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<nettime> late to Volkswagen
David Garcia on Thu, 22 Oct 2015 03:08:14 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> late to Volkswagen

   Sorry that this is a rather late and somewhat synoptic addition to the
   recent thread on the Volkswagen scandal..

   The Volkswagen case reminded me of case study (more of an anecdote
   really) related by the distinguished Sociologist the late Ulrich Beck.
   It was a story he told to illustrate the process of institutionalised
   denial by which some organisations seek to mis-manage a new era of
   risk. The story is in a book of interviews with Beck published by
   Polity in 2002.

    By way of background, (I am sure many Nettimers will know) that Beck
   is best known for introducing the concept of the `risk society' which
   he first published on in 1992, a concept increases in relevance with
   every passing year. I revisited Beck's work after reading Michael
   Seemann's excellent `Digital Tailspin' one of the 'Network Notebook'
   series available as pdf from the Centre for etwork Cultures. Re-reading
   Beck looking for confirmation of my belief that Seemmann was
   effectively updating some of Beck's pioneering work for the social
   media age (and much more besides).

   Put very crudely Beck's concept describes a transition in our
   relationship to risk from a world (which he calls -first modernity-)
   based on a highly refined system of institutionalised approaches to
   anticipating and dealing with the unforeseeable, was based on the
   premise that accidents in the aggregate were absolutely predictable, to
   [what he calls second modernity] in which this well established program
   of making side effects calculable is progressively eroded by the
   political, economic, social and technological changes that result from
   the continuing radicalisation of the modernisation process.

    According to Beck earlier, first modern risk society
   (pre-gloablisation) presupposes side effects that are spatially,
   temporally and socially bounded. Without that precondition the old
   model can't function. However many organisations (indeed most of us)
   struggle to accept and come to terms with the crucial difference
   between probability and radical uncertainty, let alone come to terms
   with the fact that it is radical uncertaity that now dominates.
   According to Beck this basic misunderstanding permeates the mind-set,
   particularly of the natural sciences. It's a kind of denial in which
   institutions continue to function by denying that there can be such a
   thing as incalculable risk, even though such risks are inescapable
   continually forcing their way into institutions like a virus that
   weakens them from within.

   The story

   Beck tells a highly illuminating story which, though less scandalous
   than Volkswagen case, provides an example of how a certain kind of
   slippage that leads down the road towards fraud might begin with a
   common way in which capitalism's technical servants seeks to manage and
   mitigate risk under new conditions.

   In the story Beck is invited to talk about his ideas to a large Swiss
   company in Basel. The senior managers and scientists are very open and
   attentive. Perhaps too open for their own good as they bring up a
   specific example of a certain toxin they produced. It was something
   they used to increase the yield of certain plants, but which could have
   possible side effects if it ended up in the drinking water. It was a
   relatively unusual situation in that they were the world's sole
   producer of this chemical, so if it ended up in the drinking water it
   would have their name on it [... ]

    The technicians who had been on top of this problem since the
   beginning, said that the probability of this chemical ending up in the
   drinking water was practically zero. So they decided to set the
   acceptable tolerance limits extremely low, because they thought it
   would inspire confidence, and they were sure they could meet those
   limits. Their assumption turned out to be false. After people started
   using this protective agent for plants rather intensively, residues did
   start appearing in the local drinking water, with consequences they
   were still debating how to solve.

    Beck describes how their dominant attitude was "Oh this is silly, we
   set the tolerance level much lower than was necessary in the first
   place. Unhealthy side effects really only appear above level XYZ, so
   we'll just re-set the acceptable limits higher to what they ought to
   have been and that will solve the problem within the limits of
   technical and medical and rationality.

    It never occurred to them that by adjusting the acceptable limits
   after the fact that they ere doing the worst thing they could do as far
   as public confidence was concerned. To reset the higher limits under
   conditions like this had cover up written all over it even if it could
   be scientifically justified.

    For Beck the new kinds of risk socety that involves radical
   uncertainty rather than predictable probability. always raise the
   responsibility question as a burning issue. But rather than being
   answered tends instead to be systematically blocked out.   "The same
   instruments that were developed during first modernity to assign
   responsibility and accountability and costs, and which performed these
   tasks so successfully, lead under conditions of globalised risks to
   exactly the opposite result, to a kind of organised irresponsibility."



   U. Beck, 1992, Rsk Society: Towards a New Modernity. Sage


   d a v i d  g a r c i a
   Prof. Digital Arts & Media Activism
   Bournemouth University

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