Intelligent Machines

Be Afraid

Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies

When Charles Perrow published Normal Accidents in early 1984, the catastrophes at Bhopal and Chernobyl and the crashes of the Challenger and the Exxon Valdez were still in the future. Yet Perrow’s warnings about the dangers of complexity and tight coupling in large technological systems were borne out perfectly by these disasters. “Normal accident theory” gained credibility. When today’s investigators examine disasters, they look for, and often find, unexpected interactions between design flaws, human errors, self-defeating “safety” mechanisms and broken or deluded organizations.

The approach of 2000 provided a good occasion for Perrow to update and expand his groundbreaking book. The new edition, which appeared in paperback in November, gives him not only a well-deserved chance to say “I told you so,” but also an opportunity to go on the record with his predictions about the Y2K problem-“that rare potential disaster that we can see coming, can plan for, and can prognosticate about.” In
Perrow’s view, technological breakdowns and social chaos would further vindicate his argument that our critical systems are too highly computerized and too tightly interlinked. An uneventful January 1 would be an indication that our systems aren’t as interdependent as we thought or,more likely, that our Y2K preparations paid off. Either way,”Y2K will permit a kind of test of the robustness of societies.”

With a peaceful 1/1/00 receding into memory, it appears that we have passed the test. A few glitches have cropped up to prove Perrow’s maxim that we can’t anticipate everything. In the main, however, the transition has been unexpectedly dull, suggesting that we have taken Perrow’s warnings to heart (or that the whole thing was wildly hyped to begin with).

This story is part of our March/April 2000 Issue
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On the other hand,we may have simply postponed the kind of debacle that would force us into a examination of complex, hazardous technologies such as nuclear power. In particular, the increasing ubiquity of the Internet, to which every thermostat and sprinkler system in the world may soon be linked, is creating the potential for an epidemic of computer viruses or other disruptions on an unprecedented scale.There will never be another year 2000, but I suspect this won’t be the last edition of Normal Accidents.

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