introduction
ACCIDENtS AND FORENSICS
The will to mastery becomes all the more urgent the more technology threatens to slip from
human control. —martin-heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology”
In the disaster milieu, technological civilization is on trial as it attempts to heal the systemic
breach and restore itself through a figural elimination of all risk. Various cultural interpreta-
tions, analyses, and judgments attempt reconstruction of a safe world without slippage, broadly
defined. —ann-larabee, Decade of Disaster
Whatever Can Go Wrong
From 1947 to 1951, a series of groundbreaking experiments was conducted at
Edwards Air Force Base in California’s Mojave Desert.1 The objective of the
military research project was to study the limits of human tolerance to rapid
deceleration as well as the strength of airplane seats and harnesses under
simulated crash conditions. A rail- mounted, rocket- boosted sled with a high-
powered hydromechanical braking system was employed to this end. The U.S.
Air Force o∞cer and flight surgeon John Paul Stapp directed the audacious
experiments, and he himself sometimes served as a test subject.2
After completing one such experiment in 1949, researchers discovered to
their dismay that the electrical sensors a∞xed to Stapp’s safety harness had
failed. Instead of a positive numerical value, each sensor yielded a zero reading.
Perplexed, the team of experimenters sought to ascertain the cause of the fail-
ure. Why had the instruments malfunctioned? What had gone wrong? It was
soon revealed that the sensors had been installed improperly—backward, in
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