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Day 121 Sophisticated Technology

NPR | Hungry For Oil: Feeding America’s Expensive Habit

A nice quick look at America’s current hydrocarbon extraction technologies.

But this:

New technology has changed oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico too. As seen in the wake of BP’s blown-out well in the Gulf, companies have sophisticated technology like remote-controlled submarines. That means they can explore for oil in places humans can’t even go. Sometimes the projects resemble a space mission.

I seriously thought the next line was going to be “Can you say hi to Gaston The Gator, kids?” Oh dear. Where do I start? Remote-controlled submarines have been around for decades. Inside the crust of the earth, where humans could never go, is normally where hydrocarbons come from. Remote sensing, seismic … oh, never mind. Yes, operating in deeper water depths is cool. Now move along.

While I developed and utilized some hella amazing and new Sophisticated Technology as an oil worker, the way NPR and the rest of the media utters the phrase, you’d think it is a special, infallible weapon bestowed on us mere mortals by a fearsome sky god. Oh, drill rig of omens, give me petroleum beyond petroleum.

Technology is not magic, it’s a set of tools and processes developed by humans to address our problems. Thus, anthropomorphizing it, imbuing it with super-human powers and, worst of all, not questioning its effectiveness is not exactly productive on the part of the news media. Why? Because even the most Sophisticated Technology on the planet is only as good as its human operator. Again, the potency of any technology ultimately comes down to the humans in control of it, all the way from proper design and maintenance to not cutting corners and taking the proper, prescribed safety precautions during a malfunction. If the humans in charge are lazy, incommunicative, penny-pinching shitheels with limited imaginations, chances are the technology will not do what it was made to do and maybe even … wait for it … fail. So quit ooohing and aahing at a company’s New-Fangled Technology and investigate and report the human culture behind its use.

Speaking of chance, there’s something amiss about the usage of “low-probability, high-cost event” to describe this oil spill. One problem with such an event is that it doesn’t occur in isolation and the effects of many events of varying magnitudes are cumulative in a finite-resource environment. Another issue I have with it is, all things remaining equal, one doesn’t figure out the probability of recurrence until another such event occurs. Will it? Won’t it? Who knows? If this can’t be answered with a certain degree of confidence, calling it a low-probability event is probably a waste of time. I offer to our esteemed media that the language shift to that of true prevention and effective, scale-sensitive disaster management, away from probabilities of recurrence and other buzz-concepts dropped by corporate PR departments.

And then this: “Focus on the low-probability side of that equation … The fact that you can count on one hand the kind of blowouts that have occurred in the face of these tens of thousands of wells is a pretty remarkable testimony to the safety and the risk management that the companies provide.” Gee, think of all the blowouts that could have happened! We’re doing you a favor. Even if it’s our job, ferchrissakes! You tell them that on our behalf, NPR!

It appears a possible BP pipeline leak is being investigated up here in the Midwest. Not low-probability and not high-cost when compared with the Gulf. But not Sophisticated either, I fear. We have a long way to go.

4 comments… add one
  • Blair August 18, 2010, 4:10 PM

    If you must tilt with windmills, may I be your Sancho Panza?

  • Maitri August 18, 2010, 4:31 PM

    Wait, does this mean you’re my wingman or my voice of reason, saying, “Take care, sir. Those over there are not giants but windmills. Those things that seem to be their arms are sails which, when they are whirled around by the wind, turn the millstone.”

    • Blair August 18, 2010, 5:25 PM

      Wingman, definitely, the giants are real.

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