Saturday, July 21, 2012

Colorado Shooting Tragedy: A Socio-Technical System Failure to the "Left-of-Fire"

Once again the inability to devise, legislate and put in place a policy that will prevent senseless shootings has cost 12 lives in Colorado. (The shooter, James Holmes, 24, was able to legally purchase his weapons in gun stores and many rounds of ammunition online.)

The objective of this post is not to debate the history or the constitutionality of the second amendment, which can be read in this fine piece published in the New Yorker, but to study the role of technologies that have a potential to kill in civil society.

Socio-technical Systems
A civil society is a socio-technical system, where society (a group of citizens) must interact with both simple and complex technologies ranging from electricity to automobiles. These technologies can kill, if citizens are reckless, negligent -- or malevolent in their intent.  To prevent this, a socio-technical system (STS) at-large, with its different stratas (politicians, policy makers, regulators, business owners, engineers, end-users, among others) and interacting technological components, has to plan, coordinate, engineer, implement and execute a robust and reliable system which will prevent injury and death.

One good example of this STS, a quasi eco system, if you will, are motor vehicles.  Consider two organizations in the motor vehicle STS: the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The DMV is charged with ensuring drivers have the necessary knowledge and skills to safely operate an automobile.  The NHTSA is charged with ensuring that vehicles are designed to meet the minimum standards for safety. Despite these measures there were 32,885 motor vehicle deaths in the US in 2010. Of course, this should take into consideration that the primary purpose of a motor vehicle is to provide a means for transport and not to kill.  Needless to say, a socio-technical system seen in the case of motor vehicles is lacking for guns. 

In counter-insurgency warfare, a new doctrine called to the "left-of-boom" was developed based on social science and network theory to put an end to roadside bombs (a.k.a.,improvised explosive devices, IEDs) set-off by insurgents. If one were to visualize bomb-making as a supply chain in an insurgency socio-technical system, moving from left-to-right, one finds a funder for the operation, a technical planner, a material purchaser, supplier of components, assembler, intelligence gatherer, bomb planter, trigger puller -- all occurring to the left of boom (the bomb going off) on the road. On the right side of the boom you've the response. Paramedics, forensics, law enforcement, legal prosecution, among others. By going to the left-of-boom and disrupting the supply chain, counter-insurgents (allied military) in Iraq reduced their road-side fatalities caused by IEDs.

In the case of motor vehicles we have fairly robust STS -- to the "left-of-crash" -- that has reduced road fatalities over the years, but it is still not good enough. In the case of guns, the STS that exists today, to the "left-of-firing," is woefully inadequate. In addition to legal controls, we don't have technologies that specifically look at the human factor ("end-user") and at the point of user interaction (gun-human interface). For instance, we do not know how to lock-out a weapon if the user at the moment happens to be deranged, inebriated, or experiencing a moment of rage.

Until one has a robust STS for guns, with policies, laws and technologies that can provide the necessary checks and controls, gun violence, unfortunately is here to stay. Or it could be prevented by design, by taking a socio-technical systems perspective founded in technology, human factors psychology, and systems engineering.  And if one were to express this in the language of the second amendment, it would go like this:
A well regulated  socio-technical system being necessary to the security of all citizens in a free state, the right of the people not to be grievously injured by someone else's inability to safely bear arms shall not be infringed.

Moin Rahman
Founder/Principal Scientist
High Velocity Human Factors "HVHF" Sciences
HVHF on Facebook


  1. Excellent post, Moin. Unfortunately, for the people who can make this happen, any action to even discuss related to making changes to help build a safer society is and will be met with resistance, for they thrive on leaving a majority of the society guessing or distracted.
    - Ravi

  2. if you choose to sit and meditate in Bombay stock exchange, don't complain about the noise around you. If you choose to live in a violent society don't complain about the killings around you. And safety will depend on your luck. You being a good driver is not enough, your life depends on the maniac who is driving on the opposite side. When you drive a car you have very limited options on safety. This is about the remedy, we go into causes, treating the disease is no good, you can't take all the cars off the roads. Changing the laws will not help either.

    Gujrat is a dry state, sale of liquor is illegal and banned by law. But a man who wants to drink gets it freely, it is available to him. So will be the guns in the US, if they are outlawed by the government.

    Things are manufactured for consumption. Tooth paste sold, used by us and the fresh stocks are replaced in the shop for further sales. When we manufacture weapons, land mines, bombs, weapons of mass destruction, they have to be used somewhere to keep the factory busy and to keep the money rolling. So where do we begin ?
    Education has failed, religion has failed.

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