Thursday, January 16, 2020

Collateral damage of new technology

The term collateral-damage is today part of our daily language and a mild meaning would be any unintended damage or effect of our actions. An extreme meaning would be death or serious damage or injury due to the physical technology itself. In modern times the term was introduced into the language to identify injury or death due to military action or technology.

What is important is that the use and meaning of the term is well defined and uncontroversial. From the language perspective we should not encounter any big issues regarding use and meaning. But like all terms once these are imported into other natural languages the use and meaning might change and even take a life of its own. Take for example the term “terrorism/terrorist” which has been completely bastardised and emasculated beyond recognition in all modern languages.

By definition collateral damage is a negative term and used to describe issues that are more serious in nature than the norm. Very few people complain about packaging board or printing paper even though today these technologies are well advanced and very efficient in energy use. At most we might think of recycling of paper as an environmental issue but the technology to make paper is both efficient and clean. The problem with paper is when pulp is sources from unscrupulous people who cut down virgin trees rather than managed forests. And at the paper making end when water is not recycled properly but discharged into clean waterways.  The problem of paper pollution is not the technology per se but the people who run and invest in the technology.

In other words, new technology is an issue because the people who build and commission the technology and those who use the technology are indeed human beings and therefore make mistakes, cheat and have limited foresights about the future. This factor makes the topic a legitimate philosophical issue.

Mulder K.F. (2013) in the Handbook of Sustainable Engineering* discusses the very same issue we have at hand: Impact of New Technologies: How to Assess the Intended and Unintended Effects of New Technologies? You can find the abstract, which is enough for us, at the link below. Mulder starts his abstract saying: New technologies change the world irreversibly. These changes do not necessarily need to be only positive.
In my opinion new technology per se can have two types of key risks: inherent risks by being new and risks due to abuse by becoming familiar  by the technology. An inherent risk would be for example the introduction of the motor car. At end of the 19th century this was really new technology and it was a risk for people because it was something never experienced in the streets before.

Hence a lot of measures were introduced over the years to mitigate the risks and effects of this new technology: a person running in front of a car with a red flag to warn people and later the driving licence. This is not to say that horses and carriages were not dangers and horses polluted for their time just as much as the motor car.

Again we move from the inherent risk of new technology to abuse or misuse of the technology, for example driving fast, drink driving, lack of skills and so on and so forth. Whilst these are at the extreme end of a Gaussian curve, there are also serious risks with new technology that are due to human-made risks. By human-made risks I mean risks that the designers, commissioners, manufacturers, and users should have foreseen, or negligently did not account for the risk when making or using the technology.

I shall use two examples from Japan to illustrate this type of human-made risks which in reality causes is much concern when new technology is introduced. The Wikipedia entry on the: “Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster”* refers to an article from the Japan Times 2011, and I quote:
“The reactor's emergency diesel generators and DC batteries, crucial components in powering cooling systems after a power loss, were located in the basements of the reactor turbine buildings, in accordance with GE's specifications. Mid-level GE engineers expressed concerns, relayed to TEPCO, that this left them vulnerable to flooding.” (Link below) (Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) maintained the plant and General Electric (GE) designed the plant.)

Nuclear technology is indeed at the top of “new technologies” that give us concern and we are all familiar with the headline collateral damage of this industry. But even our headline information of this technology can be deceptive and misleading. Indeed there is a danger, as I have already mentioned, of failing to see the wood, in our case human beings, from the trees i.e. the technology.

Now compare this quote with The Japan Times article, now only available at because the article is not available on the newspaper’s site: “Interviews with former engineers and an examination of documents by The Japan Times show it was GE that decided to place the critical backup systems in the turbine buildings' underground floors, and plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. did not allow any alternation to the U.S. company's blueprints.” (Link below)

The collateral damage here is of course the hundreds of victims after the Tsunami that were affected by the failure of the nuclear plant as a consequence of the negligence of the project leaders be they American or Japanese. But we have a secondary collateral damage here: the lack of accountability for designing what should have been a safe technology an unsafe power station as proven by historical facts. How many technologies are compromised because of human-made risks? How many historical facts have been misrepresented to avoid accountability of those responsible for the technology?

Mulder’s argument is that new technologies are not always for the good and even in the abstract he identifies many cases that we take for granted. But sometimes fate or the nature of events turn a human-made risk into our advantage. Of course, I have no intention of discussing how many times this happens but at least I have a very relevant example below.

The Japanese fighter aircraft, the Zero*, was well known during the Second World War for two characteristics: it was a very good plane for most of the war and it was a flying coffin for the pilot because it lacked a self-sealing fuel tank; see the article on the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum website: The Problem with Self-Sealing Fuel Tanks: Capacity, not Weight. (Link below).

Basically a self-sealing fuel tank would seal any bullet holes if ever it was hit or punctured thus preventing the fuel from exploding. Hence, the chances are that the plane would explode and in most cases kill the pilot during combat; this was not an issue in planes used the Europe. Thus one of the most effective war machines in the Pacific war turned out to be an asset for the allies. In this case the issue was well known for the designer and the Japanese navy even though the compromise was due to lack of power of the engine. I would argue that this is a good example not only of human-made risks but even criminal disregard to human life. In contrast consider the grounding of the new Boeing 737 MAX passenger last year: another case of collateral damage of new technology.

The most important factor in the examples above is that either by design or by default we disassociate the technology from the human beings responible for it. Thus our ire is directed towards the pieces of metal rather than the people who make and, most important, commission the technology and who might have financial and political interest to cut corners and maybe fail to assess risks properly.

A key issue for our discussion is that the assumptions we make and risks we take with new technology and fail to mitigate might have serious moral, legal and human consequences that ought not to be tolerated in a civilized law abiding society.

* Mulder K.F. (2013) Impact of New Technologies: How to Assess the Intended and Unintended Effects of New Technologies? In: Kauffman J., Lee KM. (eds) Handbook of Sustainable Engineering. Springer, Dordrecht

* Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster

* GE plan followed with inflexibility
Tepco wouldn't change blueprint that left emergency backups vulnerable
The Japan Times July 13, 2011

* Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum: The Problem with Self-Sealing Fuel Tanks: Capacity, not Weight -
Also the Wikipedia entry Mitsubishi A6M Zero

Best Lawrence

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From Lawrence, PhiloMadrid 6:30pm meeting: Collateral damage of new technology.

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