- The Washington Times - Friday, March 14, 2008

One consequence of technology’s onward rush is being reminded every day of what we don’t know.

Technology has made the world a better place, but we no longer understand it the way we once did. What we do understand constitutes a diminishing part of the whole.

In 1800, people comprehended the man-made world around them. There was nothing mysterious about a wheeled cart or an ax. While few knew the details of smelting iron, the idea was simple enough.

As technology advanced, things got more complex.

Still, in 1950, a bright high school student could understand much of the machinery in his world. A car engine was reasonably accessible: Pistons and pushrods and camshafts all made sense. If he was interested in ham radio, he could understand most of what went on in a receiver. And so on.

Today, this has changed. Few can repair a computerized car. Telephones, which once consisted of fairly comprehensible microphones and speakers and wires, have substantially given way to cell phones. These are full of microcircuitry and rely on technologies like code division multiple access (CDMA), which gets very mathematical real fast. Even the screens use solid-state physics unknown not too long ago.

Today, much of the world looks like magic. We have CT scans and MRIs without knowing how they work and use computers of such complexity that even their designers grasp only parts of what they do. A new central-processing chip is the product of a large team of designers. Programmers don’t understand the design, designers don’t understand the underlying physics, and neither understands the software of millions of lines of code.

In the past, people could not only fix things but also feed themselves. As this changed, commentators asked: If we become utterly dependent on systems so complex and interconnected that few know how to fix them, what will happen if a disaster disables them?

What happened to the concern that a disaster would knock out crucial systems and we would all die of starvation? In the past, the doomsayers said — not unintelligently — that when all our food came from a small percentage of people working on highly technology-dependent farms, a disruption would be catastrophic.

Has this come about? No. In fact, the opposite has happened.

To begin with, the complex systems don’t seem to break much. Very occasionally, we get a major power blackout, but it doesn’t last long. Infrequently, the Internet goes down somewhere or the phones fail due to a storm, for example. Yet, the salient characteristic of complex systems of any importance is that they are not fragile.

Further, the capacity for repair is remarkable precisely because of the same complex systems. If a serious earthquake hit San Francisco, for example, within a day the Air Force would (or could) be airlifting food, medical teams would converge from all over the country, generators would fire up (the Army has large portable ones) and critical communications restored by satellite or by airlifted radio and telephone systems.

To the extent this didn’t happen after Hurricane Katrina, the reason was incompetent leadership not technical incapacity.

The upshot seems to be that since enough people understand small parts of things, the inherent reliability and robustness of today’s technology makes disasters less, not more, dangerous.

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