Do you remember the Tylenol poisoning crisis of 1982? Umpteen bottles of Tylenol nationwide were recalled after seven people died taking the drug. As it turned out, someone had carefully inserted cyanide into some of the Tylenol capsules, repackaged them and put them back on supermarket shelves. Then the extortion threats against Johnson & Johnson began. The company was widely praised for its handling of the crisis, and Tylenol survives as a brand today.
After reading a recent article by a group of academics about the security of modern automotive systems, I found myself wondering if Toyota might be suffering from a Tylenol twist: High-tech blackmail? Or perhaps competition has risen to the level of destroying the competitor’s products? Or was a new style of hacker just having his fun? There’s plenty of room for speculation.
If, however (as is more likely), Toyota’s problem turns out to be a self-induced software bug in the master computer that controls the driving behavior of modern automobiles, then the company will simply have fallen victim to one of the modern world’s more persistent and prevalent myths.
Simply put, our society suffers from an underlying current of belief that complex technology, overseen by the appropriate assembly of technological wizards, can make life seem simple enough for ordinary people to somehow get by.
BP’s oil gusher on the floor of the Gulf is a perfect example. Self-styled “environmentalists” have driven oil drilling further and further offshore by employing drilling prohibition (“Krauthammer: Oil spill culprits run deep”). This in turn has driven the development of technology to drill in deep water, so “enviromentalist elites” don’t have to see how the hydrocarbons that heat their homes are actually produced.
Technology, however, is designed, built and administered by fallible human beings. That would be you, me and all the rest of us on planet Earth. Unfortunately for all of us, no one from BP’s doomed oil rig survived to tell us what went wrong with the technology.
But not to worry: Technology will fix the human frailties part as well. Craig Venter (of gene sequencing fame) and Hamilton Smith have “created life” by removing the innards of one organism and replacing them with that of another that they’d tinkered with. By setting themselves up as the modern high priests of that most complex of all systems – life itself – I’m sure that Mr. Venter and his scientific offspring will be able to fix our frailties and make everything all better.