Friday, June 23, 2023

What's the Limit?

As I read about the submersible disaster, I am reminded of the book Into Thin Air, where we see the toxic combination of adventure tourism and catastrophic danger. What factors drive outfitters and entrepreneurs to overlook safety risks? To take a chance on a small window of good weather among a very large mansion of bad weather? To believe their own personal judgement is somehow superior to recommendations from the wider world and its standards?

It's the profit, sure. Follow the money. But it's also those seeking legend, and those who are inclined to trust their own vain instincts. "We know best! We are innovative! Trust us. Regulations do not apply to genius." I know it's heresy, but Shackleton was cut from the same cloth, though the pressures were slightly different, investors and national pride replacing tourism. And he ended up with dog soup. (Sorry, sorry, I love the Endurance story too.)

It's impossible to read about the submersible story without feeling a visceral reaction, a disturbed queasiness as one momentarily wonders what instant pressure death would be like. It's terrifying, gross, and creepy, and then you was indescribably fast. Did their brains even have that moment of comprehension or was it all so instantaneous, no one had a thought at all? Then I go on to think about how time slows down when I'm in danger. Best not to think too much about it.

I wonder too sometimes about the risks I take, the balloons I've gone up in, the submersible in Curacao, the tiny planes older than I am, the packed minibuses barreling through the backroads of East Africa, drunk and underpaid soldiers pointing guns in my direction in Nigeria, arguments with corrupt officials from Kinshasa to Tashkent...none of it is remotely the same league, but surely the paying passengers on this sub were operating too from a place of curiosity and fascination with adventure.

Would I have gone down in a sub with so many red flags? Hell, no (putting aside the question of what would I do with that kind of money if I had it). But that assumes one pays attention to the subtext of the company bragging they are too innovative for regulation. We live in a world where, for example, Steve Jobs might as well be a type of god. Innovation! Break the mold! And so on. Culture fetishizes the bold entrepreneur.

Commercialization pollutes risk assessment. So many of those folks on Everest in '96 should have turned back much earlier. This submersible should not have gone down at all, it was at its simplest, a representation of hubris.

Above is a photo of a regular 12 ounce Styrofoam cup. This cup was in a net attached to the outside of the (reputable, regulated) submersible I was on in Curacao. We went to 600 feet, and this is what happened to the cup. Sharpie for scale. The Titanic is at 12,500 feet for context.

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