April 26, 2011

A Web Designer on Fukushima

I’m not a nuclear expert. I am a 40-year-old Swiss web designer, with a degree in philosophy, living in Tokyo. And I’m a father of a two-year-old boy. I was kind of nonchalant about nuclear energy so far, but not anymore. For obvious reasons. I’ve read a lot recently; it’s hard to understand the discussion. I’m not talking about technicalities. One can learn the basics pretty quickly. I’m more confused about the overall logic of the debate. The debate about our future. What I’d like to know: Is more technology really the right solution? Don’t we have enough technology? What is it that we are really lacking?

As far as I can see some claim that the next generation of safe nuclear power plants will solve all problems; other people believe that only clean energy can save us from doom. Both parties operate with somewhat ironic notions (clean energy, safe nuclear power). And ironically, everybody agrees that humanity’s problems are due to bad technology that should be replaced with good technology. This in particular I find curious, because I don’t think that nuclear power plants were bad technology. As far as I know the technology as such is quite impressive. I still find it stunning how much raw power these nuclear power plants are able to produce with such a tiny amount of fuel. But as I said, I can’t really judge that. As a web designer, all I can say is for sure that:

  1. All the power plants I’ve seen so far look quite ugly
  2. In my world engineering is a matter of compromise, not perfection
  3. It’s usually not bad technology but bad practice that causes trouble

The Good the Bad and the Ugly

The Good

The web is based on pretty good technology. Even though it’s considerably younger, I’d say that it’s probably as advanced, as secure and as understood as nuclear technology. Maybe it’s even a tick ahead. After all, billions of hours of development and testing went into it.

I’m not saying that the web is an alternative to nuclear energy — I’m not that confused. What I’m saying is: The infrastructure and the top layer of the Web is so solid, that whenever things go wrong on the Web (which of course happens quite often), it’s usually due to too much ambition, or a lack of thought or experience in the way technology is used, that causes problems. And good technology is technology that doesn’t rely on perfection.

The Bad

Of course, I am not saying that there is no “bad technology”. There is bad technology; bad technology is technology not fit for its purpose, technology that lacks thought and consideration.

The lack of thought is a problem as old as humanity. Thinking hurts. And as with every form of pain, it’s a great business. The whole design business (putting thought into things) only exists because there is a lack of thought in the way things are constructed. As you might guess, web design is not an easy business, since most of our work is thinking. And it hurts.

The Ugly

Of course, there is an easy way to make money from that same lack of thought, in our business (use your buzzword radar to find them) as much as in other businesses. Throughout human history con men of all shades have used the lack of thought shamelessly in their favor. You can be sure that whoever promises cheap solutions (for example: social media marketing) to complicated problems (for example: the Internet) is trying to profit from your physical or mental laziness.

Politicians and corporations are particularly good at this form of charlatanry. In Switzerland for instance, the populist party now blames foreigners for the need of power plants. “If we didn’t have foreigners, we wouldn’t need nuclear power plants” is their new slogan. That’s not just bad thought, it’s evil: Blaming foreigners for the nuclear energy is as honest an argument as blaming blonde people for power plants. But I am digressing.

The Use of Thought

Thinking is hard work. Thinking clearly and consistently for hours and hours is something that only a few trained people can do. As the ancient Greeks have proven at length, thinking for hours and hours over dozens of years can lead to incredible results.

Sure, you can’t move mountains or even cut a tree by just thinking. So what’s the use of thinking if it doesn’t change anything? Thinking helps the economy of action. If you want to cut a mountain of wood, you’d better take the time to think and sharpen your axe before hacking away. I am convinced that if we all think with concentration for only five minutes every day our lives would be much easier. Unfortunately we believe that we have no time to think, rather than taking the time for it.

Applied Science and Truth

In the eyes of the ancient Greeks, applied science (speculate, test and see) would have been regarded as pure barbarism. In their eyes, only idiots test their thoughts in the world. Sophisticated people test their thoughts with other people.

In this mindset there is truth and truth is apparent — it doesn’t need to be forced out of a foxhole at gunpoint. Truth is something that is uncovered — it’s obvious, naked. If it’s not naked, it’s not the truth. Truth doesn’t need to be hunted down. It reveals itself. It’s not always what you hoped, but it’s clear. I don’t know if that concept of truth still makes sense today, but it’s certainly still a beautiful concept. (The skeptic position that there is no truth but only probability, and that everything is relative, is more popular. Many believe that this position is extraordinarily wise, forgetting that where there is no truth and everything is relative, wisdom has very bad cards.)

Science and Wisdom

As unpopular as the notion of truth is, in our time we can hardly afford aesthetic truth concepts. We need to test the results of our science because one of our main goals in developing science is to use it to build more technology. We don’t want to know in order to know, we want to know in order to use.

It’s hard to digest, but the goal of classic philosophy was not applicable knowledge or financial profit, it was done for the sake of pure reason. Or to put it in sweeter terms: out of love of wisdom. That is a massive difference. Not that the classic philosophers were completely against the use of knowledge — that’s impossible — but the practical usefulness of knowledge was not the primary goal of research. It was the desire to become wiser.

Wisdom is something we don’t seem to believe in anymore. How do we know if it even exists? It’s not measurable, not weighable, not countable.

Wisdom and Achievements

You can frown upon the unpractical ways of the ancient Greeks — “why think when you can test and know right away?” — their desire for such unmeasurable, unweighable, and uncountable baloney as “wisdom”, but this very unpractical philosophical method discovered and defined logic, democracy, art, philosophy, literature, and any form of natural science (including, among others, the theory of atoms).

The ancient Greeks out-innovated us without A/B-testing, mainly by thinking. And they thought all that in a (historically speaking) very short time span, with very few people.

Technology and Hubris

Techne, Technique and Technology

Technology is from a Greek word. “Techne” meant the way to do things (we now use the word “technique” for that). Technology is not the way but the means with which we do things. It’s more of a pragmatic, neutral notion than technique. We put a lot of thought into technology so we need less thought, effort and technique to achieve our goals.

Our civilization prides itself of its technological achievements. We are proud to achieve more with less thought, effort, and technique. We are so proud of our machines that only few people realize that other civilizations had invented many of them way before our civilization had even formed. For instance, ancient Greeks already had steam engines. However, they were not used for practical purposes.

Why didn’t they build railways, cars, and rockets? They didn’t dare. Using automatons for pragmatic tasks seemed just too much, over the top, inhuman. What held them back? Being as smart and inventive as they were, they definitely could have come up with a concept as obvious as wheels on rails. It was not the lack of steel or the missing pistons but the fear of hubris that prevented them from using the steam engine for more practical tasks. It was the fear of hubris.

Hubris? WTF?

While we all still have a basic understanding of what defines “hubris”, the fear of giving into hubris is not one of our first concerns anymore. To the contrary, we now call the cars that are supposed to save the planet “Hybrid” cars. If you look at what hubris (or hybris) originally meant, that’s quite ironic:

Greek for “insolence”, excessive pride that constitutes the protagonist’s tragic flaw and leads to a downfall.

Now, whether you believe in the Greek Gods or not, avoiding hubris still is a pretty reasonable approach. You don’t need to believe in Divine Intervention to understand why excessive pride is dangerous. Pride is the blindness that comes with power. And power and pride are as dramatic a duo as nitro and glycerin:

Hubris often indicates being out of touch with reality and overestimating one’s own competence or capabilities, especially for people in positions of power.

Power and Blindness

The reason why we are so proud of the machines is the power they give us. It was not easy to achieve all this power. It took us a couple of hundred years to develop those Aeolipiles into piston driven steam engines, coal engines, fuel engines, jet engines and atomic power plants. And they really are massively powerful. And the massive power of our technology is why we are so incredibly proud and incredibly blind today. For a half century we have actually been able to completely eradicate ourselves and make the Earth unlivable. We are way more powerful than any other civilization before us. What we sacrificed is what we now need most: wisdom.

“We need wisdom the most when we believe in it the least.” — Hans Jonas

The method that made us build, operate, and manage our awesome power goes back that very same barbaric thinking that Greeks would have frowned upon: Try and see. Which brings me back to my profession (which involves a lot of hybrid try and see).

A Designer’s Perspective

Forget that Old Shit

You may still feel completely comfortable and laugh about the Old Greeks, their superstitious fear of hubris, and their preference for reasoning over experimentation in researching the truth. You may still believe that the next generation atomic power plants are completely safe. And maybe you are right.

What do I know? I am just a web designer. Maybe really knowledgeable people do honestly think that next generation power plants cannot break. Maybe there is no such thing as hubris.

Engineering and Perfection

However I look at it, from where I come from (web- and application design) engineering is not a matter of perfection. It’s a matter of compromise. For websites and applications it just doesn’t make sense to assume that they never break. In my world there is no absolute predictability; in my world security is not just a technological problem. In my world, the weak spot of the technology I deal with is us: humans. The humans that build, operate, and manage technology.

I can’t say for sure whether perfect machines are possible, but I know for sure that there are no perfect humans to build them, manage them, and use them. Unless human nature becomes divine through divine intervention, any installations we build, manage, and operate cannot be fully trusted. I might be wrong, but it seems to me that any technology that threatens the existence of humanity (or a substantial part of it) should not be built, managed, or operated by humans.

Perfect People

And it also seems to me that technology in the hands of people who think they know everything, who also don’t know what they don’t know, is where things started to get really dangerous.

Whether you look at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, or Fukushima, the operators all knew a lot about nuclear science, but they didn’t appear to feel any hubris, and this allowed them to do what they did.

Conclusion

Experts

If you, like me, still want to replace bad technology with better technology (to my ignorant hybrid mind, clean energy still sounds like a pretty sweet thing), that’s completely cool. But, whatever we do next: Let us not just ask the experts. It’s not expertise that was missing, what was missing was reason, modesty, wisdom:

When the Kanazawa branch of the Nagoya High Court handed down a ruling in January 2003 nullifying permission that had previously been given for the construction of the prototype Monju fast breeder reactor (FBR), electrical power companies and researchers involved in the power industry were up in arms. At a debate about the court ruling, a university professor who was a proponent of nuclear energy employed his knowledge of specialized terminology to talk down an opposition-party Diet member. Later on, I witnessed the professor and some cronies smirk in the corner of the room as they muttered, “Take that, you amateurs.”

Many of them might be perfectly reasonable and honest, some might even be wise, but it can’t hurt to ask many different reasonable people from many different disciplines.

So, dear experts, you might disagree with my ignorant text, but don’t ever tell us again that we don’t understand enough about nuclear energy to form a relevant opinion. Don’t tell anyone they cannot have a relevant opinion on nuclear energy on the basis they will never understand the scientific technicalities of it like you do.

Citizens

And, to you, dear citizen, if you have doubts about your own knowledge: Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t have the brain, or the will to learn and think about whatever the problem is. That’s what the political and corporate charlatans want you to believe: They want you to be as ignorant as possible. So they can continue to insult our intelligence by claiming that only they can understand these matters, and to treat us like fools by promising that nuclear energy will save humanity, free of charge. That’s too good to be true. It is your civic duty to know what’s what, to have an informed opinion.

In reality, most people will understand enough about nuclear energy if they spend 15 minutes on Wikipedia. Anyone who cares about the problem should have a voice in this, whether they’re shoe makers, nurses, gymnastic teachers, grandmothers or hairdressers. There is not just a scientific, political, and managerial perspective on nuclear energy. There are many different very reasonable perspectives, and they all count — as long as they are honest and well reasoned.

Maybe the machines we need are not those that help us lift heavier weights than our arms can carry, run faster than our legs can move, see further than our eyes can see, hear more than our ears can hear — what we need is assistance to be able to think clearly. A thinking that allows us to rely less on technology.

Wishful thinking? Pretty words? Lame dreaming? Just look at the insane amount of energy all these Japanese electric air conditioners pump into the atmosphere because of bad insulation…

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