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zeynep tufekci @zeynep
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Heard about @Elonmusk's rescue "submarine"? The cave-diver who masterminded the Thai cave rescue called it a "PR stunt"—that was the politest thing he said. You might be wondering: well, he tried to help. Let me explain with this thread and this NYT piece. nytimes.com/2018/07/14/opi…
First, there is nothing wrong with wanting to help. That's great. Wonderful. I commend @elonmusk and every single person who says they'd like to help—anyone, anywhere. The problem isn't that at all. But there is a huge lesson here for all of Silicon Valley—if they can listen.
I dabbled in caving (😱 no more, too dangerous) and am a certified diver (only open water!!!) and I have a long-term interest in institutional safety *and* Silicon Valley. I don't want to put down any effort to help but I want to explain this and more.
As humans we do a lot of dangerous things—some for fun (like climbing or cave-diving!) and some routinely as part of modern life (drive, fly, factories, medicine) etc. Many more mature industries and sports have extensive experience in iterative, long-term learning in safety.
There is obviously a lot of smart and creative people in tech, but they suffer from an Achilles Heel trio of weaknesses: self-perceived idealism as excuse, overconfidence in their capabilities outside their own areas of expertise, and lack of attentiveness to details and harms.
In contrast, people like those top cave-divers who found & rescued the boys (their technical achievement & bravery is one for the ages) come from an opposite culture that is no less innovative but very very different. It's also quite modest so that hides the amazing nature of it.
Stanton and Volanthen—who first made it to the boys and shot the remarkable video of them huddling in jerseys—brushed off media while first entering the cave, refusing to give interviews and just said “we’ve got a job to do.” Volanthen went back to work day after rescue.🤷‍♀️
So Musk's sub was impractical, and would never work. Ok. What's the harm & why is Vern Unsworth so irritated? Well, he's the one who organized everything, got Thai authorities to let cave-divers take over. One Thai Seal had perished and more would, along with boys. Listen up now.
Do have any idea what it must have been for some random guy to convince the Thai gov't to let a bunch of cave-divers run the whole thing? There were so few of them who could do this that the whole thing halted while they slept. That's why rescuers hate PR stunts AND VIP visits.
Some billionaire-struck gov't official might say, hey, let's try. It distracts. It's ok to develop a back-up plan, and given odds of a rescue, why not? What's not okay is to broadcast it, to bug the rescue team directly (find consultants!), and for media to give it such coverage.
Now moving beyond the cave rescue. As I write, Silicon Valley innovation has advantages.. for a young industry. No more. Software is eating the world, and it's time for the other approach also—iterative learning, domain expertise, safety culture, do no harm as a principle, etc.
But the idea that being smart in one domain qualifies one to just dabble in another is dangerous. For example, for long, many SV companies refused to understand they're in people business and tried to handle it as a side issue that they can handle because they are smart. NOPE.😱
Repeat: I'm NOT criticizing @elonmusk for trying to help. But his irritation at a Thai official saying his sub was sophisticated but not practical (rescue was almost over) may perhaps be a learning moment? Wealth, fame and power are curses to judgment. None of us would be immune.
Point isn't that everything should be like the airline industry or like cave-diving. But, look. After the 1996 TWA crash, they put the plane back together. Investigated for four years. Redesigned things. That's why commercial flying is so safe. This approach needs more respect.
The flashy tech solution and the savior make good movies. But what makes most things work is the quite hero/ine embedded in institutional knowledge—divers who brought decades of knowledge. The Thai officials who let go—must have been hard. Farmers who let their fields be flooded.
In the comments for my piece, some Musk fans think people like me are just ungrateful for the saviors who steps up. I hope this thread explains it more—nobody is ungrateful. But the worst thing to do to a famous/rich person is to be their uncritical fan. nytimes.com/2018/07/14/opi…
I do seem to have a zillion of them defending Musk with enormous zeal right now in my mentions because he replied to this thread, and I wouldn't wish this kind of fame and fan-base on my worst enemy. 😱😬😱🤷‍♀️
The rescuer I've quoted in the first tweet made the "PR-stunt" comment re:Musk's sub, not me. That diver is not a bystander—if someone made a movie, I'd make him the key character. Still, he clearly spoke out in irritation and I was trying to explain why.
But my piece—and this thread—is an attempt to go beyond the irritations of the moment and discuss what the tech world could learn from the slow, iterative and deeper safety cultures—but there's a lot to recommend to the can-do optimism in Silicon Valley. Not in isolation, though.
I’m dumbfounded by this. I’d understand getting mad at me (whatev 🤷‍♀️) but Vern Unsworth is, by all accounts I saw, a key hero of the miraculous rescue. The kids certainly—and many more divers likely—would be dead if not for him. Apology badly needed.
Seems Musk has deleted his inflammatory tweets & his responses to me. 🤷‍♀️That makes it hard to follow threads so here's my screenshots on why developing a back-up option QUIETLY is great but doing it with gobs of publicity has potential for harm.
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