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technology review July/August 2012
Dystopias in the 20th century came
mostly in two flavors: the impos-
ing surveillance state, as depicted
in Orwell’s 1984, and the stupefying pleasure
dome, as in Huxley’s Brave New World. What
if these were not separate nightmares? The
real threat could be surveillance in the ser-
vice of seduction rather than punishment.
Facebook is so successful because it helps
us fulfill the urge to remain connected to
one another. That urge has led about a bil-
lion of us to provide a single company with
imprints of a sizable part of our social lives
(see “What Facebook Knows,” p. 42).
As a social scientist, I’m terribly excited by
this data trove, because it’s a great resource
for studying the human animal. Emerging
“big data” sources—Facebook is one of the
best—have the potential to contribute to our
understanding of society. But this informa-
tion has uses that go beyond targeting ads.
Though the prospect doesn’t seem to faze
Facebook users so far, it could be used to
target civic, political, and social messaging
in ways that are unhealthy for democracy.
Political campaigns, for example, now
encourage voters to connect with their
Facebook apps or pages, which can access
in-depth data about not just a person but
his or her social networks and interactions.
This creates opportunities for profiling at
unprecedented precision and scale. I am
waiting for the first wave of vicious negative
political campaigning on Facebook. (Most
of us might not even notice it, since it could
be narrowly targeted to a receptive niche,
or even to individuals.)
The way Facebook uses its collected data
can influence our social interactions. Face-
book’s news feed does not show all updates,
or even the most recent, but rather what
On March 11, 2011, one of the stron-
gest earthquakes in recorded his-
tory struck Japan’s northeast coast.
The earthquake and the tsunami that fol-
lowed killed more than 20,000 people and
caused over $200 billion in property dam-
age. The tsunami also disabled critical safety
systems at the Fukushima-Daichii nuclear
power plant, resulting in damage to its fuel
rods and a large release of radioactivity.
Scary though the accident looked and
sounded in the media, its radiological con-
sequences are negligible. Nobody has died
from radiation exposure. The Japanese
government evacuated tens of thousands
people from the area surrounding the plant
to avoid radiation doses that would have
had no measurable effect on their health.
On the other side of the world, as the acci-
dent was still unfolding, Germany chose to
shut down its nuclear plants and replace
their output with energy from renewable
sources (see “The Great German Energy
Experiment,” p. 50), a decision compara-
ble to giving up driving because a friend
crashed a car on a dangerous road. German
nuclear plants are among the best-operated
in the world, and seismic and tsunami risks
in Germany are practically nonexistent. The
decision seemed to be more the result of
politics and public fear than of logic.
Most countries using nuclear energy
were more rational. The U.S ., the U.K .,
France, China, and South Korea, among
others, studied the Fukushima accident
closely so that they could reduce the like-
lihood of similar events at their own plants.
These countries restated their commit-
ment to the safe and secure development
of nuclear energy as a way to combat global
warming and ensure energy independence.
A number of countries with young nuclear
energy programs, such as the United Arab
Emirates, Turkey, Vietnam, and Poland,
did not significantly alter their plans after
The consensus now is that the tsunami
protection system at the Fukushima plant
was “underdesigned.” When a nuclear plant
loses off-site power, it needs on-site AC and
DC power sources to activate safety systems
and read instrumentation. At Fukushima,
those backup sources were in poorly pro-
tected rooms that were overwhelmed by
the large waves of water.
Protecting on-site AC and DC power
sources in waterproof, fireproof rooms is
the simplest way to defend nuclear plants
against natural events such as floods, fires,
hurricanes, and tornadoes. U.S . plants are
already well equipped thanks to measures
taken after September 11, 2001. Follow-
ing the disaster in Fukushima, the U.S .
nuclear industry took voluntary action
to strengthen protections against natu-
ral disasters. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory
Commission recently formalized require-
ments for extended protection against such
events in current and future plants. Nuclear
energy will emerge even safer after Fuku-
shima, just as it has after previous accidents.
It will continue to produce clean and reli-
able power for the benefit of humanity.
Jacopo Buongiorno, associate professor of nuclear
science and engineering at MiT, works on thermal
hydraulics and the safety of nuclear power plants.
Zeynep Tufekci says facebook’s
power over our social lives comes
with great responsibility.
The fukushima disaster should
make nuclear energy safer than
ever, says Jacopo Buongiorno.
6/6/12 5:21 PM
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