Friday, November 16, 2012

PCCs, Nuclear Subs, and Mythological Engineering

With the low turnout in the PCC elections yesterday,  and this interesting piece on the construction problems with the UK's new nuclear subs, I can't help but think of Barthes' "Mythologies" and the state we're in regarding symbolism vs engineering.

i. asking the right questions

Barthes lays out a sketchy-but-useful/interesting framework for signs and symbols, and in an ever more mediated world (first through broadcast media such as TV, and increasingly through short-attention information-overload) this framework seems more relevant.

The 3 main questions that a mythological viewpoint helps get at are:

  1. Is what we're doing actually working?
  2. If not, can we find out why not?
  3. And if not, are we willing to identify where our own beliefs are causing those reasons?
None of these are significantly mythological - we can fail at something because we lack understanding or experience, for instance. Indeed failing is also learning, if the context and expectations are set out properly.

But the PCC and Nuclear Sub cases, when viewed from a symbolic, mythological viewpoint, become a lot more understandable.

ii. nothing to see here

In the case of the PCC elections, it's telling that many people voted not to improve the operation and efficiency of their Police force, but to keep out people who they think would make their Police force worse. Question #1 has moved from "is it working?" to "is it not breaking?". Or, in other words, from "how can we improve things?" to "how can we stop things from getting worse?"

This shift in rationale is essential to understand. It shows that politics, a symbol in itself, has become a stronger signifier for maintaining the status quo than for setting out sustainable solutions that involve cross-society engagement. We can say that Democracy has become about keeping people out rather than integrating people in.

The PCC elections are clearly to be seen in a light of localism and "democratic accountability". The elections are a symbol for democratic principles, but ones which have left behind everyday operations of how policy becomes policing. The "polis", in every sense, has become an abstract notion, and can only surely be less empowered because of that.

Not only was it seen to be more important to make the system "votable" than have a working system, the idea of the vote itself took precedence over the voting process.

iii. an aside: symbolic actions

Barthes contrasts the object as a "symbol" to the object as part of an "action" - eg. a woodcutter chopping down a tree performs an action on the tree, and so there is a real-world interaction and effect with the tree. However, the image of a woodcutter cutting down a tree, or a generic image of a tree in itself, is "symbolic" in that it has no direct, real-world consequences. A logo of a tree may act as a standard, but is an indirect effect, and can certainly be detached from the actions it inspires. (Many people find it easier to be inspired by a logo than to act based on inspiration.)

iv. unclear power

Nuclear power is another symbol, as any fan of Dr Strangelove will understand. The paradox with nuclear power is that it is "inherently" (or "naturally", as Barthes would put it) powerful and therefore dangerous - we accept this without question. By wielding "Nuclear power" as a symbol, we also wield an intrinsic argument for more control and global sanctions - because power is concerned with potential rather than actual abilities.

This paradox leads to the problems seen under the HMS Astute nuclear programme. Building nuclear power as a symbol is very different to building nuclear power as a "thing" in the real world.

The paradox is this: You cannot design a machine (or an organisation, or a person) based on symbolic or economic principles.Sure, they can feed into the process, but engineering needs to maintain an inherent, internal coherence to provide a "thing" which functions as a whole. Allow a fragmented economic-political process to take priority, and you will end up with a fragmented machine.

Ironically, the nuclear machine does not depend on the nuclear symbol in order to work, but the symbol is impacted by the effectiveness of the machine. In undermining the effectiveness of the machine, the symbol also devalues itself. 

v. tappity-tap

Churchill said that "Scientists should be on tap, but not on top". I don't believe it's a case of scientists (and engineers, and anyone that designs any kind of process) being on top of  politicians, or vice versa though. The two "sides" have very different briefs and contexts that need to work with each other. There is a "what" and a "how", and the twain will always meet somewhere.

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