The Titan Affair
What lessons can we draw from the tragedy of the submersible?
All of last week, as I followed the tragic Titan affair playing out, an aphorism I made up a decade ago was on my mind: Civilization is the process of turning the incomprehensible into the arbitrary.
What do I mean by that? Here’s an example: The incomprehensible mystery of lightning streaking across the sky turned slowly into the exciting science of electricity studied in labs, and then into the arbitrariness of electric utility bills and power industry regulations.
This process plays out in every technological domain, and I want to view the Titan tragedy in light of such a process playing out in the world of submersibles.
The two ends of the process are opaque in different ways. A thing is incomprehensible when you lack adequate concepts and mental models to think efficiently and confidently about it. A thing is arbitrary when there seem to be no good particularly good reasons for it to be the way it is, and many seemingly good reasons for it to be some other way. Science owns one end of the trajectory; politics owns the other end. The middle? That’s the domain of much of engineering.
The archetypal incomprehensible thing is an unexplained natural phenomenon. The archetypal arbitrary thing is a bureaucracy.
The tragic fate of the Titan submersible features both ends of this evolutionary process. Pressure vessel design (both negative and positive pressure) is one of the oldest fields in engineering, but by no means a fully understood one. It is only “mature” in the sense that it is an old field in which the rate of accidents and failures has been brought down to an acceptable level through gradual trial-and-error and evolved best practices. It is not mature in the sense of being deeply and satisfyingly comprehended at a theoretical level.
One sign of this is that it is governed by some of the oldest standards and practices bureaucracies in the world (the idea of “boilerplate” comes from actual boilers). Standards and practices that Stockton Rush, the CEO of OceanGate, the company behind the Titan, fatally misread as a mark of ossified resistance to innovation in a mature field rather than justified caution in a poorly comprehended one. About the only positive thing you can say about him is that he apparently wasn’t knowingly misleading others. He apparently believed in his view of submersible engineering enough to ride in his own unsafe vessel. He had skin in the tragically hubristic game he set up. And those who boarded his vessel apparently chose to agree to ominous terms laying out the risks, and the lack of compliance with standards.
What sense can we make of this tragic tale?