Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Technological Progress

For those interested in technological progress, there are some interesting comparisons between the response to the Californian earthquake in 1906 and to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Speaking on BBC radio the other day, Simon Winchester (geologist and author of a recent book on the 1906 earthquake) asserted that the response from Washington was faster and better organized in 1906 than in 2005.

So much for a hundred years of communication technology then!

Of course, Winchester's comparison should not be taken as a simple case of "1906 good, 2005 bad". Some right-wing American commentators (e.g. Donald Luskin) have talked about some of the coordination failures in 1906.

And there are many other differences between 1906 and 2005, including the significant (some might say pernicious) influence of the legal system.

There are clearly some important lessons to be drawn from Hurricane Katrina about the management of complex sociotechnical systems of systems, and I have been talking about some of these on my SOAPbox blog (see especially posts on Efficiency & Regulation 1, 2).

But the technological question still remains, if there is anyone prepared to do the research and tease apart the various threads of explanation. To the extent that the US Government is less capable in any respect than a hundred years ago, what are the reasons for this, and how can this finding be reconciled with an optimistic view of the benefits of technology?

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