The recent grounding of the cruise ship Costa Concordia is a tragic reminder that even a vessel equipped with the latest instruments of technology is not guaranteed safe passage through threatening waters. The human element, embodied in this case in the ship captain's decision to sail dangerously close to shore (something reported to have been a not unheard of practice with cruise ships), can always negate technological prowess. Images of the ship resting on its side like a beached white whale showed how vulnerable even something so gigantic can be to the unintended consequences of human nature.
But we seem never to learn; the incident off the Italian coast occurred almost exactly 100 years after an even more tragic marine disaster.
On April 10, 1912, the innovatively designed ocean liner Titanic was heralded as an "unsinkable" success even before the ship left the dock. As we all know, it sank on its maiden voyage. But now, a century later, let us engage in a thought experiment.
Let us assume that the Titanic did not have the bad luck of being in the same place at the same time as a giant North Atlantic iceberg. Had the ship not had its unfortunate encounter, it might have reached New York safely, and the success of its design would have been "proven." The more times the Titanic crossed and recrossed the ocean, the more confident the ship's captain, owner, and potential passengers would have become in its extraordinary seaworthiness.
Competing steamship companies would likely have wanted to emulate the Titanic's success, but they would also have wanted to make distinguishing changes that they believed would be improvements, whether for technical, economic, or commercial advantage. Larger, faster, and more opulent ocean liners would then likely have been designed and built. To make them more competitive financially, the newer ships would have been made with thinner hulls and carried fewer lifeboats. After all, the design of their new ship was based on the unsinkable, unsunk, and thus eminently successful Titanic.
But as we know from its colossal failure to reach New York, even the Titanic could not withstand its collision with an iceberg -- a fatal flaw in the ship's design. All subsequent ocean liners whose design was closely based on the supposedly successful Titanic would likely also have had the same latent flaws as their paragon.
In fact, because of the overconfidence in the ship's success, the inevitable use of thinner steel in their hulls would have made the derivative ships even more vulnerable, and the fewer lifeboats would have made any accident at sea potentially more tragic. Chances are, one of these "improved" ships would eventually have had the bad luck of being in the same place at the same time as a fateful iceberg. Only then might the folly of thinner hulls and fewer lifeboats, not to mention a fatally flawed bulkhead design, have become incontrovertibly evident.
Successful change comes, not from emulating success and trying to better it, but from learning from and anticipating failure, whether actually experienced or hypothetically imagined.