Not a good couple of days in the history of the American space program. Yet of all technological failures in history, perhaps none focused the lens on the dynamics of failure more than the Challenger tragedy.

Malcolm Gladwell explored the incident and equally profound aftermath in his essay ‘Blowup’, subtitled “Who can be blamed for a disaster like the Challenger explosion? No one, and we’d better get used to it” which underscored the element of black box complexity underlying the inscrutability and perhaps inevitability of the failure…

  • “High-technology accidents may not have clear causes at all. They may be inherent in the complexity of the technological systems we have created…[T]he implications of this kind of argument are enormous. We have surrounded ourselves in the modern age with things like power plants and nuclear-weapons systems and airports that handle hundreds of planes an hour, on the understanding that the risks they represent are, at the very least, manageable. But if the potential for catastrophe is actually found in the normal functioning of complex systems, this assumption is false. Risks are not easily manageable, accidents are not easily preventable, and the rituals of disaster have no meaning. The first time around, the story of the Challenger was tragic. In its retelling, a decade later, it is merely banal.”

He cited Charles Perrow who is the pioneer of the ‘black boxing of modern society’…

  • “Modern systems, Perrow argues, are made up of thousands of parts, all of which interrelate in ways that are impossible to anticipate. Given that complexity, he says, it is almost inevitable that some combinations of minor failures will eventually amount to something catastrophic. In a classic 1984 treatise on accidents, Perrow takes examples of well-known plane crashes, oil spills, chemical-plant explosions, and nuclear-weapons mishaps and shows how many of them are best understood as “normal.”

Perhaps most frustrating about black box complexity, whether it is credit crisis or currency collapose or (as he is referring below) a space flight like Apollo 13, is the lack direct accountability…

  • “There was no one to blame, no dark secret to un-earth, no recourse but to re-create an entire system in place of one that had inexplicably failed. In the end, the normal accident was the more terrifying one.”

 

Americans are a pragmatic culture. Given them a culprit to a problem and they will fix it. But what happens when there is no culprit?

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