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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.

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.

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.