The Bungle Index

DANIEL S. GREENBERG

October 15, 1991|By DANIEL S. GREENBERG

WASHINGTON — Washington. - A carefully monitored High-Tech Bungle Index should be added to the various conventional measures of how things are going in society. It's needed because more and more calamities are threatened by advanced methods and machines that are supposed to be our benevolent helpers.

The airlines, for example, are in a stew because collision-avoidance alarms, newly mandated by the government, have been erroneously popping off in flight, causing pilots to maneuver abruptly to evade objects that aren't there. These acrobatics have so far caused no more damage than upset meal trays, but the realistic fear is that a sudden shift of altitude could lead to what the system is supposed to prevent -- an in-flight collision.

Then there's the telephone system, of which huge sectors in various regions of the country have been prey to sudden blackouts in recent years. Nowadays, when telephones fail, a lot else fails too, from computerized financial transfers to air-traffic control.

After a major telephone blackout last June, a spokeswoman for C&P Telephone was quoted in the New York Times as saying that ''a few days ago I would have told you that what happened yesterday wouldn't happen.'' A telephone blackout in New York in September was traced to the staff's failure to notice that a backup battery system had taken over from a failed generator. After six hours, the batteries ran out, and the phones went dead.

Then there's the Hubble Telescope, a $1.5 billion orbiting observatory that was expected to revolutionize astronomy. Unfortunately, Hubble has serious vision problems, attributable to a faulty mirror that NASA failed to test before launching the facility into space. Various instruments on the telescope are performing well, thus saving the venture from a total washout. But since 10 years of planning and preparations went into this mission, the outcome is dismaying.

Modern medicine is replete with high-tech ''advances'' that go awry, from breast implants that turn out to be carcinogenic to many episodes of heart bypass surgery that turn out to be unnecessary.

Finally, and worst of all, are the alarming discoveries of how close Iraq came to building nuclear weapons. A nuclear Iraq was supposed to be impossible, because Iraq was a party to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, under which its nuclear power program was regularly inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

These inspections, long considered a fail-safe assurance against the spread of nuclear weapons, focused on careful inventories of civilian nuclear fuel to guard against diversions to weapons making. But unknown to the inspectors, Iraq developed a separate, full-fledged weapons-making industry that is now estimated to have been within a couple of years of producing a nuclear bomb.

Technophiles will insist that the causes of these assorted mishaps are unrelated and peculiar to each circumstance. And they'll argue that the solution to techno-failures is more and better technology. Perhaps so. But to get a handle on this problem, it would be useful to calibrate levels and trends in high-tech bungling, in the same way that we track economic and health matters, travel patterns, and so forth.

My own estimate is that a graph of the bungle index would show a line rising sharply to the right. If that's the case, maybe we ought to reconsider the value and reliability of some modern-day wizardries. When they fail to perform well they can easily make the transition from beneficence to menace.

Daniel S. Greenberg publishes the newsletter Science & Government Report.

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