Human beings can apparently do foolish things. Last month a teenager in New Delhi shot himself with his father’s gun while posing for a selfie. It’s not as rare as it seems — Wikipedia has a list of persons who have died taking their own pictures in questionable settings. They include posing in front of an oncoming train, creating a tableau of high-tension wires, adding artistic interest to the composition with the addition of rattlesnakes, and recording the results of pulling a pin from a hand grenade whose outcome the selfie-takers were eager to witness, and unfortunately did.
A number of these needless deaths involved animals, including ill-fated efforts to pose with bison, before a stampeding herd of Spanish bulls, and with a walrus at a Chinese water park.
Two recent events at American zoos show that even exhibits which had been safely operating for decades are not proof against unanticipated human error. On December 25, 2005, Tatiana the Tiger jumped out of her enclosure in the San Francisco Zoo to pursue and kill men later accused of intentionally taunting her. Just a few days ago, a 400-pound gorilla was shot dead after a four-year-old child crawled through the barriers and fell into the moat with the gigantic creature, forcing authorities to open fire rather than risk injury to the child.
Although there are now attempts to blame the child’s mother for failure to supervise the toddler, a review of all gorilla enclosures is now underway at other American zoos because, as one article put it: “[Y]ou just can’t be too safe.” Every possible failure must be guarded against, including the never-before observed ability of chimps to use a branch to get out of their enclosure.
The same desire to removal all conceivable danger eventually dominated the San Francisco tiger case. David Sacks, a spokesman for the USDA animal service, said the question of whether the victims taunted the tiger was “irrelevant from an Animal Welfare Act enforcement standpoint.” What mattered was that the zoo had failed to provide the required degree of safety irrespective of what the visitors did.
There is such a high expectation for safety at all costs that the political willingness to guarantee it is almost a constitutional litmus test. “Would Donald Trump have killed the gorilla?”, asked Gregg Birnbaum of CNN. “It was a very tough call,” the presumptive Republican nominee cautiously told the press when he was asked about the controversy.
These same psychological needs drive the demand of gun safety advocates, who — in the words of Newsweek magazine — want “firearms that work like your smartphone” so they can be safely issued to the U.S. military:
President Barack Obama is working on another piece of the puzzle.
This past Friday, the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Justice released a report at the request of the president on “boosting the development of smart guns,” as well as keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally disturbed and engaging with local elected officials on the problem of gun violence.
Among other things, the report suggests creating requirements manufacturers would have to follow if they wanted law enforcement to consider “purchasing firearms with enhanced safety technology.” It also says the DOD will aid in their development by providing rigorous testing of the firearms at the U.S. Army Aberdeen Test Center in Maryland.
The report also suggests making grants in the future, to help law enforcement agencies purchase the smart guns, which will inevitably be more expensive than regular weapons.
So, on no account should it be possible anymore to shoot yourself while posing for a selfie.
After the smart guns are mandated, the caring grenade may not be far behind. Steps are already being taken in New Jersey to criminalize walking “while distracted”:
“Thus far, no states have enacted a law specifically targeting distracted bicyclists or pedestrians,” said Douglas Shinkle, transportation program director for the National Conference of State Legislatures. But he added that “a few states continue to introduce legislation every year.”
The measure recently introduced by New Jersey assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt would ban walking while texting and bar pedestrians on public roads from using electronic communication devices unless they are hands-free.
Once upon a time, it was understood that a certain degree of skill was necessary to survive upon the Earth, and a role of society was to provide people with those skills.
Today, the emphasis is on reducing every possible source of danger so that people with greatly reduced skills can safely live upon it. What may be unrecognized in the shift is the degree to which this supposed idiot-proofing may contribute to actually increasing the total hazard.
By moving the burden of safe operation away from the operator and almost entirely to the product, advocates may be inadvertently creating greater dangers.
Author Rick Cook observed that society is constantly in:
… a race between software engineers striving to build bigger and better idiot-proof programs, and the Universe trying to produce bigger and better idiots. So far, the Universe is winning.
Today’s educational establishment has given up transmitting survival skills, and is teaching its students to demand “safe spaces” in lieu.
Perhaps the most famous example of incapacity outpacing technology is the Hillary Clinton email scandal. According to the Daily Caller, Clinton’s insecure private server was created (in part) to compensate for her technical shortcomings:
As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton never used a password to protect her computer emails, and she was clueless about how regular emails work on a conventional computer, according to a deposition of a foreign service officer at the State Department.
She also continued to push for the use of her personal Blackberry phone in the Secretary’s highly-secured government suite even though National Security Agency (NSA) regulations barred its use in that office.
To allow her to remain with what she knew, she hired someone to build a private server. As Clinton told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on The Situation Room:
I thought it was allowed … I knew past secretaries of State used personal email.
Clinton associate John Podesta offered an explanation in a similar vein:
“Had Secretary Clinton known of any concerns about her email setup at the time, she would have taken steps to address them. She believed she was following the practices of other Secretaries and senior officials,” John Podesta wrote in a memo obtained by Buzzfeed.
If only she knew! But she didn’t. And if some terrible foreign policy disasters resulted from the Russians eavesdropping on Clinton’s communications, it would not be her fault — the system would have simply failed her.
Like the four-year-old toddler at the Cincinnati Zoo, there existed a gap just wide enough for Clinton to blunder through, and someone in the State bureaucracy had let her do it.
For modern purposes, the fact that anyone taunts the tiger, or poses in front of a speeding train, or pulls the pin on the hand grenade to see if it works is irrelevant. The world must be adjusted to us, for we can no longer adjust to the world.
Our risk-averse, guaranteed idiot-proof world may in fact be increasing risks much more than we realize. Natural selection suggests intelligent risk-taking plays an important part in survival. The ability of organisms to venture beyond the “safety” zone, from the primordial sea to shore, from dinosaur land to bird-filled sky, from the early cradle of humanity to the next valley contributed to life as we know it today. We are losing our civilizational capacity to take risks.
Of the nine manned space flights beyond Earth orbit in the 1960s and ’70s, one failed almost completely and the crew survived only by a near-miracle. The true ratio of safety to catastrophe on an Apollo spaceflight is now known to be one in nine. Had today’s politicians known it, humanity would never have reached the Moon. Indeed, no one has attempted it in nearly 50 years.
But are we any safer in a world of moron-proof zoos, selfie-resistant guns, and presidential candidates who don’t even know how to implement password protection on desktop computers? Can idiot-proofing compensate for ignorance?
The security we mandate on those terms may be illusory. Ultimately it is a dangerous world — or a dangerous universe. The human beings huddled inside the Beltway or on Earth are not immune from unforeseen catastrophe any more than our ancestors were. The difference is that our ancestors knew it as late as the 1970s.
A society that will risk nothing ultimately chances the possibility it will lose everything. Demanding that we be protected raises the question of where we will find the people to do it. Our best guarantee of survival is still competence; to obtain this commodity we should value skill and daring again.
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