Where distrust and dread are positive societal values

–Although typically not thought of as such, critical infrastructures are a key institutional mechanism for the distinguishing and dispersing social values.

Critical infrastructures instantiate social values not abstractly but as differences taken into account when societal reliability and security matter now. This differences—more properly, differentiated knowledge bases about and orientations to reliability at the event and system levels—are reconciled by infrastructure control rooms (where they exist) in real time and in the name of ensuring high reliability (including safety), then and there.

Trust is a good example of how a social value is specified and differentiated by infrastructures. Trust, it is common to say, grows at the rate of a coconut tree and falls at the rate of a coconut. Were it only that!

Those in and those depending on the infrastructure must trust control room operators and their real-time instructions. Broader discussions about “trust requires shared values” miss the fact that team situation awareness of control operators is much more about knowledge management, distributed cognition, and keeping a shared bubble of system understanding than it is about “trust” as a singularly important social value. For that matter, distrust is as core as trust. One reason operators are reliable is that they actively distrust the future will be stable or reliable in the absence of the system’s vigilant real-time management.

There has been much less discussion of this positive function of distrust as a social value. In contrast, “distrust” often takes the adjective, “polarizing.”

–So too for “dread.” Widespread social dread—as in the societal dread that drives the reliability management of very hazardous infrastructures—is almost always taken to be negative. Here too, though, dread has a positive function.

Every day, nuclear explosions, airline crashes, financial meltdowns, massive water-supply collapse—and more—are avoided that would have happened had not operators and managers in these large systems prevented their occurrence. Why? Because societal dread is so intense that these events must be precluded from happening on an active basis. (It might be better to say that we don’t know “societal dread” unless we observe how knowledgeable professionals operate and manage complex critical infrastructures.)

There is such fear of what would happen if large interconnected electricity, telecommunications, water, transportation, financial services and like did fail that it is better to manage them than not have them. We’ve structured our lives to depend on these systems, at least for right now. Certainly, the reliability professionals in the control centers of society’s critical infrastructures would be the last people to defang dread and fear or de-dramatize system failure.

(Thus the misleading nature of the exhortation, “Failure is not an option!” Failure, big-time, is always an ever-present reality; in fact, if it weren’t dread of such failures, we wouldn’t be managing the infrastructures as reliably as we already do in real time.)

We of course must wonder at the perversity of this. But that is the function of this dread, isn’t it? Namely: to push us further in probing what it means to privilege social and individual reliability and safety over other values and desires. We are meant to ask: What would it look like in world where such reliability and safety are not so privileged? What would flying look like if aviation rules weren’t written in blood?

For the answer to that question is altogether too evident: Most of the planet already lives in that world of unreliability and little safety. We’re meant to ask precisely because the answer is that clear. Hunting and gathering societies may be the most sustainable, but I do not remember any hunter-gatherer I met in Botswana in the early 1970s who didn’t want to quit that that way of life for something more safe and reliable. Their life was exciting enough, thank you very much (“In the war between safety and excitement”—note it’s a war—“reliability is somewhat a mixed blessing,” puts Adam Phillips, psychoanalyst and essayist).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s