Lion Taming Protocols

We're Not Tony Stark, Yet

When we make new technology, it helps us in two ways. First, it allows us to do some things better. New technology can enhance existing actions. For example, a steel shovel shovels dirt much better than a wooden one. Second, it can enable new actions. Piloting a vehicle remotely is a brand-new action.

This applies to more than technology. New forms of organization do the same thing. They enhance existing actions and enable new actions. For example, employee unions enhance workers’ abilities to negotiate. Democracies enable the peaceful transfer of power between leaders.

Enhancing and enabling are both types of change. Changes both eliminate problems and create problems. When we use new tech, it's obvious which problems it solves. But the problems it creates aren't obvious.

Tele-operation rigs are a clear case. They enable workers to pilot heavy equipment remotely. These rigs eliminate many hazards to workers. For example: vibration, electrocution, and vehicle collisions. But they also create new hazards. For example: chronic screen use, a dangerous commute, or a sedentary job.

New hazards aren’t obvious. It takes time to see what can go wrong. And technology doesn’t improve continuously. Every few years if we’re lucky, but often longer. It isn’t acceptable to let new hazards take their toll while we wait for another invention. Something has to bridge the gap.

That’s where protocols come in. It’s faster and cheaper to make a protocol than to engineer a better tool.

Back braces are a great invention. They protect workers from hurting themselves while doing heavy lifts. Many workers used them throughout the day. But over time, back brace users got hurt **more** than workers that didn’t use them.

Why? The first guess: workers with bad backs use braces more. Intuitively, it makes sense. But it was wrong. Turns out, long-term back brace use weakens your muscles. It causes them to atrophy. If you rely on the technology too much, it reduces your ability to stabilize your spine.

Back braces reduced the danger of heavy lifting. But using them too much increased the danger of *light* lifting. If you rely on your back brace at work all day, you’ll hurt yourself lifting a towel off the floor at home.

So, many companies now have protocols for when and when not to use a back brace. Even a technology as boring as a back brace is unpredictable. New technologies are "wild". Protocols are a wild technology tamer.

Until we get fully decked-out exoskeletons, don’t rely on external supports too much. Your body is not a china set – use it or lose it!

Three Bullet Thursday

  • I recently learned about the field of study known as “STS” — Sociotechnical Systems. My work this summer has started to brush up against this field. If anyone knows about it, I’d like some pointers. Or if you want to learn more about it, check out this wiki-style STS page.

  • If you’re into gym stuff, my kinesiology/computer science friend has a good frame to think about resistance training. Your big muscle/tendon systems, like your chest and hips, are fast-twitch. They act fast and with a lot of power. Your small tendon/muscle systems, like your feet, calves, ankles, and forearms, are slow-twitch. They are stabilizers and high-precision instruments. Train accordingly!

  • My great and powerful colleague Rafa and I gave a presentation on our projects yesterday, as part of the Summer of Protocols program. You can check out the slides here. Rafa’s work on online swarms (like the recent Reddit debacle) is super interesting and worth checkin’ out here.

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