Malaysian Airlines MH17: Studies of Information Disasters

Evidence is only beginning to develop about what led to the disaster that beset Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 over the Eastern Ukraine. However, it is likely to be compared with other military and large technical system disasters, such as when the USS Vincennes accidentally shot down a domestic Iranian Airline, Iran Flight 655 on 3 July 1987. These have been called ‘information disasters’ by myself and colleagues, who have looked at studies of this and other related cases. See our chapter: Peltu, M., MacKenzie, D., Shapiro, S., and Dutton, W. H. (1996), ‘Computer Power and Human Limits,’ in Dutton. W. H. (ed.), Information and Communication Technologies – Visions and Realities, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 177-195. Specific treatment of the USS Vincennes is provided by Rochlin, G. (1991), ‘Iran Air Flight 655 and the USS Vincennes: Complex, Large-Scale Military Systems and the Failure of Control’, pp. 99-125 in La Porte, T. (ed.), Social Responses to Large Technical Systems. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

In the case of MH17, there seems to be mounting evidence that it was shot down by mistake. A domestic airliner was not the intended target. However, debate is huge over who shot the plane down, and who supplied the weapons. Needless to say, the analysis of such cases often deals with more than the specific information disaster – the mistake, such as in the earlier case: Why did the domestic Iran Flight 655 come to be perceived as a military aircraft descending toward the USS Vincennes, when it was actually climbing? In this respect, such studies do not always deal adequately with the broader political and military issues over responsibility. These broader questions have been the primary and immediate focus of debate over MH17. Rather than understand why MH17 was shot down, people worldwide are wondering who was responsible for putting particular weapons into the hands of the Russian separatists who are widely suspected of firing the missile that took down MH17.* But academics can and should devote their own talents to see if lessons can be learned from such disasters at any level of analysis.

*See the Financial Times: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/a1dcc628-1010-11e4-90c7-00144feabdc0.html#axzz386tsBcsR

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