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Culture War Roundup for the week of June 19, 2023

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The Titan submersible suddenly became very hot culture war.

The wikipedia link is quite thorough.

TLDR as of 2023-06-22 000000z seems to be:

5 people are trapped on a submersible that has lost contact with the outside world.

It was trying to visit the wreck of The Titanic.

Major effort rescue is on under way.

They are running out of air in the next couple of hours.

The name of the vessel is Titan (come on, no one can be that brazen, you are tempting fate)

The people are couple of billionaires, explorer, and the CEO of the company

The vessel can be opened only from outside.

The vessel used some off the shelf parts (like a logitech controller) and somewhat exotic materials.

Now comes the culture war

  1. Somewhat lack of empathy for the people there because of their status in the crazier places of the internet.

  2. The way the vessel was built and operated embodied the SV ethos. There are reports that it was not certified or audited by anyone, that the hull testing procedures were not adequate, that the company moved fast and broke things. So right now said ethos is having torn a new one.

  3. Surfaced a recording of the CEO bragging how they don't want to hire 50 years old white guys because they are not inspiring.

To me actually 2 is the most interesting one out there - 1 is just internet being the internet, 3 - if a small error could lead to death - hire the most safety oriented, pedantic and boring people there are to design your product.

But with silicon valley moving more and more prone to overtaking the meatspace - their physical products kinda suck. From smart thermostats to fridges to whatever we actually have degradation of the experience. So I think we are in a rough ride. And the more products they make smarter or move fast - the more human lives will be at stakes.

On one hand it's hard for me to be mad as the CEO and designer of the sub was also the operator and appears to have gone down with his ship. At the same time the more I read the less surprised that something went wrong. When a former employee raised concerns about the design's safety the response seems to have been "Shut up, if you won't do what we say, we'll just hire someone else who will". Accordingly, I'm tempted to read "we don't want to hire 50 years old white guys because they are not inspiring" as we don't want to hire experienced engineers because they'll rain on your parade by questioning your brilliance and insisting on expensive things like extensive dive testing and triple redundancy on all safety-critical systems.

His comments about the old white guys are absolutely a cover for hiring cheap, impressionable fresh-outs, to his investors and possibly to himself.

But I have to wonder... is the sentiment wrong? He's absolutely correct that, if he hired experienced people, they would force him to take a maximally conservative approach. It would take many more years and millions of dollars to get to the point of taking paying passengers to sites like the wreck of the Titanic. It's easy in hindsight to see the current crisis and say it was a stupid decision, but I have previously read comments from people on The Motte lamenting that modern people are too afraid of their mortality and unwilling to take risks. I've felt it too, the desire for adventure, for glory, and lamented that the Earth now feels too small to support those things. I have a small amount of sympathy for the CEO because I think he felt the same way. He was fully aware of the risk he was taking - there is a video of him reading, without apology, the waiver signed by his customers which lays out explicitly that the submarine is experimental and could result in serious injury or death. And the fact that he was on board shows he was willing to face those potential consequences.

An interesting comparison is SpaceX, who have a similar approach in some ways. They hire young enthusiastic engineers and take a "move fast and break things" approach, which has resulted in spectacular failures. The devil is in the details, of course. Most obviously, the launches which carry the most risk don't have any passengers on board. There are also industry veterans among their ranks, and the young engineers are selected from the top of their class. OceanGate reportedly hired a graduate who was considered qualified because they were a surfer.

Ultimately, I don't refute the popular sentiment. This guy and his company were not smart and they've suffered the consequences. However, part of me is saddened that future submariners will have to live in this man's shadow, partially for better but mostly for worse.

This is only tangentially related, but just today I watched this year's instalment of John Wick, and the episode's smug asshole discharged how he doesn't believe in second chances, because those are for the men who fail. The obvious to me rejoinder is that if you select for men who never fail, over a long enough timeline you will end up with people who never do anything at all. And looking at our real world, what outside of the digital realm has been done in half a century?

I have previously read comments from people on The Motte lamenting that modern people are too afraid of their mortality and unwilling to take risks. I've felt it too, the desire for adventure, for glory, and lamented that the Earth now feels too small to support those things.

As someone who might have made one of the comments you're referring to: it's important to keep in mind that context is everything. You can risk your life for a good reason, or you can risk your life for a stupid reason. Going to see the wreck of the Titanic in a sub that, apparently, any experienced engineer could have told you was unsafe, seems like a stupid reason to risk your life to me. At the very least, I don't see any particular glory in it.

And anyway, there's nothing particularly adventurous about going to a place that other people have already gone, using technological means that are already well understood. In general, adventures aren't waiting for you "out there" somewhere, in some special place, waiting for any old person to just stumble upon them. If we can speak of such things as "adventure" or "glory", then we must recognize that they arise out of the network of relations that one finds oneself embedded in. The adventures of Napoleon or Caesar weren't grounded in their location in a particular point in space, but rather they were grounded in who they were: what they meant to other people, what they could command of other people, the way they influenced the structure of (symbolic) events that took place around them. It's not the sort of thing you can find by just looking in the right place.

The upshot is that there is absolutely no shortage of adventure to be found on Earth today. I mean my goodness, we're watching the suicide of an entire civilization in real time! People willfully not reproducing, sterilizing their own children, effacing their own culture... it's fascinating. And you know, if the optimists have it right, we stand on the precipice of the automation of all human cognition (i.e. the obliteration of all value and meaning). What could be more adventurous than all of that? It's certainly more interesting than any rock in space, or any hunk of metal at the bottom of the ocean.

What was the long-term business plan of the company? If it was just trying to build a tourist trap for the world's largest ball of yarn but for rich people, I agree that this was stupid, through and through. But if it was pioneering new submersibles that could help us navigate and map the sea floor, defend against military competitors, scout for deep sea mining prospects... I dunno, that's pretty admirable in my view, even if the engineering was dumb dumb dumb.

Their marketing certainly seemed tourist-trap oriented -- I watched the James Cameron interview and he casually noted that nowadays you can just go and buy a sub with your choice of depth rating (up to and including "unlimited") if it's serious work you're interested in.

"Attempting to innovate in a space where all of the problems have already been solved by serious people, but you don't know this because you are not yourself a serious person" is a pretty classic Silicon Valley startup pitfall.

That's all just a matter of opinion though. You might not find any interest in a "hunk of metal at the bottom of the ocean" but many people clearly do. If the CEO was being truthful about his desire to inspire people, then his submarine could have been a stepping stone to letting the average person view the Titanic with their own eyes, and further beyond, opening the depths of the ocean to occupation and exploitation. History has shown there is plenty of glory in colonization!

What really determines if your risk was stupid? An old saying goes, "if it's stupid and it works, it ain't stupid." Likewise, if this Titanic exploration venture worked, would we be calling it stupid?

I do agree there is plenty of adventure to be had today, and as someone who finds "rocks in space" pretty interesting I am participating in the greater efforts to explore and exploit them. Consider my original post a bit of nostalgia.

It's easy in hindsight to see the current crisis and say it was a stupid decision, but I have previously read comments from people on The Motte lamenting that modern people are too afraid of their mortality and unwilling to take risks.

Both can be true. For an experimental exploration vessel, maybe "damn the redundancy, full speed ahead" was the right answer, even given the risks. For a tourist vessel it just seems dumb. It's the difference between the Wrights flying the Wright Flyer and trying to use the thing in regular passenger service.

The Wrights were looking to sell Wright Flyers. They sold training as well.

Some people also died on Wright Flyers, including one man who was a passenger on a flight piloted by Orville, Thomas Selfridge. He was an Army officer being trained to fly, and was the first ever airplane fatality. That didn't kill the company, but it did prompt the Army to put its training program on hold, and prompted the Wrights to put greater focus on safety.

For a tourist vessel ... the Wrights flying the Wright Flyer

Funny enough, the Wright brothers almost did kill Teddy Roosevelt in 1908 when they crashed their plane in a public demonstration. Roosevelt was scheduled to be the passenger but due to last minute scheduling conflict was replaced by an Army Lieutenant who was killed in the crash.

It was the first fatal plane crash, and the first "I was almost on that plane" story as well.

This is the nature of taking risks, no? You can always say in hindsight that it was a bad idea, but when you succeed it's a triumph. They can seem more or less sensible in the prior analysis, but you're only really going to know if your assumptions are correct once you try it.

It seems like the lesson here is ‘we should let 130 IQ people who are in touch with reality do whatever they want, barring obvious cases of lunacy like testing an Orion drive in the atmosphere, and make everyone else follow strict safety measures’

Needless to say that will never happen.

If only it were so simple. Even the high IQ people with previously successful ventures come up with real stinkers. Many such cases.

Needless to say that will never happen.

It was the norm from the early 1800s, but that norm started degrading in the 1920s, and was definitively over by 1970.

Not coincidentally, the rate of breaking new ground in terms of technological innovation ground to a screeching halt roughly 20 years after that.

During the telecom boom?

It was the norm from the early 1800s

What does this mean though?

There was simply much less stuff to DO before the 1800s, and certainly before say, the 1600s. It wouldn't have made sense to let people deploy new LLMs without regulations, or let factories pollute as much as they wanted, or let people go diving in untested carbon fiber submarines, because there was no AI and no factories and no submarines.

And for what scientific research did exist, there were certainly norms that regulated it. Dissecting dead bodies was taboo in various times and places, for example. Or, you know, the whole Galileo kerfuffle.

Or, you know, the whole Galileo kerfuffle.

This is a tangent but Galileo wasn’t prosecuted for his research, he was prosecuted for lese majeste violations against the pope while making enemies in the dumbest ways possible. I’m not going to claim that’s a good thing, but it’s not actually an example of scientific research being hushed up.

The thing you get prosecuted for being different from the reason they really want you put away is not a new phenomenon. I'm vaguely annoyed by the extent to which Catholic apologetic regarding the Galileo affair seems to have won the day (I blame Kuhn, who gave Catholics the greatest apologetic they could ever want). The post-Trent Catholic Church really was pretty hostile to science (the medieval church far less so), and that really did contribute to their sucking the exhaust of Northwestern Europe for 450 years.

And when Galileo published his theory initially, he got away with it. Where he started getting in trouble was when he decided to defend his theory by making ad hominems on powerful and well connected people, which escalated to him calling the pope a moron.

Lese majeste laws against figures who are technically correct but being assholes is not a good thing, but it also isn’t an example of prosecuting scientists.