1-1: Understanding Potential Risks in the Innovation-to-Policy Transition

In the advertisement entitled “The Age of Surprises” we watched in class on Thursday, we (quickly) reviewed over a century of history reminding us that the more information and technology we amass, the more we can be affected by what we do not know. In the readings and videos this week, we are presented with some striking examples of this phenomenon as it relates to nuclear weapons.

In “1945-1998,” Hashimoto’s multimedia exploration of a half-century of nuclear tests, the artist presents a horrifying truth that few realize: since 1945, seven nations (excluding North Korea, whose tests were more recent) have detonated more than 2000 nuclear weapons on (and under) land and sea. We also learn something about the order of these nuclear detonations. During the cold war years, Russia’s and the United States’s bomb tests play out a sort of call and response. After Pakistan tested its first atomic bomb, India suddenly quintupled its nuclear tests. It seems, therefore, that not only were nuclear developments an extension of foreign policy, but that nuclear demonstrations were as well. Competing powers used them to show that they were developing and improving their technologies.

“The House in the Middle,” a thinly-veiled compulsion towards beautification and urban tidiness made “with the cooperation of” the Federal Civil Defense Administration, also uses the prospect of nuclear weapons use as a policy maneuver. This time, though, it is domestic rather than foreign policy, and a gentle nudge toward civil upkeep rather than military muscle-flexing. Notably, however, the commentator uses phrases like “even though [a nuclear attack] hasn’t happened yet.” The possibility of nuclear war was a serious consideration at the time, making it all the more intriguing that such a genuine risk could serve such a pedestrian purpose.

Here presented are two examples of the eventuality of nuclear war being used unblinkingly, and rather flippantly in my opinion, as a tool of policy. In one, literally thousands of probably redundant, certainly dangerous nuclear tests are carried out merely to communicate military preparedness to potentially hostile states. In the other, a nuclear explosion is used, more or less, to sell white paint.

But, of course, the more technologically advanced we become, the more dangerous are the holes in our knowledge. As we learn from Sartori’s article on the effects of nuclear weapons, and Hafemeister’s chapter on nuclear weapons, the aftermath of an atomic blast is a serious matter. In reality, hundreds if not thousands of nuclear tests were undertaken aboveground and in populated seas before scientists understood the full ramifications of global irradiation and dust effluence. Not to mention that if anyone’s houses were close enough to a nuclear blast to be set on fire, those who survived would have much greater problems (cancer, radiation poisoning, access to food, etc.) than having forgotten to repaint their houses last spring. An attack on Detroit, after all, could have fatal consequences as far away as Cleveland. What’s the use in warning someone a few miles form the blast to tidy his living room?

This begs several policy questions:

  • If we had known the risks of nuclear detonations when atomic and thermonuclear testing began, would so many nations still have run so many tests?
  • And could those tests have been beneficial, whether to science or world affairs, despite the unknowns and the dangers they presented?
  • Are there analogous technologies today that we undertake without regard to their potential ramifications (fossil fuels, perhaps?) whether for foreign/domestic policy purposes or for any other?
  • Can we learn any lessons that we can apply today about considering outcomes before undertaking policies rooted in new and untested (or overtested, as the case may be) technologies?
  • Why are new technologies such powerful policy tools even when we do not fully understand them?
  • Are they such powerful tools because we do not fully understand them?

Perhaps we are living in the age of surprises, but as science-savvy policymakers we should do our best to anticipate those surprises and mitigate their effects. Nuclear weapons constitute a good case study of a powerful technology that quickly left the control of its scientific creators to become an instrument of politics. It almost certainly will not be the last, so it is important to get an idea of how such situations may arise and develop in the future. — Joe