I am very pleased to present this guest post by Ed Regis, in which he responds to my review of his recently-published Monsters: The Hindenburg Disaster and the Birth of Pathological Technology.
I was very flattered to read such a glowing review of my book, and was equally glad to see your critical assessment of its deliriumâ argument and the pathological technology business.
I think you are right in your claim that part of the appeal of hydrogen airships was that they permitted long-distance human flight at a time when no real competitors existed. Your point is also sound that people accepted greater levels of risk back then than we do today, when we want everything to be absolutely safe and totally risk-free (as if that were possible). Still, I think the two points of view are complementary rather than mutually exclusive. Pragmatism and delirium were both at work, so it was a case of “both-and” rather than “either-or.”
I must confess that, speaking for myself, the magical quality of LTA craft exists even today: when I see the MetLife blimp aloft in the distance, even I feel somewhat enchanted by the sight. It has an otherworldly aspect that an ordinary winged aircraft simply lacks. (And I speak as a former private pilot.)
You also hit the nail on the head when you note that I provide few examples of pathological technologies. This is because they are rare rather than common, and, given how damaging they are, or could be if and when fully implemented, it is actually fortunate that they are scarce. But I do identify four defining characteristics of such technologies, and the three other examples I provide do seem to meet the defining conditions, so I see no escape from the conclusion that such technologies are real.
It is not quite correct to say that the SSC “never got off the drawing board.” As I described it (p. 284), the SSC was about 20 percent complete when abandoned, ten miles of the tunnel had been dug, seventeen access shafts had been sunk into the ground, some superconducting magnets had been built and tested [and failed the tests], and 2,000 people were employed on the project all for naught. Indeed, it took a couple of billion dollars to shut down the project over a period of several months.
In one of the comments, Guillaume suggested that my pathological technology theory does not work out on the ground that, other than for the hydrogen airship, the technologies in question did not mature. But maturation is not a criterion of a pathological technology as I define it. In fact, I argue that a large part of the point and utility of identifying such technologies in the bud is that we can perhaps avoid developing them fully, thus actively preventing them from becoming mature.
We proactively assess emerging technologies all the time. Consider, for example, nanotechnology, in the specific sense of atomically precise molecular manufacturing systems as proposed by Eric Drexler in Engines of Creation (1986). Such systems do not exist as yet, but their desirability has been debated for years. Other examples: Using genomic engineering to create designer babies, or to resurrect extinct animals such as the passenger pigeon. Are these good ideas? Finally, there is Elon Musk’s recent plan to nuke the Martian polar ice caps in order to warm the planet: Project Plowshare all over again! Is that pathological or not?
Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Ed!