Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.
- Rosa Luxemburg, "Junius Pamphlet" 1916

Monday, March 14, 2011

The cost of complexity

Fukushima nuclear plant, Japan, March 15, 2011

Thomas Homer-Dixon is a professor of international affairs at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario province, Canada. His writing and research cover the complex, systems-level interaction of science, technology, environment, and economics. A major theme in his work is that the complexity of human social-technical systems has vastly exceeded the evolved cognitive capacity of the human brain -- and even our ability to pool collective brainpower artificially to solve our problems, by means of our cultures and institutions.

Our high tech civilization, in short, has become more complicted by far than we can manage. Homer-Dixon's writing vividly conveys how this affects the multiple, massive, converging crises of the twenty first century. He analyzes how human institutions must face, simultaneously, an array of problems that would be overwhelming even in isolation. We have to deal with them all at once, using brains -- and organized collections of brainpower -- that simply aren't up to the task. Too many problems create information overload, from climate change, biodiversity loss, topsoil loss, ocean acidification, financial gyrations, mass poverty and unemployment, technological flux, energy shortages, raw materials exhaustion, unraveling food supplies, disappearing fresh water, political extremism and genocide. It's too much.

Homer-Dixon argues that it isn't just that we feel overwhelmed. We are, in fact, overwhelmed. We are biologically and cognitively unable to function in the social settings that our own evolution made possible. Which is why our world is unraveling. Too many problems accumulating too quickly, far faster than we can process, defying our ability to organize resources for any responses.

We've seen this process unfold with particular vividness in the first three months of 2011. A vast swirl of interconnected crises: revolutions, insurgencies, oil shortages, food scarcity, drought and heatwave and storms and climate change, market and fiscal oscillations. And now, on top of all that, an out-of-nowhere blindside earthquake and tsunami, pile-driving one of the world's most advanced economies into a flooded, blood-soaked heap of smoking rubble. The devastation of Japan has further rammed an uncertain, reeling global system.

Worse things may lie ahead. The latest reports say that three potential nuclear melt-downs are in progress at damaged Japanese nuclear plants. Global food and energy prices look set to continue rising this year. North Africa and the Middle East continue to roil with violence and political upheaval.

Our civilization is out of control.

For thinking about how this systems-level cascade of crisis works, I've found Thomas Homer-Dixon's writing enormously useful. His clarity and concreteness get beyond the usual airy academic abstractions, helping readers visualize the implications of runaway social complexity.

My favorite example comes from Homer-Dixon's 2001 book The Ingenuity Gap. As a metaphor for the human predicament, Homer-Dixon offers the crash of United Airlines Flight 232 on July 19, 1989. Bound from Denver to Chicago, a tiny crack in the fan of the plane's tail engine suddenly ripped open, blowing the entire engine to shreds. The explosion of the engine ripped apart nearby tubing of the plane's hydraulic system -- cutting off the entire hydraulic flow to the plane's maneuvering system. All of it. All the rudders, elevators, and ailerons used to control the plane became nonfunctional simultaneously.

The designers of the plane, a DC-10, had judged such a catastrophic failure impossible. But it happened to United Flight 232 on that day. The suddenly uncontrollable plane, minus one of three engines, banked steeply downward and to the right. The crew declared an emergency and began trying to regain control. The flight controls wouldn't respond -- none of the water-pressure-dependent flaps and stabilizers worked. The pilot managed to pull out of the descent by alternating power levels in the two remaining engines under the wing, but the resulting swings in thrust made the plane bob up and down while moving slowly in huge, miles-around circles to the right.

The complexity of the situation was enormous. Manipulating the dual engine thrust to wallow in circles through the sky took all of the captain's concentration, because any error might mean loss of what little control he had. Meanwhile, captain and co-pilot had to communicate with ground facilities and emergency crews, consult with experts by radio on possible ways to restore maneuvering power, manage preparation of flight attendants and passengers for an emergency landing, continuously assess instrument readings and search with their own eyes and ears for signs of potential additional damage to the aircraft, all while trying to determine the best of multiple potential landing sites and veer towards one of them in a barely controlled descent.

A few minutes into the crisis, one of the passengers -- a fellow airline pilot -- offered his assistance. The captain and co-pilot accepted instantly, briefed him, and gave him responsibility for handling the impossibly delicate yet oil-tanker-unwieldy task of steering the plane entirely by varying thrust to two separate engines. Having a third pilot focus on that single overwhelming task gave the other two men in the cockpit a barely conceivable chance of dealing with the rest of what was unfolding.

Homer-Dixon describes the crew's predicament as follows. It's worth quoting at some length. 

As the crew members tried to make sense of their instruments and the data they received via their eyes and ears, problems cascaded into other problems with almost overwhelming speed. The crew was swept along by a tightly coupled chain of cause and effect. For forty four harrowing minutes the captain and his officers assessed a prodigious flow of incoming information, made countless inquiries and observations, and issued dozens of commands. Even with extra help from the check pilot [the passenger who came forward to offer aid], it was all they could do to keep the plane aloft and roughly on course to a crash landing...

The situation they faced was unprecedented: they hadn't trained for it; no airline crew had ever trained for it. Such a disaster was thought too unlikely or too catastrophic to justify specific training. The pilot and his officers therefore had to invent, on the spot, a method for controlling the plane. They also had to assess the plane's damage, choose a place to land, and prepare their passengers for a crash landing.

The moment the engine exploded, crew members had to meet a sharply higher requirement for ingenuity -- that is, for practical solutions to the problem of flying the aircraft in new conditions. 

For the book, Homer-Dixon consulted a post-accident study of the decision-making processes used by the crew. The author of the study, Steven Predmore of Delta Airlines, wrote his dissertation on the Flight 232 event. He used quantitative techniques to analyze the amount of information being processed by crew members during each minute of the crisis, then communicated among themselves and ground authorities in multiple, simultaneous, overlapping conversations.

Here's how Homer-Dixon summarizes the analysis by Predmore of Delta Airlines.

For the entire duration of the crisis, the crew members were close to a human being's peak cognitive load: they were processing information, making decisions, and supplying ingenuity about as quickly as humanly possible. The load was extreme in part because the crew was enveloped by uncertainty and lacked a clear understanding of the aircraft's state... Ingenuity requirements were so high that the check airman [third pilot] quickly became indispensable. "The demands created by the use of differential engine thrust to control the aircraft" [said Predmore] made it almost impossible for either the captain or the first officer to attend to other tasks. The addition of the check airman to the crew allowed the captain to assign priority to tasks, divide and delegate them among crew members, and monitor the crew's performance. "The captain was an amazing leader," Predmore noted. The check airman's help, combined with the captain's effective organizing of the resources he had, allowed the crew to act like a precisely coordinated team; they became almost a single mind.

At about 4:00 p.m., July 19, 1989, United Flight 232 approached the airport at Sioux City, Iowa for an emergency landing. Homer-Dixon cites the transcript of cockpit conversations in describing the culmination of the crisis.

Captain:  "Left turns! Left turns! Close the throttles! 
First Officer: "Close 'em off." 
Captain: "Right turn. Close the throttles." 
First Officer: "Pull 'em off!"
Check Airman: "Nah. I can't pull 'em off or we'll lose it. That's what's turning ya!" 
Unidentified voice: "Okay." 
First Officer: "Left throttle -- left! Left! Left! Left! Left! Left! Left! -- Left! Left! Left!
[Ground proximity alarm sounds]
First Officer: "We're turning! We're turning! We're turning!"
Unidentified voice: "God!"

The plane hit the ground at the runway's leading edge, just to the left of the centerline. The right landing gear touched the ground first, then the right wing. As the plane skidded across the runway to the right it lost its right engine, chunks of its right wing, and its tail engine. It plowed across the grass, lost its left engine and tail section, and hit the pavement of another runway. The cockpit nose broke off. The remainder of the fuselage cartwheeled away and exploded in flames, coming to rest upside down in the middle of a field.

Of the 296 people on board, 111 died, including one flight attendant. The entire cockpit crew survived. 

In post-accident analysis, investigators concluded that saving any of the passengers at all constituted a miracle. The crew somehow managed to keep just enough tenuous control of the aircraft to make a barely controlled landing, thus saving two thirds of the lives in their hands. Later, investigators programmed the situation into a flight simulator. Every simulation ended with a completely uncontrolled crash and total destruction of the aircraft.

 United Airlines Flight 232, Sioux City, Iowa, July 19, 1989

* * * *  *

Nuclear engineers in Japan today, at this very second, face a situation much like the one confronting United Flight 232. Multiple reactors crippled by an emergency deemed not worth preparing for. No way to manage the enormous and constantly escalating complexity of the resulting crisis. No way to supply enough ingenuity quickly enough to avoid some kind of catastrophe.

Much the same is true for the policy-makers currently in control of human societies. They operate a super-complex technological infrastructure encircling this planet, relentlessly destroying the climate, ecosystems, and resources that sustain the infrastructure itself. The only possible solution is to immediately begin rapid, gargantuan reductions in the resource consumption and infrastructure use of our entire species. Psychological and social realities make any such solution impossible. We don't have enough ingenuity to make a difference.

Meaning that we are in the process of crash landing. The only hope is that something will survive in the aftermath.

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