Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Delays and glitches and distractions

Fascinating story in yesterday's NY Times about making technology happen when there are delays and glitches.

Apparently Humvees suck if you want to survive an attack, and the US military wants more robust vehicles like the Rhino. Unfortunately, so the argument goes, there are policies in place that make the acquisition of new technology difficult. Funding is lost and manufacturers struggle to deliver products on-time and up-to-military-spec. Politicians argue that people are dying because inflexible procurement policies are preventing US troops from successfully adapting to new combat conditions. The military seems to be forced into extreme measures like buying the legal rights to armor design in order to route around delays caused by exclusive manufacturers. And, apparently, the problem isn't new. In a 1996 paper presented at the Army's armor conference: "We need to invest more in the details of the design, to integrate state-of-the-art material, which, while costing more, weighs less and provides greater levels of protection. Finally, we must overcome the paradigm that wheels are cheap and 'throw away.' The vehicle may be, but the occupants are not."

This tale of technology is really a story of combatants and labourers, officers, bureaucrats and politicians. We're invited to sympathise with the soldiers and their families, and become part of a long-time struggle to better protect lives and prevent loss. We're asked to appreciate how, when the military tries to do just that, it's crippled by government rules and sabotaged by corporate greed. But we're also shown how the military routes around obstacles and how they use parts to hack together new vehicles - which ironically suggests how adaptable they can be. And finally, we're always encouraged to see technologies as the people who make and use them, while at the same time never once questioning the rightness and righteousness of the technology itself - or the war.

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