Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Dodging the "Gross Negligence" Bullet

This morning Al Jazeera, with the assistance of their wire sources, released an account of BP's internal investigation of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and the ensuing disaster in the Gulf of Mexico that extended to its shoreline and, in some cases, further inland. Here is the fundamental summary from their story:

BP said in the report published on Wednesday that the accident rose from "a complex and interlinked series of mechanical failures, human judgments [and] engineering design".

The key question that faces both workers at BP and shareholders in the company is whether or not such a conclusion will provide defense against any charges of gross negligence that may be filed in a court of law. Ultimately, however, that quoted phrase basically argues that this was a system far to complicated to support blame being fixed on any single element.

Those who prefer the study of literature to the study of engineering should recognize this as familiar ground. If you strip the mechanics and engineering out of that phrase and simply recognize that human judgment can almost never cope with any heavily interlinked system, you have the same sort of diagnosis that pops up in just about every novel of social misfortune by Charles Dickens, best summarized by that phrase "nobody’s fault" in Little Dorrit. (For those averse to literature, one can also find a similar analysis of the current economic crisis by Paul Krugman and Robin Wells in the latest issue of The New York Review.)

I am willing to accept that both offshore oil platforms and financial systems have attained a level of complexity beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. However, without denying that this is the case, the question we should be asking is whether or not it has to be so. Have we become a global society that has enslaved itself to being manipulated by both physical and social systems that we really do not understand and probably have no hope of understanding in any serious way? I suspect that this is not quite what Friedrich Hayek had in mind when he felt that the threat of "serfdom" was serious enough for him to circulate his analysis through The Reader's Digest; but theories of self-organizing systems were still in their infancy when Hayek wrote his diatribe. From Hayek's point of view, the threat of any controlled system was that the controllers would enslave the controlled; but what we have learned from both the financial crisis and the Gulf crisis is that one can be enslaved by a controlled system even if there is no explicit human agent doing the controlling. This is the great existentialist dilemma that we are shackled by chains of our own forging. We just never appreciated the extent to which technology would provide the means both to build and to fasten those chains. Now that we are bound, we discover that there is no one to whom we can appeal in an effort to recover our freedom.

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