Society’s approach to safety technology and regulations illustrates Melvin Kranzberg’s fourth and sixth laws: that non-technical factors are weighted heavier in technology policy, and that technology is a human activity, respectively. New technology that makes day to day life safer is always being introduced, but the demand for safety technology doesn’t align with the areas where it would do the most good. We prioritize safety in areas that seem threatening or dangerous, regardless of how dangerous they actually are. Human perception of danger plays a larger role in the development of safety technology than actual data and statistics.
Following 9/11, airports went from very little security to measures such as thoroughly scanning everyone’s carry-on luggage, administering random searches, and limiting the amount of toiletries passengers were allowed to bring on board. All of this requires a lot of expensive equipment and labor. This is an enormous investment considering it probably hasn’t saved many lives. Sure, it guaranteed that another 9/11 would never happen, but acts of terrorism on planes weren’t an ongoing problem; 9/11 was an isolated incident. Airport security isn’t useless, however, because it gives the illusion of safety. We perceive terrorism as such a great danger that we are willing to go through airport security despite how annoying and frustrating in can be, all so we can feel safer.
Fire safety is another example of skewed perception of a threat leading to lots of safety regulations. In this case, some of the regulations are probably warranted–fire deaths are continually on the decrease–but there is still a degree of human hysteria and misplaced fear around the issue. Safety technology has done a lot to reduce fire deaths, but the entire culture and attitude surrounding fire safety is undeniably overkill. Building codes regarding fire safety are always becoming more demanding. Fire marshals have complete, unquestioned authority when it comes to enforcing these codes and regulations, causing frustration for construction and maintenance workers with the marshals’ unchecked ability to stifle progress on construction projects or demand various inspection certifications at a moment’s notice. As a society we value fire safety so much that we teach it to kids from a very young age. As well-intentioned as this is, it can have its drawbacks. Fire safety is presented in a way that makes fires seem more dangerous than they actually are. I remember someone coming from the fire department into my third grade class to give a talk on fire safety. I came away from the talk much more acutely aware of the possibility of being in a fire. I developed a minor paranoia, envisioning waking up to the smoke detector in the middle of the night and having to escape out my bedroom window.
Considering the odds of being in a house fire, my worry was certainly misplaced. But why was I taught to worry so much about fires but not about the things that are actually much more likely to kill me? Car accidents are far more deadly than fires, but we don’t have overregulation around car safety and traffic laws the same way we do with fires. Millions die every year from health issues that stem from poor eating habits, but we haven’t addressed that problem with the same diligence we had when responding to 9/11. Cars and unhealthy foods are so embraced by society that we are willing to put up with the dangers they cause.
Although it makes the most sense to invest greater amounts of time and resources on curbing the biggest causes of death like heart disease and car accidents, Kranzberg’s laws show why we don’t always do that. Technology policy revolves around the desires of the people. We demand better safety in areas that seem far more dangerous then they actually are, while ignoring far greater dangers that we’ve grown accustomed to dealing with. These demands outweigh the purely technical solution of investing resources based on need.