Human Fallibility and Dangerous Technologies

From: James J. Hughes (
Date: Sun Oct 22 2000 - 12:25:04 MDT


        Lethal Arrogance:
        Human Fallibility and Dangerous Technologies
        Lloyd J. Dumas, Professor of Political Economy
        University of Texas (Dallas)

        (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999)

  Lethal Arrogance: Human Fallibility and Dangerous Technologies is a
warning about technological hubris, about the unthinking assumption
that we can always control the technologies we create --- no matter
how powerful, no matter how dangerous --- and permanently avoid
disaster. We are humans, not gods. We may be extraordinarily capable,
but we are not perfect. The point of the warning is to focus
attention on the need to take the fact of our fallibility much more
seriously than we currently do in making social and technological

  Lethal Arrogance is not a back-to-nature, anti-technology tract. It
is both a wake-up call and a guide to making wiser decisions about
the technological directions we follow, decisions that profoundly
effect the shape of the world in which we live.

  The book is written simply enough to be accessible to the educated
layperson, while at the same time accurately enough to be credible to
technical experts. It approaches the problem of human and technical
fallibility from many different directions, combining the insights of
various fields of science and engineering with those of psychology,
sociology, social psychology, medicine, mathematics, architecture,
political science and security studies.

  The argument is built carefully, step-by-step. It is supported by
reference to studies, survey and other data, and the analyses and
experience of experts, as well as many illustrative reports drawn
from newspapers and magazines, and long forgotten archives. All of
this is woven into a pattern that reveals the critical importance of
abandoning those technologies that are so dangerous that fallible
human beings cannot operate them indefinitely without triggering
disaster. In the end, Lethal Arrogance is a clear and strong argument
for abolishing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons of mass
destruction, as well as phasing out nuclear power and highly toxic
chemical technologies.

  After a brief prologue relating actual 20th century disasters to
the potential for 21st century technological nightmares, the first
chapter examines the positive and negative effects of technology on
human wellbeing, defines "dangerous technologies" and shows that they
have spread around the globe.

  The next four chapters deal with the implications of human and
technical failure in dangerous technological systems, including those
involving weapons of mass destruction. The first chapter in this
section (Chapter 2) focuses on the actual and potential threat of
nuclear, chemical and biological terrorism (as well as terrorism
involving other dangerous technologies). Chapter 3 looks at accidents
with nuclear, chemical and biological weapons as well as other
dangerous technologies that do not involve weapons. Chapter 4 deals
with the problem of safeguarding inventories of dangerous technology
products, the materials used to make them and hazardous waste
generated during their manufacture. Then, in this section's final
chapter, the possibility that human and technical failure might
someday trigger a full scale accidental nuclear war is considered.

  Chapters 6-8 considers the many dimensions of human fallibility.
First drug abuse, alcoholism and mental illness, then stress,
isolation and boredom in work and life are connected to the problem
of human error in dangerous technological systems. Finally, the
relationship of bureaucracy, "groupthink" and even group psychosis
(as in cult behavior) to human-induced technological disaster is

  Chapters 9 and 10 focus on the failure of technical systems in
general and computers as a particularly important special case. The
meaning of technological risk and the problematic nature of risk
analysis are discussed in Chapter 11.

  Chapter 12, the last chapter, considers what can and must be done
if we are to permanently avoid disaster.

J. Hughes "On Saturday, my teachers, me, and all
Changesurfer Radio my friends went to Never Never Land. It was a short trip." Tristan Bock-Hughes, 3

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