Philosophy and the study of technology failure

image: Adolf von Menzel, The Iron Rolling Mill (Modern Cyclopes)

Readers may have noticed that my current research interests have to do with organizational dysfunction and largescale technology failures. I am interested in probing the ways in which organizational failures and dysfunctions have contributed to large accidents like Bhopal, Fukushima, and the Deepwater Horizon disaster. I’ve had to confront an important question in taking on this research interest: what can philosophy bring to the topic that would not be better handled by engineers, organizational specialists, or public policy experts?

One answer is the diversity of viewpoint that a philosopher can bring to the discussion. It is evident that technology failures invite analysis from all of these specialized experts, and more. But there is room for productive contribution from reflective observers who are not committed to any of these disciplines. Philosophers have a long history of taking on big topics outside the defined canon of “philosophical problems”, and often those engagements have proven fruitful. In this particular instance, philosophy can look at organizations and technology in a way that is more likely to be interdisciplinary, and perhaps can help to see dimensions of the problem that are less apparent from a purely disciplinary perspective.

There is also a rationale based on the terrain of the philosophy of science. Philosophers of biology have usually attempted to learn as much about the science of biology as they can manage, but they lack the level of expertise of a research biologist, and it is rare for a philosopher to make an original contribution to the scientific biological literature. Nonetheless it is clear that philosophers have a great deal to add to scientific research in biology. They can contribute to better reasoning about the implications of various theories, they can probe the assumptions about confirmation and explanation that are in use, and they can contribute to important conceptual disagreements. Biology is in a better state because of the work of philosophers like David Hull and Elliot Sober.

Philosophers have also made valuable contributions to science and technology studies, bringing a viewpoint that incorporates insights from the philosophy of science and a sensitivity to the social groundedness of technology. STS studies have proven to be a fruitful place for interaction between historians, sociologists, and philosophers. Here again, the concrete study of the causes and context of large technology failure may be assisted by a philosophical perspective.

There is also a normative dimension to these questions about technology failure for which philosophy is well prepared. Accidents hurt people, and sometimes the causes of accidents involve culpable behavior by individuals and corporations. Philosophers have a long history of contribution to these kinds of problems of fault, law, and just management of risks and harms.

Finally, it is realistic to say that philosophy has an ability to contribute to social theory. Philosophers can offer imagination and critical attention to the problem of creating new conceptual schemes for understanding the social world. This capacity seems relevant to the problem of describing, analyzing, and explaining largescale failures and disasters.

The situation of organizational studies and accidents is in some ways more hospitable for contributions by a philosopher than other “wicked problems” in the world around us. An accident is complicated and complex but not particularly obscure. The field is unlike quantum mechanics or climate dynamics, which are inherently difficult for non-specialists to understand. The challenge with accidents is to identify a multi-layered analysis of the causes of the accident that permits observers to have a balanced and operative understanding of the event. And this is a situation where the philosopher’s perspective is most useful. We can offer higher-level descriptions of the relative importance of different kinds of causal factors. Perhaps the role here is analogous to messenger RNA, providing a cross-disciplinary kind of communications flow. Or it is analogous to the role of philosophers of history who have offered gentle critique of the cliometrics school for its over-dependence on a purely statistical approach to economic history.

So it seems reasonable enough for a philosopher to attempt to contribute to this set of topics, even if the disciplinary expertise a philosopher brings is more weighted towards conceptual and theoretical discussions than undertaking original empirical research in the domain.

What I expect to be the central finding of this research is the idea that a pervasive and often unrecognized cause of accidents is a systemic organizational defect of some sort, and that it is enormously important to have a better understanding of common forms of these deficiencies. This is a bit analogous to a paradigm shift in the study of accidents. And this view has important policy implications. We can make disasters less frequent by improving the organizations through which technology processes are designed and managed.

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