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Book details of 'Minding the Machines: Preventing Technological Disasters'

Cover of Minding the Machines: Preventing Technological Disasters
TitleMinding the Machines: Preventing Technological Disasters
Author(s)William M. Evan, Mark Manion
PublishedApril 2002
PublisherPrentice Hall PTR
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The Virtual Bookcase Reviews of 'Minding the Machines: Preventing Technological Disasters':

Reviewer Rob Slade wrote:
Part one is an introduction. It is ironic, both in terms of the title of the chapter; "Technological Disasters: an Overview"; and particularly the title of the book, that although the authors list four categories of disaster causes, the examples given overwhelmingly indicate human error, if not outright malfeasance. The classifications provided are also confusing: what difference is there between human, organizational, and socio-cultural factors? The comparison of natural and man-made disasters, and the supporting tables, in chapter two raise more questions than they answer: why are both types increasing at almost identical rates (in glaring contrast to the stated conclusion)? Part two looks at the prevalence of technological disasters. (I thought we just did that?) Chapter three says nothing new about Y2K. The theories of technological disasters, in chapter four, are flawed by an overly simplistic view of systems, one which completely ignores the inherent tendency of complex systems in general, and digital systems in particular, to catastrophic failure modes. As noted, the book is heavily larded with tables and figures, most of which have little apparent relevance to the text, and some of which actually seem to contradict the written material. One example in this chapter points out that the figures are, themselves, unexplained and poorly captioned: a diagram with six numbered interrelationships is followed by a numbered list--for a completely different set of factors. In chapter five the authors set up an odd, and poorly explained, matrix of "systemic dimensions" underlying disasters. "Human Factors Factors" (sic) are technological (as opposed to social) systems and external (as opposed to internal) systemic factors. The reporting of details in the examples in this and other chapters is suspect: despite specific and itemized accounts of the Therac 25 tragedy in at least two of the references listed for this chapter, the authors insist that somehow the type of radiation was at fault, rather than the flawed user interface that allowed incorrect dosage settings to be retained by the device, even after the operator believed the error had been rectified. Part three supposedly looks at technological disasters since the industrial revolution. Chapter six meanders through a wide variety of industrial "revolutions," and then delves briefly into future biotech, nanotech, and robotics/artificial intelligence. A terse and bemusing expansion of the earlier four part matrix into twelve goes on in chapter seven. Part four provides an "Analysis of Case Studies of Technological Disasters." Chapter eight insists on fitting a number of tragedies into the matrix from chapter seven. The reasons for the choices are not obvious: the authors insist throughout the book that the Bhopal poison gas release was due to "socio-cultural factors" when it is clearly, as far as the book recounts, due to greed and a lack of provision for safety equipment and procedures. (Another table maintains that Bhopal was an "accident" while the sinking of the Titanic, with far less impact in deaths and injuries, was a disaster and a tragedy.) Chapter nine lists one "lesson learned" from each of the "case studies": actually, what all of them have in common is the fact that technological disasters have *numerous* causes, not just a single one. The Tenerife airliner crash, as only one example, was caused by overloading of a backup situation, fear of regulations that made no provision for emergencies, miscommunications, failure to verify communications, pressure of overloading of facilities, and other failures. Part five talks about strategic responses. Chapter ten states that scientists need to stress professional education and safety. Now, I can sympathize with that attitude in large measure: as a virus researcher I've been crying in the wilderness about malware for many years, and have recently been exhorting corporations to support free public security awareness training as a benefit to the enterprise by reducing overall levels of risk. I think it a bit unfair, though, to put all the weight for safety on the shoulders of the professionals, when the rest of society is completely obsessed with time-to-market and dancing pigs. Chapter eleven tacitly admits this fact, with case studies that demonstrate that in many instances of corporate wrongdoing the executives were warned of the dangers in advance. No recommendations for specific responses are made. The four legal branches of the United States government, and their relationships to technology, are listed in chapter twelve: again, no suggestions are forthcoming. A fairly standard overview of risk analysis is given in chapter thirteen, which, I suppose, might be some kind of endorsement of and recommendation for risk analysis itself. Chapter fourteen assumes that "democratic" decision making is better than "technical," without ever examining the dangers of social and political influences forcing the bad public policy rulings that the case studies in the work truly demonstrate. This book actually says very little about either technology or technological disasters: most of the evidence points out fraud, avarice, and other social factors that create most any kind of disasters. For those who really do want to know how to make technology safer, it would be best to look elsewhere. copyright Robert M. Slade, 2004
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