The ever-growing burden of technology on our lives

Increasingly, cities are complicated systems. The thought of traffic lights, 911 calls, transit and hospitals all going haywire at once is really scary

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(Troy Media) It you think red tape is slowing progress, you’re right. If you think some complex technical gadgets in your home, office and car aren’t really saving time, you’re right again.

But have you thought about how costly and dangerous this technology can be? Author Samuel Arbesman has in his book Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension (2016).

Tonight Show host Johnny Carson used to refer to his tailor, Raoul of Bayonne. No doubt he took the Bayonne Bridge on his way to fittings. That’s the bridge between New York and New Jersey. But it’s 100 years old and too low for modern container ships to pass under. The Port of Newark was suffering, so the simple solution of raising the bridge was proposed and approved in 2009. But construction couldn’t start until 47 permits were obtained from 19 government entities.

This SNAFU – systems normal, all fouled up – is more common and worse than you think. Arbesman cites Amazon and Netflix’s odd recommendations, and autocorrect’s foibles. This is the modern version of the home VCR flashing 12:00 all the time. At least we could put some black tape over the tiny VCR screen.

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Arbesman notes that complexity is one thing but complicated is another. Being complicated arises when lots of parts of a system are “connected and interacting together in a tumultuous dance.” Microsoft Office has tens of millions of lines of computer code. The code for Google is 50 pages and 100,000 characters.

Then the complicated becomes the inexplicable and we’ve gone from the enlightenment to the entanglement (to paraphrase computer scientist and entrepreneur Danny Hillis).

Engineers and computer scientists fix this with a “kluge” – “a cobbled-together, inelegant, and sometimes needlessly complicated solution. …” They use a program called GOTO to jump from one line to another in the programming language BASIC. That’s fine as a work-around but eventually it’s “spaghetti code” that even skilled programmers can’t untangle. It’s also fine when the cost of failure is low – a blinking light on the blinking machine or having to unplug and sit for a bit. This cost of failure is not worth a high cost of construction to fix

You may not understand how the software in your phone works but neither do the folks who sold it to you. It may be the product of several engineer’s kluges, codes and work-arounds.

But then there’s the northeast blackout in 2003 that “affected 50 million people, contributed to the death of 11 people, and cost an estimated $6 billion.” That’s a high failure cost and just as complicated to fix.

Imagine the next blackout, perhaps caused by complicated systems. It’s estimated by other authors that plain old solar weather could disrupt the power grid and affect 120 million Americans.

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Increasingly, cities are complicated systems, too. The thought of traffic lights, 911 calls, transit and hospitals all going haywire at once is really scary.

One of the solutions is going backwards.

For the individual, this means trying to get off the grid and out of the system, and still survive. This might mean telecommuting, wood-burning fireplaces, solar panels and emergency supplies.

For cities, it might mean run-of-the-river power generation that’s off the grid. It might mean redundancy and resiliency. How about a transit system that runs on electricity, gasoline, diesel fuel and natural gas? How about buildings with multiple power and heat sources?

Piling new technology on top of old may be more dangerous than removing some technology, or at least being able to do without for a bit.

Troy Media columnist Dr. Allan Bonner has consulted on some of the major planning and public policy issues of our time on five continents over 25 years. He is the author of Safer Cities. 

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