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Titan: a reflection of our insanity

I was depressingly unsurprised by the Titan tragedy which the establishment media has been so keen to turn into an hour-by-hour Hollywood-style nail-biter.  For those of us who grew up in the 1960s, the coverage has been reminiscent of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission.  As a child, I remember rushing home from school to turn on our rented black-and-white TV to catch up on the efforts to save the three astronauts.  It wouldn’t surprise me if kids around the world had been doing the same as the Titan tragedy unfolded… but with one big difference – the Apollo 13 astronauts were saved, and my parents were spared the task of having to explain to a young child (I was nine at the time) that sometimes people do incredibly dangerous things, and often they end up dying.

That though, is as far as the comparison goes.  Because none of the astronauts who boarded an Apollo mission was in denial about the risk they were taking.  Nor was the army of scientists, engineers and technicians on the ground who had planned and “war-gamed” every potential risk – which is why they were able to turn the lunar lander into a lifeboat to begin with.  And so, Apollo 13 was, in its way, a reflection of that civilisation… one which understood risk, valued the skills and knowledge of scientists and engineers, and one which could tell the difference between pushing the limits of what is possible as opposed to blindly engaging in techno-utopian fantasy.

This, too, is why the Titan saga reflects our current dystopia.

To begin with, Titan was not so much a submersible, as a homemade carbon fibre bucket “identifying” as a submersible.  Former Royal Navy commander Dr Chris Parry has referred to it as “the equivalent of a kit car made in the shed.”  This is not just hyperbole.  It turns out that previous expeditions had suffered problems, including – perhaps most worryingly – in 2020, signs of “cyclic fatigue” made Titan unfit for expeditions to the depth required to reach the wreck of the Titanic.  Nor is it clear that this issue was ever rectified, since at the time of the tragedy, the owners have avoided US safety regulations, by launching from a Canadian boat in international waters.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the saga is imbued with crackpot realism from beginning to tragic end.  John Michael Greer gives a fictional definition of crackpot realism which is eerily similar to the behind-the-scenes development of the ill-fated submersible:

“Crackpot realism is one of the downsides of the division of labor. It emerges reliably whenever two conditions are in effect. The first condition is that the task of choosing goals for an activity is assigned to one group of people and the task of finding means to achieve those goals is left to a different group of people. The second condition is that the first group needs to be enough higher in social status than the second group that members of the first group need pay no attention to the concerns of the second group.

“Consider, as an example, the plight of a team of engineers tasked with designing a flying car.  People have been trying to do this for more than a century now, and the results are in: it’s a really dumb idea. It so happens that a great many of the engineering features that make a good car make a bad aircraft, and vice versa; for instance, an auto engine needs to be optimized for torque rather than speed, while an aircraft engine needs to be optimized for speed rather than torque. Thus every flying car ever built—and there have been plenty of them—performed just as poorly as a car as it did as a plane, and cost so much that for the same price you could buy a good car, a good airplane, and enough fuel to keep both of them running for a good long time.

“Engineers know this. Still, if you’re an engineer and you’ve been hired by some clueless tech-industry godzillionaire who wants a flying car, you probably don’t have the option of telling your employer the truth about his pet project—that is, that no matter how much of his money he plows into the project, he’s going to get a clunker of a vehicle that won’t be any good at either of its two incompatible roles—because he’ll simply fire you and hire someone who will tell him what he wants to hear…”

Okay, Titan was pretending to be a submersible rather than a flying car – although the engineering challenges can be even more daunting – and Stockton Rush was only a billionaire… a second division Musk or Bezos.  But the media treated him as if he was the real thing.  It turned out that Rush was more like convicted fraudster Elizabeth Holmes.  Just as Holmes, remember, had dreamed of inventing a blood test which didn’t require needles, so Rush grew up dreaming of a submersible which defied the accepted laws of physics:

“Once upon a time, a little boy dreamt of being an astronaut, then Captain Kirk of the Starship Enterprise, and from there Han Solo, commanding the Millennium Falcon. That same boy took apart his stuffed bear to study the mechanism that made the animal talk. When this boy became a young man, he built his own fiberglass plane from a 600-page manual and a kit, starting in his mother’s garage. Decades later, he envisioned a new kind of crewed submersible in a unique shape, utilizing materials not yet used in deep ocean exploration. A submersible that would defy convention and have the potential to democratize ocean exploration. Meet Stockton Rush, founder of OceanGate Expeditions, creator of the Titan submersible.”

By “defy convention” and “democratise ocean exploration,” it turned out that Rush meant “use cheap materials” and “sell trips to the bottom of the ocean to rich chumps.”  Or, as he explained later in the interview:

“Essentially, the difference [between Titan and other submersibles] is the carbon fibre and titanium pressure vessel. Carbon fibre is used successfully in yachts and in aviation, but it has not been used in crewed submersibles.”

We now know the reason for that… more or less the same reason why nobody has ever conducted a blood test without a needle being involved.  Something that the “50 year old white guys” (i.e., the ex-military people who were experienced in operating submersibles at extreme depth) Stockton Rush refused to hire would probably have been at pains to explain.  But it turns out that at least some of the OceanGate engineers were not quite as silent as in John Michael Greer’s fictional version of crackpot realism.  Indeed, Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs at The New York Times reports that:

“Years before OceanGate’s submersible craft went missing in the Atlantic Ocean with five people onboard, the company faced several warnings as it prepared for its hallmark mission of taking wealthy passengers to tour the Titanic’s wreckage.

“It was January 2018, and the company’s engineering team was about to hand over the craft — named Titan — to a new crew who would be responsible for ensuring the safety of its future passengers. But experts inside and outside the company were beginning to sound alarms.

“OceanGate’s director of marine operations, David Lochridge, started working on a report around that time, according to court documents, ultimately producing a scathing document in which he said the craft needed more testing and stressed ‘the potential dangers to passengers of the Titan as the submersible reached extreme depths.’

“Two months later, OceanGate faced similarly dire calls from more than three dozen people — industry leaders, deep-sea explorers and oceanographers — who warned in a letter to its CEO, Stockton Rush, that the company’s ‘experimental’ approach and its decision to forgo a traditional assessment could lead to potentially ‘catastrophic’ problems with the Titanic mission.”

The bit of the story that Greer called correctly was that a CEO so detached from reality would surely fire any engineer with the cojones to speak the truth to power.  Which, according to Rebecca Morelle and Jake Horton at the BBC, was precisely what happened to David Lochridge:

“Mr Lochridge ‘stressed the potential danger to passengers of the Titan as the submersible reached extreme depths.’ He said his warnings were ignored and called a meeting with OceanGate bosses but was fired…  The company sued him for revealing confidential information, and he countersued for unfair dismissal.”

In this sense at least, this was a tragedy long in the making.  While it is unlikely that NASA’s Apollo project managers would have ignored safety concerns raised by engineers, by January 1986, this is exactly what NASA managers were doing… again, with tragic results.  It was a slightly different set up, insofar as the engineers were employed by a sub-contracting company whose income depended upon keeping the NASA project managers happy.  And so, when the engineers suggested that attempting to launch a space shuttle in cold temperatures was a really bad idea, the various managers conspired to ensure that the message was never received.  The result was that 73 seconds into its flight, the Challenger exploded, killing the seven crew members.

The process which led to the Challenger disaster turns out to have followed a familiar process in which people tried to raise the alarm but were either silenced or ignored.  And at its roots is one of the unforeseen consequences of neoliberalism – the severing of feedback mechanisms.  Most obviously, the trades unions that neoliberal governments set out to destroy, used to be able to act as a kind of collective whistleblower – acting as a go-between conveying issues spotted on the shopfloor to an organisation’s managers.  Outsourcing had a similar result, since it became increasingly difficult for sub-contractors to raise problems without risking their future income.  And so, increasingly, we all learned to keep our heads down, to tell the bosses what they wanted to hear, and keep our fingers crossed that tragedy didn’t strike.

Another trend which began with the Challenger disaster was what we might call “risk tourism.”  On board the ill-fated flight was a teacher, Sharon Christa McAuliffe, who had been selected to teach and conduct experiments from space – having been selected via a scheme set up by President Reagan two years earlier.  Despite McAuliffe receiving training, this was very much a public relations initiative, which had played down the inherent risks of being launched into space.

So long as rich states were the only entities capable of launching people into space, the tragic lesson that space travel was – and remains – inherently dangerous could deter further frivolity.  But in the final phase of neoliberalism, so much wealth has flowed to the top that a handful of godzillionaires have been able to resurrect space tourism.  Except that this time around, the entry qualification for a seat on a rocket – or, indeed, on a carbon fibre bucket masquerading as a submersible – is merely a large wad of cash… and no training or prior experience is necessary.

And so, perhaps a metaphor for the final, “stakeholder capitalist” phase of neoliberalism itself, we end with a tragedy in which an unseaworthy vessel conveys excessively rich people to the final resting place of an unseaworthy vessel which conveyed excessively rich people to their doom 111 years ago… a metaphor for the coming implosion of the western empire itself.

As you made it to the end…

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