A little more social imaginary, a little less ideology of control

–Engineers profess the need for large hazardous systems to “fail gracefully.” But that assumes a degree of control over technological failure as it is happening and, as far as I can tell, there is nothing “graceful” about a large technical system failing or failing to recover.

It’s also that “control” which is problematic when it comes to the operations of large critical infrastructures. These infrastructures have to be managed beyond their technologies and stated regulations in order to be reliable, that is, to ensure the continuous and safe provision of services considered vital to society.

Another way to put the point is that these systems can’t be controlled for efficiency’s purposes as they cannot be managed reliably that way. That’s why infrastructures are socio-technical systems, never technical systems on their own or even in large part. Control of technologies for efficiency or regulatory purposes only is out of the question.

–Matters get worse when the claim is “taking back control” over these complex systems. Not only is this delusional; the control-language feeds into ideologies of today’s alt-right and alt-left:

Again, the nation has become the ideological center of gravity, which the new populists purport to rescue from the vices of socialism and liberalism, both of which are described as alien. “Taking back control” is a slogan that easily resonates in a region [like Eastern Europe among others] that for too long suffered from too much external domination.

Ulf Brunnbauer at https://www.ssoar.info/ssoar/handle/document/80697

The reality is that large systems, be they nations or their lifeline infrastructures, are complex and that what complexity does, with yes-but’s and and-yet’s, is insist that context not only matters, it must as well defamiliarize and decenter any true-believing allegiance, populist or otherwise.

The follow-on insight—one’s statement of his or her true allegiance entails our having to evaluate any such allegiance-within-context(s)—is an old one but an under-acknowledged in my view.

For, as I understand it, power is power precisely when it insists the human brain, hardwired as it is to evaluate, must now be over-ridden in the name of a true allegiance. And, as many have said before, getting people to ignore what can’t be controlled actually takes a lot of effort, time and money.

–So what?

It means that even anti-utopians have been too ideological at times. Karl Popper, philosopher, was known for contrasting Utopian engineering with what he called the more realistic approach of piecemeal engineering:

It is infinitely more difficult to reason about an ideal society. Social life is so complicated that few men, or none at all, could judge a blueprint for social engineering on the grand scale; whether it is practicable; whether it would result in a real improvement; what kind of suffering it may involve; and what may be the means for its realization. As opposed to this, blueprints for piecemeal engineering are comparatively simple. They are blueprints for single institutions, for health and unemployed insurance, for instance. . . If they go wrong, the damage is not very great, and a re-adjustment not very difficult. They are less risky, and for this very reason less controversial.

If they go wrong, the damage is not very great”!? It is precisely the case that blueprints for piecemeal health insurance–and educational reform, government budgeting and financial deregulation, for that matter–have been damaging. Here, utopian engineering is the least of our problems.

–Where so, one of several different question pushes itself forward: Would it better to say–more realistic to say–that the health care mess, along with other ones, manage us as we try to manage them?

How can messes manage us? One answer: when we believe realism is walking a fine line between, on one side, a kind of idealistic rationalism (e.g., “the steps for effective risk management and environmental analysis”), and, on the other side, the semiotically entailed fatalism of one obstacle after another to any such management and analysis.

A better answer would be to defamiliarize and decenter that kind of realism by insisting on social imaginaries predicated in different contexts and different cases that demand differentiation, comparison and evaluation. That too takes a lot of work.

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