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Beyond EngineeringHow Society Shapes Technology$
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Robert Pool

Print publication date: 1997

Print ISBN-13: 9780195107722

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2020

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780195107722.001.0001

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PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (oxford.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2021. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use. date: 19 October 2021

Managing the Faustian Bargain

Managing the Faustian Bargain

(p.249) Eight Managing the Faustian Bargain
Beyond Engineering

Robert Pool

Oxford University Press

A quarter of a century ago, Alvin Weinberg offered one of the most insightful— and unsettling—observations anyone has made about modern technology. Speaking of the decision to use nuclear power, the long-time director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory warned that society had made a “Faustian bargain.” On the one hand, he said, the atom offers us a nearly limitless supply of energy which is cheaper than that from oil or coal and which is nearly nonpolluting. But on the other hand, the risk from nuclear power plants and nuclear-waste disposal sites demands “both a vigilance and a longevity of our social institutions that we are quite unaccustomed to.” We cannot afford, he said, to treat nuclear power as casually as we do some of our other technological servants—coal-fired power plants, for instance—but must instead commit ourselves to maintaining a close and steady control over it. Although Weinberg’s predictions about the cost of nuclear power may now seem naive, the larger issue he raised is even more relevant today than twenty-five years ago: Where should society draw the line in making these Faustian technological bargains? With each decade, technology becomes more powerful and more unforgiving of mistakes. Since Weinberg’s speech, we have witnessed major accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Bhopal, as well as the explosion of the Challenger and the wreck of the Exxon Valdez. And looking into the future, it’s easy to see new technological capabilities coming along that hold the potential for far greater disasters. In ten or twenty years, many of our computers and computer-controlled devices may be linked through a widespread network that dwarfs the current telecommunications system. A major breakdown like those that occasionally hit long-distance telephone systems could cost billions of dollars and perhaps kill some people, depending on what types of devices use the network. And if genetic engineering becomes a reality on a large scale, a mistake there could make the thalidomide debacle of the late 1950s and early 1960s look tame.

Keywords:   air traffic control system, complexity, learning by doing, nuclear power, organizational failure, radiation exposure, space shuttle, trial without error, uncertainty

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