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Kim Vicente: The Human Factor

This is a nonfiction book that deals with the intersection of humans and technology. Vicente first argues that our thinking has become two separate views that don't interact: what he terms mechanistic and humanistic. One view primarily considers people (he cites cognitive psychology as an example of one such discipline); the other is an analytical, technical science, like engineering. He argues that we have become used to seeing the world by dividing it up into these two views, and thereby blinkered by attempting to solve problems while only considering one view.

He begins by explaining what he calls "Human-tech", a mix of the two competing views mentioned above. In the lowest rung of the ladder, what Vicente calls the physical level, is indeed the physical compatibility of some technology with human physiology. Is the toilet paper dispenser in public bathrooms easy to use? (Since he brings it up, the answer is "not always" – trying to get the last bits of paper out of the kind that have teeth demonstrates that toilet-paper dispensers eat human flesh). In later chapters he talks about the fit between humans and other types of technology, things that aren’t usually considered "tech" – psychological, team, organizational, political. In each of these different topics, which Vicente stacks in a ladder, the focus is on the interaction between humans and the technology, not the merit of technology alone.

In this way, the book argues for a different way to design things. He reiterates throughout the book that technology, no matter how well designed from a mechanical/technical perspective, can never do better than how well people can use them. Examples range from Three Mile Island disaster to hospital and aviation systems to the fender stratocastor (an immensely popular electrical guitar). As he moves up the ladder, like when considering the Walkerton disaster*, the effects of more than one level are felt. In Walkerton, for example, there were significant organizational flaws, such as the fact that the man who was employed as foreman at the plant had little training and didn't even know what E. coli was; political flaws such as the Conservative party's slashing of the number of public employees played a major part as well, since there simply weren't enough resources to properly inspect Walkerton. On a organizational-human basis, the examples of hospital work is brought up. Vincente argues that hospitals and health care should avoid pointing fingers at mistakes, because most mistakes are neither malicious nor infrequently made, and workers are aware and unhappy that mistakes are made in the first place. Instead, the book suggests hospitals work on reporting issues and trying to make systems that avoid the error in the first place. Cited as an example is three separate disasters involving vincristine, a drug to treat cancer; in three geographically distinct and unrelated cases, doctors accidentally administered it intrathecally instead of intravenously, which is fatal; because there was no reporting system, doctors were suspended or punished, but the information wasn’t passed on, and steps to actually prevent the wrong administration weren’t taken.

The book is composed in three parts – introduction, examples explaining the levels and the misfits between humans and technology, and a conclusion which tries to address what we should do next and what’s currently happening. Theoretical explanations are form a small iintroduction, but the bulk of the book is taken up with examples. Though I have not independently verified the sources, the book is actually footnoted and references respectable sources. A very informative, interesting book.

*Walkerton, Ontario, had an E. coli breakout in 2000. Population of 4,800: seven died and about 2,300 became sick; applying these figures to a larger city is horrifying.


Crosspost: http://silverflight8.dreamwidth.org/109882.html.

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