I’m sure many people were shocked and saddened by the recent news that an Ethiopian Airline plane crashed on 10 March, 2019, en route to Nairobi from Addis Ababa. It comes on the heels of another aviation accident involving Boeing 737 Max 8 a few months ago, on 29 October, 2018. Twelve minutes after take-off, the Lion Air Flight 610 plunged into the Java Sea. All people on board of both these flights died. This news was especially hard for me to receive not just because of the large body counts, but as one of a number of disasters that have occurred in Indonesia up to that point. Hearing news about one disaster after the next has made me numb to a certain extent. I know that these disasters have become “inevitable” or “normal” given our complicity in the ways that we have built our sociotechnical worlds (Perrow 1999). But it was still a bit unexpected for me to hear about a series of disasters so close to one another.

Teaching Disasters at Cornell University in Fall 2013, courtesy Anto Mohsin

In February 2018, Mount Sinabung in Indonesia erupted. It was one of many volcanic eruptions happening around the Ring of Fire. In July and again twice in August 2018, Lombok, an island east of Bali was shaken by earth tremors. The 29 July earthquake damaged many buildings and killed some people. But the second one that shook the island on 5 August was reported to have killed 460 people. I have family there, and I was just in Lombok between 17 July and 22 July to collect data for one of my research projects.  I couldn’t imagine the horror of having to live through an earthquake— at best evacuating our hotel room, or, at worst, becoming one of the victims. When I heard about the first and subsequent earthquakes, I wanted to go back and help, but all I could do was donate some money to the Indonesian Red Cross.

Later on 28 September, just a little over one month after the last earthquake to hit Lombok in August, a 7.5-magnitude quake struck Central Sulawesi and devasted the city of Palu, a provincial capital. The videos and photos that streamed online showed the hard lands in Palu moved as if they were bodies of water. This new phenomenon (to me) has a name: soil liquefaction. A whole district in Palu had been destroyed by this. I donated some money for disaster relief programs in Indonesia, hoping that my contribution would help the victims. I really wished that I could do more, but I was working and living thousands of miles from the disaster area.

I also remembered asking myself, “how to make sense of all of these disasters?” Well, because I’m a teacher, I thought that I taught my students about this. And because I’m writing this piece for the teach311.org website, I’d like to reflect and share some of the pedagogical dimension of disasters. I hope that more teachers (and students) would benefit from reading my teaching experience and the resources I’m sharing.

When I heard the news about the Lion Air crash, I was teaching my “Introduction to STS” course in the fall of 2018. I happened to be talking about how STS literature discusses disasters. Coincidentally, our campus building also just experienced a disaster of some sort. On October 20, a heavy downpour caused floods in many places in Doha that left the city with a major headache. Tunnels and roads were flooded. And because the drains could not channel the waters out quickly enough, many houses were inundated as well. Our campus building was also affected, and classes had to be canceled. Rains, though they rarely come, have occurred in Doha in the past. But devastating flash floods in the desert? That surprised many people. Despite the massive efforts to drain the rainwater, we had to live with the consequences for weeks.

I decided to use the Doha floods and the Lion Air crash as two examples in my classroom to talk about disasters. I shared, for example, a screenshot of one BBC news article about the plane crash that asked a puzzling question: “Lion Air: How could a brand new plane crash?”  The two texts I used at the time were chapter 9 (“More Security, or Escalating Dangers?”) from David E. Nye’s book Technology Matters Questions to Live With (paperback 2007) and a section from chapter 1 of Steve Matthewman’s Technologys and Social Theory (2011). Using these readings, I challenged my students to think of why disasters still occur despite our technological “progress” and “advancement.” I asked them specifically, “Why do technological accidents and disasters happen even though we’ve been improving our technological products?” Their answers varied, but many managed to understand the role of human agency in disasters and the notion of (negative) unintended consequences of technologies, or “revenge effects” (Matthewman 2011, 23).  One student wrote in her reading reflection, “I think no technology can bring solely danger or safety, they all revolve around both sides. Even a simple pencil—which is a technology—can be used as a weapon.”

In the next class, my lecture slides drove the points home with quotes from these two texts. I noted that our technologies are getting more complicated and interdependent than ever: “we struggle to comprehend them” (Matthewman 2011, 23); “Gaps exist between technology in theory (design and rational planning: what it should do) and technology in practice (use and emergent rule making: what it actually does). The latter is never a final accomplishment; it always remains an ongoing process” (Matthewman 2011, 24); that we rely more and more on our technologies to do our tasks and go about our daily lives (Matthewman 2011, 24). This led us to become more vulnerable to the malfunctioning of our technologies. Nye also shares some interesting paradoxes about technologies. He writes, “Individual machines are less dangerous. …However, the ensemble of technological systems in society has become so complex that it is difficult if not impossible to foresee how they will interact” (Nye 2007, 166).  Another paradox is that the more efficient the technologies, the greater the catastrophic potential of those technologies (Nye 2007, 163). “Paradoxically,” Nye continues, “some weapons are most useful if they are never used. It would seem that powerful military technology did help democratic societies to prevail against direct threats to their existence” (Nye 2007, 179). And many warfare technologies, instead of fulfilling the promises to end wars and make peace, their uses paradoxically helped further escalate warfare (Nye 2007, 180). In short, echoing the sociologist Ulrich Beck, Matthewman writes, our world “is a world of technologically-induced global risk” (Matthewman 2011, 27). It is a risk that we continually need to study, understand, teach, reduce, and mitigate.

References

Amir, Sulfikar (editor). The Sociotechnical Constitution of Resilience: A New Perspective on Governing Risk and Disaster. Singapore: Palgrave
Macmillan, 2018.
Matthewman, Steve. Technology and Social Theory. Themes in Social Theory. Hampshire ; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
Nye, David E. Technology Matters : Questions to Live with. First MIT Press Paperback ed. Cambridge, Mass. ; London: MIT, 2007.
Oreskes, LeGrand, Oreskes, Naomi, and LeGrand, H. E. Plate Tectonics : An Insider’s History of the Modern Theory of the Earth. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2003.
Perrow, Charles. Normal Accidents: Living with High-risk Technologies. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1999.
Robinson, Andrew. “The Political Biography of an Earthquake: Aftermath and Amnesia in Gujarat, India.” 24, no. 3 (2014): 526-28.
Williford, Daniel. “Seismic Politics: Risk and Reconstruction after the 1960 Earthquake in Agadir, Morocco.” Technology and Culture. Vol. 58, Iss. 4,  (Oct 2017): 982-1016.

Anto Mohsin, Northwestern University in Qatar

What Can We Do About Disasters? Teach Them!
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