Monday, August 18, 2003

I'm shocked! Shocked!

Well, no, not really. The east-coast blackout actually came as no surprise to me at all, nor to most scientists and engineers. The blackout was the inevitable consequence of society's general attitude of benign neglect towards its infrastructure until some crisis forces people to pull their heads out of the sand (and possibly other places). You can see this happening over and over in just about every aspect of our society: computing, the space shuttle, financial markets, roads and bridges, public health, education.... Everything nowadays seems to be driven by a push towards higher efficiency and short-term returns. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. The problem is that one can often achieve the appearance of short term gains in efficiency by increasing hidden costs, or taking on hidden risks. You can improve your bottom line for a while by scrimping on margin, or maintenance, or insurance (or by forcing your customers to wait idly on the phone line waiting for a service representative rather than vice versa) but the longer you do the more likely it will come back to bite you in a big way later on. That we are taking on all these additional risks doesn't bother me (I think that we've generally become far too risk-averse) as much as that we seem to be doing it with our eyes closed.

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