These are matters of common sense, applied to simple questions of cause and effect. But what happens, asks systems-behavior expert Charles Perrow, when common sense runs up against the complex systems, electrical and mechanical, with which we have surrounded ourselves? Plenty of mayhem can ensue, he replies. The Chernobyl nuclear accident, to name one recent disaster, was partially brought about by the failure of a safety system that was being brought on line, a failure that touched off an unforeseeable and irreversible chain of disruptions; the less severe but still frightening accident at Three Mile Island, similarly, came about as the result of small errors that, taken by themselves, were insignificant, but that snowballed to near-catastrophic result.
Only through such failures, Perrow suggests, can designers improve the safety of complex systems. But, he adds, those improvements may introduce new opportunities for disaster. Looking at an array of real and potential technological mishaps--including the Bhopal chemical-plant accident of 1984, the Challenger explosion of 1986, and the possible disruptions of Y2K and genetic engineering--Perrow concludes that as our technologies become more complex, the odds of tragic results increase. His treatise makes for sobering and provocative reading. --Gregory McNamee
"[Perrow's] research undermines promises that `better management' and `more operator training' can eliminate catastrophic accidents. In doing so, he challenges us to ponder what could happen to justice, community, liberty, and hope in a society where such events are normal."--Deborah A. Stone, Technology Review
"Normal Accidents is a testament to the value of rigorous thinking when applied to a critical problem."--Nick Pidgeon, Nature