system of technology. Within a few hours of hitting a rock on the seafloor, the boat went from perfectly fine to turned on it’s side half full of water. One person sparked the chain of events, but once set in motion there was little anyone could do to stop the tragedy from happening because it was a tightly coupled complex technological system.

This is not to say that cruise ships are unsafe, there are very few incidents like the Costa Concordia. Rather, the point being made here is that as many if not most of our technological systems become more dependent on technology, more tightly coupled, and more complex, we should expect a system failure somewhere on a routine basis.

Dig Deeper:

  1. What are some other technological systems that are tightly coupled and highly complex? Can you think of some technological systems that are loosely coupled and linear?
  2. It can be hard to see how technology is, at it’s root, a social system. Give an example of a technological system and explain how it is a social system.
  3. We may be tempted to think, “If we only had more advanced and better technology we wouldn’t have these problems.” But do you think that increased reliance on technology will reduce our vulnerability to catastrophe?
  4. What do you think we should do to reduce our vulnerability to technological disasters?