risks to life and liberty in communicating known unknowns

The precautionary principle is in essence surely scientific. It remains sceptical and vigilant in cases of the unsubstantiated and places the burden of proof on the novel. However, in the case of the small but frequent risk of a huge disaster, how cautious is cautious enough? If the risk of an earthquake is broad and uncertain, how should this uncertainty be portrayed in the media? I plan to comment on the governing of “known unknowns” as described by Donald Rumsfeld. I will be using the case study of the earthquake in 2009, in the city of L’Aquila in Italy.


The earthquake, that rated magnitude-6.3, took place on the 6th April 2009, with thousands of foreshocks and aftershocks recorded. From December 2008, these foreshocks were used in determining the probability of a main quake, but this science is notoriously uncertain. This catastrophe was devastating in itself with 309 dead, many injured and infrastructure damage resulting in homelessness. However, what makes this case extraordinary was the subsequent court case. This concluded that six scientists and a government official were guilty of manslaughter for miscommunicating the risk of earthquake. The Economist reported that the seven jailed “had taken part in a meeting of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, a government agency, on March 31st 2009”.

Not unlike the BSE scandal in the UK, it seems that while the science was uncertain, the communication to the public was overly reassuring. Accounts of the traditional Italian approach to earthquakes detailed a “cautionary “culture” of living in an earthquake zone”. Official reassurance was accused of promoting increased risk taking.This conviction was despite over 5000 scientists signing an open letter to the Italian president saying no prediction of earthquake is possible. It has been seen as an attack on science.  This case has had a substantial effect on the confidence of the public in seismologists and has caused scientists to become understandably more cautious and conservative.


The BBC World Service produced a follow up on the 4th anniversary presented by Ruth Alexander. She reported that American scientists calculated the risk for that day, of an earthquake of a magnitude greater than 6, as being 1 in 1000. Therefore, the risk of death was 3 in a million (with a massive uncertainty of between 1 and 32 in a million). This risk was then equated with riding a motorcycle for 18miles in the UK. So, would it have been responsible or reasonable to sound a call for evacuation? Since this incident, there has been a tendency to report a risk of 40% when the risk is thought to be between 0 -40%, even when it is closer to 0. Furthermore, raw data on tremors in the area are reported to the public. On top of this, Apps such as “Did You Feel The Earthquake” are widespread and numerous, reporting on all tremors, even those that cannot be felt by humans. Furthermore, twitter has been used by councils to advice residents to sleep away from home, leading to a wave of communications that can end in receiving a text saying merely “evacuate”. Cue incidences of evacuating schools, clearing hospitals and sleeping in cars on days like January 31st only for nothing to happen. Is an overreaction really better than an underreaction?

Should scientists stop giving advice? These events show the need to communicate with the public in a transparent but also useful way. It seems that Italians feel it should be their choice how conservatively to manage risk and that meaningful information is the probability of a serious earthquake compared to the baseline. This case seems to show a step towards advising on “known unknown” risk outside what can be claimed with the evidence available. However, equally, it shows the harassment and panic that can ensue if unprocessed data is reported, creating a reactionary and insecure audience. A middle way in communicating risk is called for in delivering appropriately phrased probabilities and allowing the public to apply these to their own individual values and vulnerabilities. Sheila Jasanoff in “Technologies of Humility” calls for “Acknowledging the limits of prediction and control”, and to “confront ‘head-on’ the normative implications of our lack of perfect foresight”. She also discusses vulnerability and the need to address individual needs rather than considering the merely population. This suggests modesty is a key element in making claims about the future.


Furthermore, this case seems to place a heavy emphasis on science and communication technology, scapegoating individuals to take on all responsibility. This seems to gloss over alternative criticisms, which would be expensive to rectify. More direct approaches could reduce the requirements to evacuate and lessen the damages in disaster. For instance, new building regulations and their enforcement could prove instrumental in protecting citizens long-term. Of the 309 killed, many were from student accommodation, showing how individuals can be vulnerable for structural reasons that should surely be further investigated. Another call has been made for education, so that people can better interpret what they read and hear from official and informal sources as well as empowering people in emergency.

In conclusion, I would advise an approach that takes the public’s values into account; in this case, perhaps the precautionary principle. I would also advise against speaking in absolute terms without data to justify such claims. Long-term solutions, which would act to reassure in the absence and protect in the presence of an earthquake seem to be under-addressed. Finally, it seems important to recognise the value of seismologists on the whole and standardise reporting to allow them to continue to assist this region.


the allure of the tech-fixed friend, lover and self

Watch “I forgot my phone” and tell me that this isn’t disturbingly familiar. I want to explore our increasing desire to meet in virtual spaces, avoid solitude and retreat into our personal devices. What is socially acceptable and possible, in public and in private, has been changed and shaped by new mediums of communication. We can, and even do: text at the dinner table, access pornography at our desks and avoid our own company. We have the ability to edit, design and even delete our identities and relationships – but what’s the harm?


Although some remain sceptical, “Internet addiction” is thought by others to have an adverse effect on relationships and leave us isolated. Phycology Today reports the concerns of virtual substituting, such as LOLs on social media rather than really laughing and hearing real laughter. Are we relating to our friends as they really are or to their facebook pages, twitter feeds and in skype dates? A senior at Boston University stated “I might be crying as I am typing ‘I am great.’ So texting allows me to mask.” When the vast majority of our communication is body language, virtual communication seems inadequate; removing the social queues that would usually inform and inhibit us. For convenience and control of our responses; the candidness, genuineness and sophistication of the communication that binds us is being eroded. Technology can be used to exchange information or re-affirm familiar sentiments but does not help us to learn new things about a person. Sherry Turkle speaks in “Connected but Alone” of the immaturity of our relationship with technology despite its widespread usage and our naivety of the consequences. Turkle also speaks of a perfect storm of “expecting more from technology and less from each other”. As modern day relationships become more complicated, technology promises to simplify. It has become a fantasy, to control our social lives and micro-manage our relationships without the chaos or risks involved in personal interactions.

The smart phone provides a wealth of pornography in the palm of your hand and there is indeed a reported increase in viewing habits. This is unsurprising with increased access and a commentary of how this impacts our relationships with each other has begun. John Mayer, in an interview for Playboy, said that “Internet pornography has absolutely changed my generation’s expectations”. Meanwhile, 90% of therapists reported to a leading women’s magazine, that they could identify problems in relationships in recent years, which they would attribute to pornography. Mayer also stated “I’m more comfortable in my imagination than I am in actual human discovery”. This way of thinking about sexuality is increasingly on trend, in particular, in Japan. Japan has unbelievably sophisticated virtual worlds and trends for technological substitutes for relationships; not only porn but also virtual girlfriends and anime cartoons. As The Guardian reports ”45% of Japanese women aged 16-24 are “not interested in or despise sexual contact”. More than a quarter of men feel the same way.

In “Porn on the brain”, Martin Daubney, previous editor of Loaded magazine, investigates our relationships with online pornography. He concludes that “Porn has lost its sense of humour and become something macabre”, transitioning from a golden age of soft-core magazines to a tsunami of internet imagery. He finds out for himself, the ease in which more hard-core and even illegal porn can be accessed. He explores the impact on adolescent boys and their sexual relationships, and researches into the credibility of pornography addiction. He investigates using fMRI to show how these adolescents respond to pornographic images in the same ways drug users would to their own paraphernalia. David Cameron’s campaign to improve parental controls is criticised by showing the pitfalls and the loopholes of this technology. I would suggest education as a way of tackling this social problem, to encourage responsible and well-informed viewing, now that this technology is so diffuse.


Technology has also allowed socialising to become invasive by increasing media of contact and the expectation to respond immediately. We are rarely left alone to reflect and identify with ourselves. I’ll always remember Steven Fry commenting on QI in 2004 that “a telephone is a fantastically rude thing. I mean, it’s like going, “Speak to me now, speak to me now, speak to me now!” You know. If you went into someone’s office and banged on their desk and said,” I will make a noise until you speak to me,” it would be considered unbelievably rude.”  However, this intrusion and others like it have become commonplace and even sought after. There seems to be a compulsion for us to reach for our smartphone whether together or alone, to check for texts or idly refresh our facebook and e-mail pages. The oxford dictionary defines fomo as, “anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may currently be happening elsewhere, often aroused by posts seen on a social media website”. In this piece in the Telegraph “FoMo: Do you have a fear of missing out?” Claire Cohen describes the obsessive nature of staying up late surrounded by modern communication technology. She identifies that, although the expression “keeping up with the Joneses’” is a classic, fomo is a toxic syndrome that reflects an obsession. Our increasing presence in our virtual lives is surely incrementally removing us from our real lives.

This has led to resources that practice self-control for us such as Google Crome’s Stay Focused. This site allows you to limit the time you spend on sites that you self-identify as “time-wasting” such as facebook. A more extreme approach was adopted in a home in Orleans. The Powers’ household, inclusive of a teenage son, observe an internet Sabbath over the weekend. They describe a withdrawal period followed by a revelation of regaining patience with each other, eye-contact and real alone-time. These practices would indicate that our connections are symptoms of social anxieties rather than a cure. Should we be concerned that these measures can be necessary to curb our connecting? Or should we feel encouraged that we can implement these strategies and reflect enough to identify their usefulness?


In conclusion, I believe it is clear that we are infatuated with technology and are often attracted to its invitation to socialise from a safe distance. Technology promises the hope of simplification – a magic bullet to boredom, loneliness and understanding others. The fantasy selves and relationships we can create online are shadows of real things. While some may feel more comfortable in this virtual world, I wonder if these shortcuts to connections are short-changing us of intimacy. I believe we need to learn to listen to each other without distraction and value self-reflection, if we are to have any choice of how technology is shaping us.

what future are we printing?

Thirty years later in 3D printing and significant developments in efficiency, reliability and affordability have been accomplished. Subsequently, 3D printing has already achieved broad diffusion throughout industries, from pharmaceuticals to architecture, and can now bypass retailers altogether through desktop printers. As this technology matures it has the potential to be a disruptive innovation. Could it then be too late to govern this technology, as described in Collingridge’s “dilemma of control”?


The KamerMaker is a 6 meter tall printer that is already printing components to build a house – not quite like this

In Kelly’s “What Technology wants”, an emerging technology is said to go through a process of career discovery and development. 3D printing has advanced from prototypes to production and has graduated from resin to printing in chemical, biological and edible inks. For instance, in “A 3D printed future: 10 surprising things we could see printed soon”, printing meat and leather makes the cut. To direct the progress of this technology, PETA has offered $1 million to the producer of “commercially viable in vitro chicken meat by March 1, 2014”.  The diffusion, popularity and success of 3D printing, has created a potent hype and inspired organisations such as Statasys, who describe themselves as “3D printings biggest fans”. They demonstrate how the luxury of personalisation becomes more economical through 3D printing, such as running shoes customised to each athlete’s own 3D foot scan, significantly increasing efficiency. They also propagate narratives of life-changing innovations, such as customised light-weight prosthetics for children in “Emma’s Magic Arms”David Flanders, a “3D printing evangelist” and his company PIF3D, also celebrates 3D printing, hosting parties for building 3D printers that can even print themselves.


3D Printing The Future, is an overview of this technology, commissioned by the Wellcome Collection in the science museum. Their offering is a stylish summary of 3D printing activity and the ambitions of those steering it. The exhibit is optimistic, colourful and captures the imagination, from custom made pieces of art to high speed lightweight planes. Pippa Hough hopes “to create a deeper engagement” in a video of visitors being scanned and printed as figurines. More controversially, is the display of a 3D printed gun, provided by Ville Vaarnes, a journalist in Finland. The digital design was downloaded free of charge and easily accessible from Defence Distributed. This leads onto the dangers and disasters forecasted for 3D printing which are scarier than these 3D printed dolls.

Offering a law enforcement perspective, in “A vision of crimes of the future”Marc Goodman spoke in TEDGlobal 2012 of his education from criminals and terrorists. He speaks on the use of technology in crime through the availability of new tools and the exploitation of the openness of our virtual world. This point was made just last year, when a German hacker printed universal keys, for handcuffs used in both England and Germany. Furthermore, the accessibility of making a printer was proven when Afate Gnikou built a printer out of scrap from a landfill in Africa. This was for a competition set by NASA in a design challenge to colonise Mars. The technologies we develop for our aspirations towards a “techno-utopia” are ultimately not exclusively useful for our intended agenda. The case for instrumentalism is plain to see, technologies can be as destructive as they may be constructive, depending on the user. This point is made in the printed gun. What impact could this have on the regulations of arms, especially in the UK?


Marc Goodman concludes that the crime of the future makes our traditional law enforcement redundant and outdated, as they are merely national and physical barriers. He promotes a security system that involves public engagement and utilises the strengths of our openness and connectedness. He articulated a social problem, well illustrated with examples across technology, however his solution seems to lack substance despite some direction.

Furthermore, there are surely industrial implications here. The Ecololyst “Of Labour, Unions and Printing” describes how the process of 3D printing is efficient in its waste-eliminating precision, achieving intricate results without costly manual labour. This article also describes the failures of globalisation and how 3D printing could facilitate localisation of the manufacturing industry. 3D printing would eliminate the increasing costs of production in developing countries such as increases in minimum wage and shipping. In this way, manufacturing jobs would be repatriated but surely in a diminished capacity. Lisa Harouni describes this reality, of reduced labour as simply “great”, but surely this would be hugely impacting on international employment. There are other sectors that would become disrupted in this new supply chain such as transport, storage and retail. Future employment prospects for those earning “middle-class wages” seem unclear as products could transfer from design to in-house printing.


Mr Bucket checking toothpaste caps in Charlie and The Chocolate Factory before he loses his job to a machine

Therefore, the potential for 3D printing to affect the jobs market and challenge law enforcement creates issues in governing this technology. We seem to be within the realms of the “dilemma of control”, described by Collingridge. This theory states that the more established a technology becomes, the more it becomes “locked-in” to society through institutions and path dependency. This makes retrospective governance expensive and difficult. However, the dilemma lies in the fact that before a technology becomes established, it is difficult to justify such governance and interference. Surely, if nothing else, current legislation would need adapted. For instance, the UK has established policies on arms control and intellectual property. Therefore, the weakness lies in the ability to police these laws, virtually on the internet and physically in regulating what is printed.

In conclusion, it seems 3D printing has arrived and could accomplish dominance in manufacturing. If so, governance seems already left behind in the policing of online activity. This would only be exasperated by supplementing virtual exchange with physical objects. However, like many hyped up technologies, the place for these printers in the future is not yet know and a governmental response would be difficult to justify indeed.