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The Death of Technology

In 1985, a group of engineers discovered a flaw in a design. Using engineer’s diligence, this team collected data, performed tests, ran some models, and came to a very scientific conclusion: under certain conditions, the most complex machinery in existence on Earth had a fatal flaw, and something needed to be done. They followed the chain of command, and told the appropriate management team.

That team ignored the report.

On January 28, 1986, the exact conditions specified in that report came to be, and the well-formulated set of conclusions derived by those same engineers six months prior came to pass.

Due to unusually cold conditions on the ground, the o-ring seals on two solid rocket boosters gave way. High-intensity flames erupted from the casing in the wrong place, forcing the booster into the main liquid fuel tank, rupturing the entire assembly. The resulting explosion and erratic expulsion of the two solid rocket boosters left a cloud of smoke whose shape has indelibly etched itself on the minds of all Americans (and especially all engineers). The passenger compartment of the vessel continued on its ascent until, at 65,000 feet elevation, gravity finally beat inertia. The compartment, and the seven brave souls still strapped inside, plummeted horrifically into the Atlantic Ocean. The vehicle known as the Space Shuttle Challenger ceased to exist.

That management team was wrong, dead wrong. I hope they’ve led miserable lives since the day they put facts aside for the sake of a government contract.

The engineering team, however, was right on the money. They did their best to avoid this tragedy, but were ignored. The lead man of that team, Roger Boisjoly, quit Morton-Thiokol and toured the country, speaking to engineering conferences about the value of quality; the failure of arrogance, ambition, and haste; and the ugly reality of corporate malfeasance. Roger died on January 6th, 2012. In my view, Roger and that entire team of engineers were American heroes.

I was working in the college computer lab on that day, trying to turn a Motorola 68000 processor into something other than a hotplate. We had the launch on the small TV, but were barely paying attention. By this time, shuttle launches were so routine the countdowns and announcements were as mundane as elevator music. But there is something special about the droning of repetitive launch instructions: the minute something is amiss, you know it. The tone changes: the monotone becomes the emotional, the drone of hard facts becomes the stuttering of uncertainty. Something was wrong. We turned, and saw the corkscrew plumes of death through that tiny screen.

My heart sank that day. Here I was, studying fervently to become a skilled technician. Technology was always my dream job, from the first time I saw Scotty fret over his dilithium chamber. I took apart my Pong game, my radios, the family TV. I taught people how to work their VCRs and had to constantly clean the gunk out of my stepbrother’s Nintendo. I was programming in assembly and machine language and BASIC, but was really a hardware weenie. Circuit boards, op-amps, laser diodes, these were the shiz-nit. I loved physics, excelled at mathematics, and, plain and simply, loved making things work.

Yet there I was, watching technology die.

It’s not that technology ceased to exist. Au contraire, we were at the very beginning of the greatest technological revolution ever. It would simplify our lives, improve our productivity, extend our life, and connect the world. One cannot even compare the technology of 1986 with today. Touch screens? Optical chips? Dense wavelength digital multiplexing? Microminiature cameras? Still highly theoretical, if that, back then. We’ve made tremendous advancements, that 16-bit processor I would soon turn to slag is now a mere wafer in the I/O chip of that crappy PC your grandma uses to play Scrabble.

But technology is still dead.

I say it’s dead because we don’t care for it. We don’t respect it. We don’t cherish it. We don’t put our heart and soul into it. We throw something together, slap a fancy label on it, shove it in an appliance, and then hope — not for it to work, but to make us a big, hefty profit. And if it doesn’t, oh well, right into the scrap heap. Look, a newer, shinier bauble just got released at E3!!!

The Challenger tragedy was my first experience with poor quality and the disinterest that leads to it. And look around you, what do we have today? Microsoft, the foremost manufacturer of operating systems since the early 80’s, still can’t make an operating system worth a shit.  American car companies suffered from decades of quality neglect, only recently turning themselves around (whether this trend continues remains to be seen), and some of the murmurings coming from airplane mechanics make your head spin. Union Carbide failed to properly maintain one of their facilities and kills thousands. BP and its shoddy suppliers dumped millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico (the environmental effects of which are still undeterminable); and the Japanese, once paragons of quality, can’t even apply their own earthquake remediation science to their own nuclear reactors! Technology, as bright-and-shiny as it is, fails us on a daily basis, often with disastrous results. Why is that?

It fails us because we don’t care about it. We don’t want to care for it, nurture it, respect it. We want to use it and abuse it and toss it away. Do people want that hand-crafted North Carolina furniture that will live longer than you? No, they flock to IKEA to buy that cheap-ass particle-board shit that’ll degenerate to it’s natural elements within 18 months (and exude toxic gasses the whole way). Cheapcheapcheap, and tosstosstoss. And God forbid if you want to apply quality to your  job. If you want to take the time to fine-tune that dilithium chamber for optimal performance, safety, and long life, you’ll be fired for wasting your time and energy that could be better spent polishing Powerpoint presentations that prove just how smart your executives are.

Quality is dead. And therefore technology is dead. And therefore, people are dead and will continue to die. God bless you, Roger Boisjoly, and any other engineer who has risked his career in the name of quality and safety.

[Photo of Roger Boisjoly is copyrighted to the New York Times.]

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