Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Friends, Enemies, and Consequences

It is fortunate that yesterday's underwater collision between French and British nuclear-armed submarines caused very little physical damage. More significant is that the accident has provided an object lesson in the consequences of technological innovation, and I sincerely hope that the lesson will be a useful one. As anyone who follows war movies goes, being detected by the enemy is one of the greatest risks to any submarine, since, once detected, the submarine is vulnerable to any number of deterrent strategies. Thus naval architecture technology has gone to great innovative efforts to build submarines that cannot be detected, just as aeronautical engineering has faced a similar problem in developing their stealth technology. Where submarines are concerned, one of the best ways to tell the difference between a submarine and a whale is by the noise it makes. On dry land we like to use the simile "quiet as a mouse;" but the goal of submarine technology is to be quiet as a whale. Actually, Herve Morin, France's defense minister, put it even more dramatically when he told Canal+ radio (as reported by Reuters and published in the Financial Times) that both submarines involved in the collision "make less noise than a shrimp."

From a strictly technological point of view, that makes for a pretty awesome solution to a challenging problem. The consequence, however, was that, while these submarines could not be detected by their enemies, they also could not be detected by their allies. In Caroline Wyatt's BBC report, which I saw yesterday afternoon on television, the British Ministry of Defence let it be known that, while they regarded the disposition of their submarines to be a highly confidential matter, any information about the North Atlantic Ocean was shared with the United States Department of Defense, presumably by virtue of their shared membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). However, in spite of any jokes about who George W. Bush thought his friends were, my guess is that most people think that France is also one of our allies and one of our NATO partners, thus overlooking the historical fact that France left the NATO command structure in 1966! According to the Reuters story in the Financial Times, France "is expected to rejoin the [NATO] alliance fully this year but will keep its nuclear forces independent." Thus, it will be up to Britain and France to make their own arrangements (if any) on how to keep their "invisible" submarines from future collisions.

The more important object lesson, however, is that, as most Zen masters know, solving one problem always creates at least one new problem. This raises the intriguing question of whether or not it may be better to live with a problem than to eliminate it. In this particular case a reasoned answer to that question would involve access to highly classified information that I could never even dream of seeing, but the question arises in more mundane situations as well. In many ways the new Showtime series, United States of Tara, is a narrative about a family that has decided to live with an extremely challenging problem (Tara's multiple-personality disorder). As the episodes have unfolded, we have learned that Tara had been on medication to suppress the emergence of her "alters" in times of stress; but she and her husband eventually decided that she would be more of a whole person without that medication. In other words her problem had a solution; but, in this particular narrative situation, the characters decided that living with the problem was better than living with the consequences of that solution. As the narrative unfolds, we learn more about why this decision was made as we learn more about those characters' personal value systems; and the omniscient narrator of the episodes has been scrupulous about avoiding any explicit evaluation of those value systems. (Obviously, as the narrative unfolds, we all, as "readers," will be able to reflect on those value systems through our interpretation of the ensuing events.)

This is not just a new way of looking at H. L. Mencken's precept that a clear and simple solution to a complex problem is inevitably wrong. Rather, it is a cautionary reminder that "right" solutions are just as likely to have unanticipated consequences and the wrong ones are. The submarine collision in the North Atlantic was a serious reminder (and hardly the first) to governmental defense organizations around the world to give serious thought to consequences before rushing to deploy solutions. Meanwhile, United States of Tara offers the provocative suggestion that there are times when living with the problem may be preferable to living with the consequences of the solution (and those who continue to feel that commercial cable television networks deal only in frivolity can consult a darker side of the same proposition in the new novel Pharmakon, by Dirk Wittenborn, which the author discusses today on the Web site for the London Telegraph).

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