A tourist steps closer and closer to a steep cliff, obsessively searching for that perfect selfie. A group of teenagers, trying to impress each other, jump off a bridge into a fast-flowing river. Drivers slow to look at a wreck by the side of the road, taking their eye off of the road.
Whether we’re trying to generate attention, or giving that attention to others, it can distract us from reading the dangers of our current context. Humans are social animals, so it’s no surprise that group recognition is important; however, when this desire is mixed with an unforgiving natural world and the complexities of machines, we can pay a dear price for the pursuit of consideration from our peers.
The modern systems, simple and complex, that we use to accomplish our goals are a combination of man and machine. There is no separation: humans are involved at all levels. We determine their need, design, manufacture, purchase, installation, maintenance, and use: that unique combination of personnel and machinery employed to get a task done. Therefore, it shouldn’t be a surprise that a human imprint can be found in the failure patterns of these systems too: social effects are omnipresent in malfunctions at all scales.
This is all getting a bit serious, so now is probably a good time to bring up a reality TV show. Recently, I was binge-watching Bondi Rescue, a series about the lifeguards who work at Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia. In the midst of my TV marathon, I saw something that brought together the many strands of the “Look at me!” factor that have been floating around in my head.
I’m fascinated by things going wrong—I suppose that is why I’ve written so much about troubleshooting. Whenever an accident happens in my life, whether at home or work, I like to mull it over in my head. This is the most satisfying last step of any troubleshooting exercise, learning from the failure and trying to prevent it from happening again.
First, let me set the scene: Bondi Rescue has held my attention over many episodes because it’s a perfect cocktail of dramatic elements. For starters, the location of Bondi Beach is very close to the sprawling metropolis of Sydney and its amazing beach weather. This proximity means a never-ending stream of unwitting tourists, many of whom seem to be getting acquainted with the ocean for the first time. Bondi’s shoreline isn’t a shallow kiddie pool: there are often big waves, dangerous currents which shift with the tides, and sharp rocks bookending the sides of this beautiful crescent-shaped beach. Add to the mix alcohol, massive crowds, and the group dynamics of protests, parties, classes, baptisms, etc. and it’s a recipe for non-stop drama. Kudos to the creators of the show, who likely recognized the setting as the basis for a successful and predictable TV formula: the longevity of 13 seasons speaks for itself.
In Season 11, Episode 11 of Bondi Rescue there is an incident which I think perfectly encapsulates the dangers of the “Look at me!” instinct. The setup is simple: two students from the USA go swimming near Backpackers’ Rip with a GoPro camera, mounted on a selfie stick. What could go wrong? If you’re a fan of Bondi Rescue, what happens next is predictable: the tourists, unaware of the dangers present, get caught in a riptide and are carried away from the shore. Luckily, the Bondi lifeguards recognize the peril of the situation and intervene.
The essential difference between an accident and a near miss is often difficult to pinpoint. I’ve been in seemingly identical situations where others have gotten hurt and I have been spared, and I have gotten hurt in circumstances where others have walked away unscathed. We can speculate on the possible “outs” that weren’t taken and the compounding circumstances present in this case. You could start with the failure to tap into the local knowledge about known hazards. For example, having a chat with the lifeguards about your intentions and getting their feedback. Or, simply noting the red and yellow flags that mark the safe swimming area on Bondi Beach. Unfortunately for those seeking fame, taking these preventative steps makes it unlikely that you’ll be included in an episode (alas, staying alive does have its downsides). Maybe they could have been better prepared by being stronger swimmers: perhaps an olympic-class athlete could swim one-handed, with a camera, against a riptide, and have more than enough breath to give an Oscar-worthy monologue. Another factor might be the seemingly innocuous presence of a friend. People have been known to take more risks when in groups.
We could go much further, analyzing the factors present and chances for prevention in this Bondi Rescue incident. Instead, I want to connect it to the troubleshooting arts by focusing on one important factor: the presence of a camera. For better or worse, people act differently when a camera is around. After the tourists have been rescued, lifeguard Jesse Polock succinctly sums up what happened: “GoPros and rips don’t mix… You can film yourself drowning, but that’s about it.”
In a dangerous situation, like swimming in a riptide, the insidious thing about a camera is that it competes for a precious resource: your awareness. Whether a menace is looming or fully actualized, awareness precedes corrective action. But, if your attention is focused on getting the best angle for your adoring followers, it can’t also be used to see an imminent threat. Mugging for the camera is a distraction that will inevitably delay the recognition of critical facts, like a steady drift away from the shore.
That tradeoff might seem obvious, but there was another unexpected effect caused by a camera’s presence on that episode of Bondi Rescue. Namely, the person was determined to hold on to the selfie stick to which it was attached, even though they must have sensed that they were in danger! In the segment, Bondi lifeguard Corey Oliver explicitly makes the connection between the close call and the presence of the camera: “I guess when you’ve got an expensive little toy in your hand that you don’t want to lose, it’s going to make it a lot harder to swim with one hand. So, we get a lot of problems with people trying to swim one-handed and not getting back to the beach.”
This phenomenon appeared many times in the episodes of Bondi Rescue that I watched: people clinging to sunglasses, cameras, phones, toys, surf and boogie boards, etc., all while battling for their lives in the pounding surf. I guess they really really want their deposit back at the rental shop. The problem is that, when you’re holding onto a precious item with one hand, you are severely handicapping your chances at a self-rescue. When the chances for survival narrow, desperately grasping a selfie stick isn’t just a mental impediment, but a physical one too. It’s much harder to save yourself when one hand is occupied and can’t be used for swimming. If ever there was an example of narcissism literally killing us, this is it!
Look at me—running into this reef
There’s no shortage of accidents, famous and obscure, that have a “Look at me!” component. A recent and major one that instantly came to mind when I began writing this article was the Costa Concordia disaster. You probably saw this event heavily covered on the news in 2012. The gist is that a massive cruise ship, carrying over 4,000 people, ran into a reef in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Italy. The collision ripped a massive hole in the boat’s hull and eventually sunk the Costa Concordia, resulting in 32 deaths.
As the details of the disaster were reported, perhaps the most puzzling detail (for me) was the ship’s very close proximity to Giglio Island when it ran aground. Reading about Giglio Island, you find that it’s a natural feature that formed millions of years ago, and has been occupied by humans since the Stone Age. Plenty of time for word of its existence to get around. Plenty of time for it to appear on nautical charts. Why was the Concordia cruising so close to a known hazard?
The answer is: getting close to Giglio Island was intentional. The Concordia was doing a sail-by salute for the residents of the island. This navigational diversion, executed exclusively for the visual and ceremonial pleasure of those on the ship and for those on land, is the very definition of a “Look at me!” stunt. Whether this particular salute was authorized seems to be a contested matter. However, it was easy to uncover the numerous forces pushing for the sail-by. For starters, consumers (i.e., the passengers) seem to expect jaunts like these:
In the days after the disaster Costa Cruises chairman and CEO Pierluigi Foschi told an Italian parliamentary committee that sail by salutes do happen with the approval of cruise lines.
He defended the practice of what he called “tourist navigations” and added: “It’s something that enriches the cruise product. There are many components of the cruise product and we have to do them like everyone else because we are in a global competition.”
“Calls for cruise ship ‘sail by salutes’ to resume after Costa Concordia tragedy”, The Telegraph, May 6, 2012
A tour operator like Costa Cruises probably appreciates the free publicity that a (safe) sail-by offers: when a massive cruise ship passes within sight of a population center, it becomes a giant floating billboard. Unless they agree with David Foster Wallace’s sardonic stance on cruising (“…any fool knows that Dr. Pepper is no substitute for Mr. Pibb, and it’s an absolute goddamned travesty…”), they’re more likely to pick up the phone and book a trip after such an encounter.
But the “Look at me!” factors of the Costa Concordia disaster go beyond the obvious commercial compulsions. They kept appearing as I read more about the circumstances of the tragedy. For instance, the island’s residents and the mayor of Giglio really liked these sail-bys too. “Tourists and locals gather on the jetty to see the ships go by…it’s a great sight,” said the mayor of the island town of Giglio. Give those visitors a spectacle, maybe they’ll talk about it on social media. “Look at me!” and “Give me something to look at!” are counterparts; exhibitionists and voyeurs need each other.
Further, I was also surprised to find in the news reports that there were a number of by-standers on the ship’s bridge during the accident. One of these spectators was the head waiter (maître d’hôtel, if you’re feeling Frenchy) Antonello Tievoli, who was invited up to the bridge for the sail-by. Tievoli was a Giglio native and his sister and parents, residents of the island, knew the Concordia would be passing near. Likewise, the Captain’s lover was on the bridge during the crash. It’s reasonable to wonder about the effects, subtle or overt, of these voyeurs on the Captain’s attention and choices. For prudence’s sake, the bridge on a cruise ship is typically off-limits to passengers, especially during complex maneuvering (like docking) when focus and intra-crew communication is critical. Did the presence of these spectators put pressure on the Captain to do something “impressive,” “special,” or “memorable” with the sail-by?
Noting opportunities for prevention that weren’t taken is equivalent to saying that an accident had a number of “causes.” These are expressed in the negative, things that weren’t done. This is different than the physical processes at work in a malfunction. Batteries dying or bolts breaking may be identified as a proximate cause, but these immutable facts of reality can’t be used by themselves as a basis for future prevention. That’s because the laws of physics are a given: we can’t fix things by supernaturally declaring steel to have a different strength, or by having a particular chemical compound magically hold more electrons. Prevention always considers alternative courses of action: things that weren’t done in the past, but you hope to do in the future. Next time, we will use a stronger bolt, employ a battery that stores a bigger charge, use the machine differently, make more frequent inspections, etc.
Along these lines, poring over a really thorough accident report can feel unsatisfying when it reads something like: “The pilot was fatigued AND the landing was hard AND the crew’s training outdated AND critical routine maintenance was neglected AND the weather was bad AND it was dark AND…” I think our instincts would prefer a single cause, so we can feel better by thinking, “If I just do this one thing, then I’ll be safe!”
I like getting deep into the finer details of the circumstances surrounding a particular incident because it’s here you’ll often discover multiple paths for prevention. This complexity is actually an opportunity because methods for prevention will vary in cost. Since our prevention resources are scarce (just like our fix-it resources), identifying and choosing the ones that can be realistically implemented is key.
With this broader mindset, you can begin to think about failure prevention in terms of buffers. These are all the things that stand between you and a fiery end. And the more of them the better! Your training, processes, procedures, equipment, the prevailing conditions, random chance, etc.: these can all work for or against you. This gets back to what I said before about similar situations ending with different outcomes. Not every tourist that goes swimming in the ocean with a camera ends up drowning. Some do, most don’t. Sail-by salutes don’t usually result in a multi-billion dollar loss (in fact, the Costa Concordia had previously saluted Giglio Island).
You may be thinking that these human factors are outside the realm of troubleshooting. If “Look at me!” leads to harm, it’s hardly the fault of the machine, right? Was that selfie stick and camera operating properly when those two students on Bondi Rescue got caught in a riptide? Yes. We know this for certain because—the footage is included in the episode! Likewise, a ship can be steered in any direction of the compass. Whether towards a rocky reef or to the safety of open water, the rudder and engines will happily oblige. In either case, you can’t say there has been a mechanical malfunction.
But we can’t stop there, simply concluding that “the machine was operating properly,” and wash our hands of the incident. Nothing to see here, folks! Move along. No, that goes against the ethos of what I try to teach here. Humans and machines, when combined together, form a super-system. The interaction between man and machine should be designed to gracefully accommodate our human tendencies, good or bad. To that end, I have a few suggestions for ways to troubleshoot “Look at me!” problems:
- Transparency: we’ve looked at many ways that social pressures can lead to accidents. It may surprise you that the same forces can also be harnessed in their prevention. It’s not pleasant to always be monitored while at work, but if you’re entrusted with lives and expensive property…sorry. Prior to the accident, the captain of the Costa Concordia turned off the alarm on the ship’s navigation system. If I was the administrator of such a system, such a deactivation would instantly light up the phones of senior management. Everyone, including the captain, would know that such a move would be widely reported and scrutinized. It would be a BIG DEAL. There would be paperwork. There would be conference calls. Oh yes, there would be many conference calls.
- The Sterile Cockpit: machines often require the dedicated focus of their operators for tricky maneuvers. Think of: landing an airplane, docking a supertanker, or backing up a fuel truck. During these critical moments, a crew’s attention needs to be vigorously defended from unnecessary distractions.
- Gear up: if there’s no way to stop the showboaters, it’s time to deploy bubble-wrap, bumpers, life jackets, helmets, harnesses, shin guards, and belay devices. If you’re ultimately responsible for accidents, the use of safety gear may need to be official policy. Businesses that have tourists doing semi-dangerous things (e.g., kayaking, zip-lining, snorkeling, rock climbing, etc.) understand this: they know that they’re dealing with inexperienced people who lack the ability to accurately assess their capabilities with respect to the activity. When that’s the case, get out the pads!
- Create safe spaces for distracted self-promotion: if you know that people like to take selfies next to a cliff, then it might be time to install railings and warning signs. Interestingly, some cruise lines implement a variation on this theme, whereby they create a designated time for passengers and the crew to interact. Whether it’s called a “Captain’s Dinner,” “Captain’s Gala,” or “Captain’s Ball,” the idea is that people are going to want to talk to the officers and take pictures with them. So, you create a designated time for this attention exchange that doesn’t interfere with the crew’s official duties. If it simultaneously allows the crew to feel honored and quenches the public’s desire for voyeurism that might otherwise be channeled in distracting ways, these events can even be considered a roundabout safety measure.
- Prompted (or forced) to do the right thing: the latest version of Apple’s iOS includes a standard feature to prevent access to your smartphone while driving (good idea, but I suspect that most people turn it off). Make a distraction-free environment the default, or enforce preferred usage with something like a speed governor. Procedures and the culture of a workplace can also mitigate showboating: your training, professional expectations, organizational policies, and colleagues may provide a much-needed reminder that a selfie can wait.
- Raise awareness: help people understand the consequences of showboating. On that note, I leave you with this eery video:
- Header image: Rothstein, A., photographer. (1939) Showboat anchored at levee, Saint Louis, Missouri. Missouri Saint Louis Saint Louis. United States, 1939. Jan. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2017724674/.