When a Fail-Safe system fails, it fails by failing to fail safe. John Gall, Systemantics: How Systems Work and Especially How They Fail, 1975.
"I truly believe Metro is a safe system." DC Metro General Manager John B Catoe, Jr., quoted in the Washington Post.
A "fail-safe" automatic traffic control system designed to make it impossible for DC Metro trains to get too close to each other has failed more than once, this time resulting in 9 deaths. An ultra-modern Air France Airbus, guided by a fail-safe "fly-by-wire" piloting system, experienced multiple, simultaneous failures and fell from the sky into the Atlantic, killing all aboard.
When you consider the millions of passenger-miles safely traveled each year, these incidents really are anomalies. But that's cold comfort to the victims and those who loved them.
Human life is precious, so the impossible goal of these modern technologies is perfection no deaths, no injuries, no close calls.
Yet, even while standing perfectly still, we are at risk in ways we can hardly imagine. E coli in ground beef and cookie dough. Salmonella in peanuts and pistachios. Melamine in powdered milk.
International trade creates convoluted supply chains with a patchwork of safety standards, leaving the consumer to guess whether the products he uses are safe or dangerous. In a new study by IBM, only 20% of respondents say they trust food safety.
And yet, we have not given up eating.
Life is risky, and technology can't change that. Computerized control systems may eliminate operator errors, but what about the errors made by computer programmers, systems designers and maintenance personnel. Does technology only trade one sort of risk for another?
We hope these systems are safe. Like John Catoe, we want to believe they are safe. But what do we actually know?
It's astounding, and ironic, how much blind faith is required to live in the modern world. Like it or not, technology forces us to put our complete trust in things we do not, and cannot, understand.
We must live by faith or live in paralysis.
Some will reply that when I step into an elevator on the 30th floor of an office building and press Lobby, I am in fact acting out of reason, not faith. Reason tells me that elevators are a proven technology. Reason tells me that the government inspects elevators to make sure they are properly maintained. Reason tells me elevators only plummet to the ground in the movies.
But reason also tells me I am taking a risk. Gravity never relents. Every accident involves the unlikely but deadly convergence of two or three unforeseen events. I may be stepping into an elevator, or into a perfect storm of metal fatigue, poor maintenance and lax government oversight. Reason tells me that when I push that button, I have no way of knowing the outcome.
The writer of Hebrews described faith this way:
Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see. Hebrews 11:1, NLT
My work requires me to fly quite frequently, which means voluntarily locking myself inside a heavy metal tube that will be hurled at great speed down a runway.
My actions, and the actions of my fellow passengers, testify that we have faith in air transportation. But if I'm honest, I have to admit that I am strapping myself into my seat while knowing absolutely nothing about the pilots, the ground crew, the plane or the controllers who will guide our flight along the way.
I am operating in the blind, perhaps depending on the odds, or a lucky rabbit's foot, or the technological safeguards built into the system.
Like the writer of Hebrews, I have confidence in air travel. Why? I've experienced hundreds of flights, and all have ended well. My faith becomes stronger as I put it into practice, even though I read about the occasional tragic failure of the system and the horrors it can cause.
By comparison, faith in God is much more reasonable.
God has revealed himself and his purposes in the Bible, a book we can read and understand for ourselves. He has revealed himself in history through the life and ministry of his son Jesus, a man whose actions and words have been examined in countless books, and a few movies. God has even revealed himself through Creation, through the earth and all that lives on it, the stars and planets, the natural laws that hold everything together and guide the unfolding of time.
Yet, just like flying, faith in God requires some action on my part. I cannot learn to trust God without first experiencing God and putting myself into his hands. Faith requires time spent pursuing God, experiencing God, time spent speaking with God and listening for God's voice, time spent reading God's Word and using my mind to evaluate the truths it claims to possess. Faith in God requires action, and some persistence.
Now faith... is the art of holding onto things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods. C S Lewis, Mere Christianity
Ridership on the DC Metro system is already back to normal. Despite that terrible accident, people want to believe, along with John Catoe, that the system is safe. They may be frightened, but they believe, they pay their fares and they act on their beliefs by stepping back onto the train.
And so it is with God. He has already made himself known. He claims (Deuteronomy 4:29) that if we search for him wholeheartedly, we will find him. He waits for us to step forward, pay our fare and put him to the test.
Photo credit: Associated Press