How industrial accidents shape industrial-technological civilization
23 July 2013
In Industrial-Technological Disruption I tried to describe the systemic disruptions to the cycle that drives industrial-technological civilization — science inventing technologies that are engineered into industries that create new instruments for science, leading to further inventions. This cycle of escalation is impeded by counter-cyclical trends such as science experiencing model crisis, stalled technologies, and unintended consequences of engineering.
Among the unintended consequences of engineering I specifically cited industrial accidents. I explicitly discussed industrial accidents in Impossible Desires and Industrialized Civilization and its Accidents. I also discussed industrial accidents obliquely in Complex Systems and Complex Failure, which was concerned with the ways in which complex systems fail; it is a feature of industrial-technological civilization that as science and technology become more sophisticated, the systems that they produce become more complex and therefore exemplify complex failure when they fail. We like to think that we learn the lessons of our accidents and do better next time. And we do. We learn some hard lessons at the cost of lives, capital, and wasted time.
Learning our lessons, however, does not prevent future industrial accidents, because the cycle that drives industrial-technological civilization develops by continually revolutionizing production, and the continual revolutionizing of production means that there are always new scientific discoveries, new technologies, and new industrial processes. New and unfamiliar industrial processes mean new and unprecedented industrial accidents. And it is for this reason that industrial-technological civilization will always involve industrial accidents. One could say that industrial accidents are the natural disasters of industrial-technological civilization.
Thus while industrial accidents seem to be mere contingencies, ultimately irrelevant to the great project of industrialization, they in fact play a constitutive role in industrial-technological civilization, much as natural disasters play a decisive and constitutive role in agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization. It cannot be otherwise, living, as we do, in an accidental world, in which the importance of the uniqueness of the individual also attaches to the uniqueness of individual events, including accidental events.
There is another sense in which industrial accidents shape industrial-technological civilization that is perhaps even more radical than that outlined above because of the way that it ties in which the maturation of industrial-technological civilization, and therefore with its potential axialization.
Many observers of the regime of contemporary industrial civilization have noted that regulation almost always comes after there has been a major accident that results in multiple deaths. This is one of the ways in which the representatives of the institutions of industrial-technological civilization attempt to demonstrate to their constituents that they have learned the lessons of industrial accidents and are taking measures to address the problem. But, as observed above, industrial-technological civilization will always produce industrial accidents. This means that as industrial-technological civilization develops, it will always produce more accidents, these accidents will usually result in legislation and regulation to address the causes of the accident (ex post facto), and the regulatory burden on industrial will always increase even as new technologies are introduced — technologies which often make past dangers (and past regulations) irrelevant.
Thus the maturation of industrial-technological civilization becomes not an expression of the central idea of the civilization in mythological form — as with the axialization of the nomadic paradigm in the great cave art of paleolithic prehistory, or with the Axial Age religions delineated by Jaspers — but a legalistic compilation of regulations (and it could be argued that this formal legalism represents the essential idea of industrial-technological civilization). We have seen this before in civilization, as with the Corpus Iuris Civilis of the Byzantines, also known as Justinian’s Code.
The increasing legal formalism of mature industrial-technological civilization has significant consequences. In an early post, Exaptation of the Law, I argued that law has an intrinsic bias in favor of the past. In that post I wrote the following:
If we think of the common law tradition, in which there is no constitutional basis but only a history of case law, it is obvious that precedent plays a central role. A ruling in the past establishes a convention that is followed in later rulings preserves the past into the present. And we may think of the establishment of a constitution or formal statutes as a “re-setting” of precedent. Laws and constitutions are not written in a vacuum, and the legal history that precedes such an effort must loom large in the minds of those so occupied.
Industrial-technological civilization develops by continually revolutionizing production, and yet it is being driven by its own institutions in the direction of legalistic regulation biased in favor of the past. This tension comes dangerously close to institutionalizing permanent stagnation, which suggests that the development of industrial-technological civilization carries within itself the seeds of its own existential risk.
And we must not fail to see the central role of procedural rationality in industrial-technological civilization. In Capitalism and Human Rights I argued that the rule of law essential to the emergence of industrial capitalism was subsequently exapted by human rights advocates, and since a rigorous conception of property rights, rigorously observed, is a necessary condition of the development of industrialized capitalism, once these rigorous legal institutions began to be applied to human rights such claims could not be readily denied without calling into question the same property rights that made that civilization possible.
Thus we already have a reference in which industrial-technological civilization has been forced by its own institutions to accept principles that could be said to compromise the unconditioned pursuit of industrial capitalism. It is, then, not unprecedented to speculate that these same rigorous legal institutions of industrial-technological civilization may force that civilization into strangling itself with regulations and legislation that is feels compelled to observe even at the expense of its continued vitality. Indeed, in so far as the first signs of stagnation are social ossification and a de facto feudalism within industrial society, we can see that this growing legalism is perfectly consistent with the view that crony capitalism may be the mature form of industrial-technological civilization.
While this is not a happy prospect for me, the good news here is that, in so far as permanent stagnation is an existential risk of industrial-technological civilization, if we can understand the structures that generate this risk, we can employ our knowledge in the mitigation of that risk.
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