Friday, April 5, 2013


I’m usually exhausted on Fridays because I have long days on Thur and teach until 9:00 p.m. 

Last night in class I was discussing technology and the contemporary workplace/economy. After reviewing how technology has increased organizational efficiency and transparency, I discussed how interconnectivity has actually increased our collective societal risk.

The examples I used to talk about systemic risk produced by technology were the financial crisis and the Carrington Effect.

First, I talked about the role of computers and algorithms in producing systemic risk in derivatives markets. I explained derivatives’ role in the financial crisis. I briefly discussed the global effects.

Then I asked them to envision what it would be like if the power went out for a sustained period. I explained how solar flares and cyber-attacks could cause extended outages. I asked them to consider the effects. I described the worst-case scenario of massive industrial accidents, particularly nuclear power plants meltdowns.

One of the students in the class assured me confidently that well-engineered nuclear power plants would not melt down because they can be safely shut-down by control rods. Rather than getting into a debate about ‘delayed heat’ I simply asked him to account for cooling for the spent fuel pools. He did not know what I was talking about. He did not know what a nuclear spent fuel pool was and had no interest in my brief explanation.

This student is very bright and is generally well informed. However, he like so many other people are susceptible to the myth of technological progress that has been spun so deceptively by many industries, particularly the nuclear power industry.

That myth of technological progress is based on half-truths and outright lies. Yet, it has fostered a faith that is as strong as previous people’s faith in magic and other mystical forces. We’ve simply transferred the object of our faith from theistic forces to “man’s innovative capacity.” (I am intentionally using the gendered pronoun here)

Our faith in technological innovation is a faith in human omniscience, in human infallibility.

It is a false hubris, as demonstrated repeatedly by both routine and dramatic nuclear power plant failures, among other industrial accidents.

I wanted to tell the student, who aspires to be a doctor, about Mangano and Sherman’s “Elevated Airborne Beta Levels in Pacific/West Coast US States and Trends in Hypothyroidism Among Newborns After the Fukushima Nuclear Meltdown” Open Journal of Pediatrics, 3, 1-9 but I could see that the other students were already becoming restless with this discussion of human fallibility.

I am tired. People want to believe in “man’s” innovative technological capacities. Students love their I-accessories.

They strive for the latest and greatest while automation displaces the need for their labor...

and the toxins dispersed by our industrial infrastructures poison their bodies, destroying both the human genome and ecosystem. 


1 comment:

  1. Some of the smartest are taken in by the dream of a bright future, esp promoted by technology. Which is fine, except when it makes one ignore important facts.

    And when human greed is ignored, the most incredible "bad systems" can come into play.