Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#93, June 27, 2000


by Marylaine Block

Does it seem odd to you that Congress, in trying to find someone to blame for security problems at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, has chosen not the Lab's head or its security director, but the Secretary of Energy, Bill Richardson?

Isn't this a little like blaming Bill Gates if one of his lowliest employees downloads pornography? It's not like any of the foaming-at-the-mouth senators can say exactly what Richardson could have done to prevent it, short of personally sitting on those missing hard drives.

Of course he should make sure each national lab has stringent security measures in place, which he did. But how foolproof can any security system be against resourceful scientists who resent being treated as potential felons? (Does anybody recall that Richard Feynman's favorite pastime when he was working on the atom bomb was cracking Los Alamos safes?)

The same senators don't believe Al Gore doesn't know where a year's worth of his e-mail is. Oh, sure, the politicians and pundits say, the man who invented the internet now says he doesn't know much about computers.

But high-level executives in any line of business don't read and answer the thousands of e-mail messages they get every day, let alone figure out where to file them. I'm willing to bet the carping senators count on subordinates to read their own mail, understand the rules about what has to be retained (do they have to keep all those offers for unbelievable deals on inkjet cartridges?), and create a file system for them.

Congress doesn't seem to have grasped that we are living in an age of distributed responsibility. As laws and regulations and scientific information have multiplied, we've developed more complex systems to keep on top of them, hiring more and more experts on ever-narrower subjects. It's hard for any executive to even understand, let alone control, all of the systems they're responsible for.

When we put different doctors in charge of different parts of our bodies, we have to hope they not only know what they're doing, but also what the others are doing so they won't work at cross-purposes. But even good doctors working together can't save us if lab technicians read the biopsy wrong, pharmacists give out the wrong drugs, custodians don't keep the hospital clean enough to prevent infection, or insurance companies won't pay for the treatments we need.

The seamless whole that used to be our phone system is now a collection of different agencies with different responsibilities. When I lose my internet access, the problem could be in my computer, my modem, my phone line, or my internet service provider. There is no such thing as master technicians who can identify and solve all of those possible problems, even if they had the authority to do so.

As our systems get more complex, with increasing numbers of fallible humans making critical decisions, possible failure points multiply. All we can do is hope every part of the system works a it's supposed to, and appreciate the miracle that most of the time we fly without accident through crowded skies, our electricity and phone systems work, and millions of social security checks arrive on schedule.

You can't help wondering if it's a bug or a feature that complex systems make it difficult to tell where errors occurred - after all, that can be damned convenient for those who don't wish to be held accountable.

Those very senators who are holding Bill Richardson's feet to the fire also claim they want to do something about campaign finance (as long as it doesn't stop the buckets of cash flowing in), but gee, can they help it if the president won't sign their legislation? The president also claims to want campaign finance reform (as long as it doesn't stop the buckets of cash flowing in), but how can he possibly sign bills that tack on tax breaks and giveaways Congress knows perfectly well he can't support?

Everybody's responsible and nobody's responsible and everybody has a campaign issue. Let's hear it for divided government.

Since humans are fallible, let's just assume that every human system will fail at some point. Instead of looking for villains when that happens, our leaders should do what the National Transportation Safety Board does when a plane goes down: find out how systems contributed to human error, and make those systems better.

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