I read, with great sadness, of the wreck of the Titan. There were, undoubtedly, technical reasons why this submersible, carrying five human souls, broke up, lying now in the same graveyard as the Titanic. We pray that the impacted families might find peace in this moment—and in the coming times when lawsuits are filed, and horrible things are spoken about their loved ones.
There is a great lesson to learn from this disaster—not the obvious lessons about the all-to-human failings of individual engineers or managers. The lesson we take from this should be broader. We should learn a lesson about man’s confidence in his own abilities, in our ability to overcome nature, and in a certain kind of progress.
The Titanic was the symbol of an age that believe technological progress could solve anything. In 1910, George W. Melville said the engineer “should not rest content simply with doing work that makes for our comfort and happiness,” but should also “take a vital interest in the work of government and lend his trained ability and judgement to its perfection.”
When the Titanic struck an iceberg, it did not just tear a hole in the side of the ship. The iceberg also ripped a hole in the public perception of science and engineering as the path to utopia. World War II brought the idea of human progress through technological progress to an end. Technology could be used to kill millions just as easily as it could be used to create wealth material goods.
Seeking to Conquer Nature via Technology
The grave of the Titanic is a testament to an age that believed it could conquer human unhappiness through technology. If we can just build an unsinkable ship, think what happiness that would bring to the world.
The invention of the computer and computer network, in the 1960s, led to a resurgence of the belief that man can, and should, overcome nature—not only the nature that is “out there,” but also the nature “in here.” The problem, according to modern progressives, is not that we cannot build enough houses and cars, but rather that we need to build better people. The discovery of large-scale data processing, the seamless connection of everyone to a global network of networks, and the ability to architect choices to guide people’s decisions and beliefs, led to a confidence that we can reshape the world by reshaping the people of the world.
The Titan’s designers and builders were in the thrall of a culture that says move fast and break stuff. A culture that holds technical progress can, and should, be used to create better people. They believed they could build something cheaper and safer by making it simpler—just like the Titanic’s makers believed they could build something safer by adding complex system to control the inflowing water if the hull was breached.
Now, as during the aftermath of the Titanic’s loss, there will be much said about the individual engineering and management mistakes leading to the loss of the Titan. But these mistakes, whatever might be found through the coming investigations and legal cases, must be viewed in the context of our age, which believes that anything is possible, that because a thing can be done it should be done.
Titanic’s and Titan’s designers both believed they could overcome the limits of nature. They were both built in ages that hold the very nature of humans can be changed through technological progress. Now both the Titanic and Titan rest in the same watery grave, testaments to ages that believed nature herself can be reshaped and remolded by the constant progressive march of technology.