No Safety in Numbers: How the Computer Quantified Everything and Made People Risk Aversive
Author: Henry J. Perkinson
Publisher: Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press Inc, 1996
Review Published: January 2007
No Safety in Numbers: How the Computer Quantified Everything and Made People Risk Aversive is the third book by Henry Perkinson that focuses on the influence of media in western cultures. The book's main argument is that the dominant impact of the computer has been the "mathematization" of American culture -- a process that converts social, political, and economic "facts" into data. This has allowed both the discovery of patterns previously hidden from view and an appreciation of the complexity of these knowledge domains. Perkinson argues this increased understanding has not had the liberating effects many intended. Rather, it has acted as a sort of catalyst for culture becoming risk-aversive, and we (sometimes consciously, sometimes subconsciously) seek to avoid dangers we were formerly unaware of. Despite demonstrable gains in national indictors of health and longevity, we perceive ever greater threats from our surrounding environments. The main strength of the book is in providing a series of arguments about a wide variety of cultural dynamics, inspiring the reader to engage in his/her own internal debate about these issues. The main weaknesses are a tendency to not provide clear definitions for concepts fundamental to the arguments and a tendency to not provide adequate evidence to support claims, leading at times to unsubstantiated explanations.
The book begins by discussing how many fields of inquiry have abandoned the search for objectivity in exchange for the quest for, or creation of, meaning. One example is literary scholars who argue that there are no true objective texts, but only contextual interpretations accepted by a given community. Perkinson argues that the primary motivation for this shift from objective discovery to relativist meaning creation is the influence of the electronic computer in the humanities. Simply stated, the computer created a risk for faculty in the humanities to be avoided. The threat was the "scientization of their fields," which would convert traditionally interpretive areas of inquiry into data, thus potentially changing what was considered a valuable contribution. Further, the use of mathematical techniques was perceived by critical scholars as being deterministic in nature, and denying human agency -- which they felt was the very essence of the contributions of humanities. In response, the entire enterprise of what was traditionally thought of as science was called into question, creating what Perkinson calls a "risk-free intellectual world." This view, according to Perkinson, is termed postmodernism. As a result, traditional scholarship in the humanities was reinterpreted as being inadvertently racist and sexist; the solution is for all interpretations to be treated as equals. All knowledge is considered subjective; truth does not exist. Rather, certainty of meaning only exists in so far as a linguistic community accepts it.
While there is nothing new in Perkinson's treatment of the emergence of postmodern or poststructuralist thought, he does provide an accessible and compelling summary that many may find useful as supplemental course material. What is unique is his argument concerning the role the computer has played in the development of a culture that is fundamentally risk-aversive. The majority of the book argues how risk-aversion has dramatically influenced our culture in areas such as health and safety, professional risk management, the advancement of minority groups, and entrepreneurial activity. Perkinson is attempting the difficult task of building a link between the postmodern epistemological approach, the influence of computers, and a variety of activities in our culture. Unfortunately, as a reader, I was unable to ascertain many of the conceptual bridges or the supporting evidence alluded to earlier in the manuscript. At times, the treatments and interpretations of these issues seemed to be somewhat political as well as analytical.
The notion that our culture had become more risk-aversive by 1996 (the year of publication of No Safety in Numbers) is substantiated by a series of ad hoc examples. For example, a story in the New York Times about the Food and Drug Administration needing more staff to keep up with drug safety assessment needs is taken as evidence of an increase in risk-aversion. A second example is a story about playground accidents. Thus, we have become much more likely to perceive risk where it actually does not exist. It is fair to point out that Perkinson offers no substantive definition of risk-aversive behavior or any reasonable measure of risk-aversive activity. Why is a staff shortage at the FDA evidence of risk-aversion? An alternative explanation is the dramatic increase in pharmaceutical start-up companies in the late 1980s and early 1990s, resulting in more drugs needing to be tested. Despite a wealth of examples substantiating the claim that computers have facilitated quantification of risks to our health, there is no evidence offered that documents or justifies the claim that those in our culture have in fact shifted their behavior as a result of the availability of evidence. For instance, an increase in liability litigation was identified as an example of risk-aversive behavior. It was never made clear why this was the case.
A second example illustrates the types of arguments made throughout the text. Statistical evidence cited in the book demonstrates that blacks are more likely than whites to live in poverty, have less education, have higher dropout rates, be incarcerated, and make less money. The consistency of these and other findings supports the notion that our society puts blacks at greater risk than whites. A second set of statistics suggests that within the black demographic significant progress has been made in these and other areas over the last thirty years. Disparities continue to exist relative to whites, while progress has been made within the group. Perkinson asks: "Why do we find more emphasis on relative deprivation than on the reduction of absolute deprivation?" (87). One explanation, termed the Tocqueville effect, focuses on the desire for equality. An alternative explanation offered by Perkinson suggests that as opportunity has increased within the black population, persons have the opportunity to fail as well as succeed. Rather than risk failure, some continue to blame a lack of opportunity. While the author of this review finds this position to be wrongheaded, bizarre, and unsubstantiated, many may find the general line of thought intriguing and worthy of discussion.
No Safety in Numbers effectively develops a sort of historical lineage from the development of postmodern thought in academia to the promotion of a philosophical view in support of egalitarianism in our culture. Further, the book attempts to link the promotion of this egalitarian thought to a wide range of risk-aversive behavior in our culture. The main weakness of the book is a lack of clear definitions of key concepts upon which major arguments were based, leading at times to a series of unsubstantiated claims and interpretations. That being said, Perkinson provides a series of complex and compelling lines of thought that require the reader to think carefully.
If you are the type of reader who places great emphasis on concise conceptualizations and an abundance of evidence, you will likely find much of No Safety in Numbers to be lacking. If you are looking for a book that provides an original treatment of a wide variety of issues, you will find this work to be both fascinating and intriguing. With a book of this nature, the issue is not really whether you agree or disagree with any one specific conclusion; rather, it is whether you are intellectually stimulated -- and I certainly was.
Robert Whitbred is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown. His research interests include the longitudinal analysis of the evolution of emergent communication network in organizations, along with exploration of the predictors and outcomes of employees' interpretations of organizational mission. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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