Bridges, Oil Rigs, and Sensorship

Minneapolis's new replacement for the tragically collapsed Interstate Highway 35W bridge is no Golden Gate, but it's not intended to be. It's just supposed to stay up, and it's at least the sturdiest looking span I've seen in a long time.It has advanced sensors designed to alert maintenance staff to potential problems before they become critical. It's also reassuring to know that any Al-Qaeda sleeper cells in the Twin Cities will have to pick another structure for jihad, given the new one's high-tech defenses:

Security sensors also have been built into the new bridge to guard against terrorist attacks. Infrared cameras and other technology monitor for unauthorized activity in sensitive areas of the structure, including doors to equipment chambers.

At least one local blogger has observed that all the new high-tech measures will succeed only if organizations maintain them properly -- another lesson of BP and the Gulf oil spill. Linking to an outside law firm's report on the collapse, he writes:

[I]n the maze of outsourced responsibilities that make up MnDOT there was no one actually watching what was going on. We spent a lot of money for consultants who filed neat reports in great thick binders that went onto the shelf largely unread. One of those reports included a picture of a gusset plate bent nearly into the letter "C," but no one appears to have noticed.

There were a few changes at MnDOT since this occurred, but there is no reason to believe that the problems of outsourced government stop at this one state agency. Cost cutting has led many agencies to shed workers and send their daily grind out to contractors. Are they in the same shape as MnDOT? Has MnDOT really reformed itself based on the GPM report? No one will tell us.

That sounds a lot like the Federal government's supervision of BP, and BP's own habit of laying off its scientific staff to boost profits.And sensors raise a basic technological issue. In principle, they're a wonderful idea. But how do we really know whether they're the best way to save lives and property per million dollars of cost? I'm not arguing they aren't; maybe they're a bargain. But the nature of advanced technology is likely to delay the answer until a new generation of construction materials, techniques, and safeguards makes the old ones moot.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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