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Drilling for Certainty

| June 1, 2010

by Jim Bruce

David Brooks’ May 27, 2010 Op-Ed piece in the New York Times was titled “Drilling for Certainity”which is today’s Tuesday Reading.  The piece also appeared in the May 29th Pittsburgh Post Gazette and was seen by Annie Stunden, Former CIO, University of Wisconsin and IT Leaders Presenter and Coach.  

Annie wrote pointing me to the piece commenting:  “As I have been thinking about the spill, I have been thinking about how hard it is to get this kind of system right just like it is hard to get our systems right.  It takes multiple people to understand them, and still, we don’t get it because we don’t get all the connections.”

Annie is right;  the systems in place in our society are extremely complex, no one person can understand the entire system, and we don’t have an adequate understanding of how our systems interconnect and depend upon each other.  This led me to think about Tom Barton’s work at the University of Chicago to understand their computing environment interconnections (difficult, but much more simple than the oil well failure in the Gulf).  And then to think about a network failure on a small college campus early last week that took down its external connectivity, connections between its on-campus servers, its phone system, its electronic door locks, and controlled lighting in areas such as in public bathrooms.  

Brooks makes six important points after observing  “Humans are not great at measuring and responding to risk when placed in situations too complicated to understand.”

1.  People have trouble imagining how small failings can combine to lead to catastrophic disasters.

2.  People have a tendency to get acclimated to risk and to living with small failures.

3.  People place elaborate faith in backup systems and safety devices often without testing their assumptions.

4.  People have a tendency to match complicated technical systems with complicated  – and often unclear – governing structures.

5.  People tend to spread good news and hide bad news.

6.  People in the same field begin to think alike and cease to see the larger context.

As I read through this editorial my thinking was challenged by this list as well as Brooks’ quote from Malcolm Gladwell’s 1996 New Yorker essay:  “We have constructed a world in which the potential for high-tech catastrophe is embedded in the fabric of day-to-day life.”  So. in the words Brooks uses to close the essay, “It’s a challenge for people living in an imponderably complex technical society.”

The haunting question for me is simply What are we going to do about it?


.  .  .  .   jim