Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Pool: Beyond Engineering—Complexity, Reliability and Politics in Technological Choices

This is a very different book from the one I began writing four years ago... In 1991, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation provided grants to some two dozen writers to create a series of books on technology. Because technology has shaped the modern world so profoundly, Sloan wanted to give the general, non-technical reader some place to go in order to learn about the invention of television or X-rays or the development of birth control pills. This would be it. Sloan asked that each book in the series... be accessible to readers with no background in science or engineering... I took nuclear power...
—Introduction to Beyond Engineering [emphasis mine]

Robert Pool, author of the controversial look at the biological basis of gender, Eve's Rib, and longtime contributor to several distinguished science and technical journals, did not realize what a complex topic he had chosen. Originally, he intended to write "a straight-forward treatment of the commercial nuclear industry—its history, its problems, and its potential for the future." Instead, he discovered a Byzantine maze of inter-connected choices, society shaping technology, rather than the opposite. Beyond Engineering completes the circle, reflecting what he discovered back to the general, non-technical public in very accessible terms.

History and Momentum begins this journey into complexity with a look at how society has shaped the choices made in providing electricity to the user. Edison, Westinghouse, and Tesla; Szilard, Einstein and Rickover—choices made by these men before 1950 determined the economy of future decisions in the power industry. Pool then looks at The Power of Ideas, giving us a background on the concept of paradigm shift in molding scientific inquiry, before exploring how the "endless power source" paradigm shifted irretrievably to an "evil destructive nuclear polluter" view of nuclear power.

A chapter on Business looks at the rise of giants like GE, IBM, Apple and Xerox, in the background of the growing industrial demand for power; one on Complexity examines the history of steam power, the growth of the US automobile and airline industries and airplane manufacturers like McDonnell, before presenting information about nuclear generation of electric power. By doing this, Pool gives his reader a stronger base to judge the value of the information he presents.

Choices and Risk then take us into the heart of Pool's contention that society shapes technology. In delineating the choices available in nuclear power, Pool first introduces the concept by discussing previous choices: internal combustion vs. steam; QWERTY vs. the Dvorak keyboard; VHS vs. Betamax. To illustrate how risk assessments should and do guide such choices, he uses a discussion of recombinant bovine growth hormone, rBGH, and the controversy its use stirred up:
...The system of cows, humans and bacteria was simply too complex to analyze in any but the crudest detail. The calculation of risk could only be an approximation.
    In such cases, where there is no clear right or wrong answer, people tend to rely on their instincts, biases and gut feelings about how the world works...

Finally, Pool looks at Control and reliability (in a section titled Managing the Faustian Bargain). The chapter on control investigates the legal system that has grown up around the power industry, by telling the story of how a former church secretary named Juanita Ellis fought the giant Texas Utilities to a standstill—for nearly a decade—over the building of the Comanche Peak nuclear power plant. In looking at reliability, Pool examines once-reliable entities such as NASA, and what happens when that reputation is allowed to substitute for acting in reliable ways. The description of a exemplary "highly-reliable organization" (a Nimitz-class carrier, written by a naval carrier officer) is notable:
So you want to understand an aircraft carrier? Well, just imagine that it's a busy day, and you shrink San Francisco Airport to only one short runway and one ramp and gate. Make planes take off and land at the same time, at half the present time interval, rock the runway from side to side, and require that everyone who leaves in the morning returns that same day. Then turn the radar off to avoid detection, impose strict controls on radio, fuel the aircraft in place with their engines running, put an enemy in the air, and scatter live bombs and rockets around. Now wet the whole thing down with salt water and oil, and man it with 20-year-olds, half of whom have never seen an airplane close up. Oh, and by the way, try not to kill anyone.

In this increasingly technological age, the complexity of technology has grown to the point where no one person can know everything about even a very restricted discipline, at the same time that more and more of societal attention is focused on how these complex systems interact. Pool's book is a good first step on the road to the re-engineering of engineering itself, and an excellent argument that such a sweeping change is essential.


Blogger Businessorati said...

This is one wonderful review, that I have read in long time anywhere! The desription of aircraft carrier paints a vivid picture without using 1000 words! Good work DrPat. I may buy that book, just to get a perspective "beyond" what I see from the surface of technology frontier.

2/15/2005 6:34 AM  

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