Thursday, June 17, 2010

Another Division into Three Worlds

One of the major repercussions of my personal efforts to make sense of the writings of Jürgen Habermas has been my ongoing effort to recognize distinctions between the objective, subjective, and social worlds and to avoid cross-world confusions. With my more recent reading of Friedrich Hayek's The Sensory Order, I now also find myself thinking in terms of distinctions between the physical and phenomenal worlds. However, when I was recently reviewing for a friend some past work I had done in geology, I realized that this was only a portion of another more general three-world view, which Hayek actually recognized in The Sensory Order but never pursued in any great depth. Hayek recognized that the "sensory order" we impose on our phenomenal world is a product of observation; but he also appreciated that our capacity for observation is often enhanced by measuring instruments, such as a telescope or microscope. I wish to argue that, as our technologies for building such measuring instruments has grown more sophisticated, measurement itself has achieved the status of a "world" of its own that mediates between the physical and phenomenal worlds.

This is, by no means, an original insight. In retrospect I would have to say that I was first exposed to it through one of the programs in Jacob Bronowski's Ascent of Man series on PBS, which was followed not much later by a Nova program entitled "Through Animal Eyes." In both cases the point was the same, observation depends on equipment, whether that equipment is biological or mechanical.

I suspect that one of the reasons I am now thinking in these terms is that it is relevant to the current situation in the Gulf of Mexico. I have given this problem considerable thought, because some of the best years of my career as a researcher took place at the Schlumberger-Doll Research Laboratory in Ridgefield, Connecticut. I was there as part of a team that was basically concerned with providing Schlumberger with better software, and the specifications for that software had a lot to do with the way in which Schlumberger ran its business. The "core competency" (as we say now) of Schlumberger was measurement technology; and the value of that competency to the oil business still cannot be overestimated. After all the most important part of the oil business concerns what is below the surface of the earth, which makes it even more removed from our capacity for observation than much of what we see through telescopes and microscopes. The Schlumberger brothers began processes of invention that I assume continue to the present day that involved harnessing principles of electromagnetism, radiation, acoustics, and other disciplines of modern physics to develop instrumentation that would tell us what was underground. Some of that equipment could be used to identify where you wanted to try to drill a well, but most of it involved measuring devices dropped into the bore of the well as part of the drilling process.

The signals provided by those instruments could be called "observables" only through some stretch of the imagination. One could not, at an intuitive level, "see" what was there through the mediation of this equipment. Thus a major part of the oil business revolved around the analysis of measurement data for interpretations that told you things like where the oil was and what you would have to do to bring it to the surface. In Hayek's terms this means that analysts had to bring "sensory order" to the abundance of data provided by the measuring equipment. In theory that order could be grounded in the physical theory of how the equipment worked. To put it simplistically, the underlying physics would explain everything. Unfortunately, this was not necessarily the case for a variety of reasons. Some of the measurements were based on statistical sampling, and you did not always know whether or not the samples were representative. In other cases the behavior of the equipment might depend on physical properties of the earth that had not been anticipated. Thus, there was an inevitable disconnect between the physical world and the "measurement world."

This was probably the setting in which I first learned that not everything could be reduced to understanding the equipment. Sometimes you also had to understand the behavior of those responsible for doing the interpretation itself. It was how I discovered workplace anthropology before realizing that it was an intellectual discipline. The good news is that my decision to shift the focus of my research from the "measurement objects" to the "interpreting subjects" was, for the most part, well received by those subjects. These were guys who enjoyed talking about what they did, primarily because it was the most reliable means through which their skills could be passed to the next generation of interpreters. As far as they were concerned, talking to me was no different than talking to a new kid on site; and I still thank them for the most memorable years of my career in computer research.

None of this is meant in any way to apologize for what happened in the Gulf of Mexico on BP's watch. I was never an expert on safety procedures, but I knew how important they were. Nevertheless, I think it is important to recognize that it is extremely unlikely, if not impossible, to identify definitively what actually happened down where the drilling was taking place, let alone what is happening now. Anything that will ever be offered as "observation" will always be mediated by equipment; and not all interpretations of the signals from that equipment are necessarily "perfectly reliable" (whatever that may mean). Uncertainty is part of the job, and any investigation into what actually happened can only address whether or not BP was taking appropriate actions in the face of that uncertainty. Knowing what I know about our government, I have a hard time believing that either our Executive or Legislative branch has the resources to make such a judgment; and I can only hope that they will at least be able to draw upon the expertise of those more familiar with this aspect of the oil business.

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