While trolling the book area of Costco one day, I noticed The Human Factor and bought it on impulse. It’s the best accidental discovery I’ve made since I found The Art of Innovation in a similar way a couple of years ago. This is the sort of book that had all kinds of potential to be boring but ended up being brilliant. Kim Vicente writes of the widening chasm between people and technology, and makes a good case for why this is a problem. He also offers some pretty good solutions. Consider something that he identifies as a consequence, in part, of badly designed soft technology (something many of us wouldn’t consider a type of technology) – work schedules that push medical workers way beyond appropriate limits:
The bombshell is was that human error in medicine was conservatively estimated to account for between 44,000 and 98,000 preventable hospital deaths in the United States alone…If the preventable mortality rate were the same in commercial aviation as it is in health care, then a wide-body jet-aircraft accident with no survivors would occur once every day or two.
We don’t let pilots work long hours, yet medical residents often work more than 30 hours in a row, 120 hours a week. This is only one of many examples of technology – some soft, and some hard – that doesn’t work. Vicente might as well have been talking about the church and our emerging culture when he said this:
The important fourth part of this developmental cycle is the transitional instability that results as new technologies and social structures arise and are overthrown. This fluid phase is a transitory no-man’s land: the traditional way of thinking has lost its appeal and is leading to social chaos, but a new way of thinking that can lead to social progress has yet to appear on the horizon (sound familiar?). And just when you think things are at their worst and society is totally out of control, real advances are likely to take place… The result is just what Wright would predict: we’re experiencing some big-time, nasty, transitional instability in the technological world – technology is wreaking havoc all around us. But until a new and better way of thinking crystallizes and takes hold, we’ll keep on resorting to familiar but outdated ideas, because they used to work and they’re all we have in our conceptual tool box. And given the lessons of history, things will have to get really bad before we let go of those old ways of thinking. All the signs tell me that we’ve now reached that point of intolerable but fertile transitional instability.
I have lots to read before I finish, but I’m liking what I’m reading so far. I like books that not only add information but also create new categories of thought, and (as he says) help build that conceptual toolbox. This is turning out to be one of those books.