Thursday, September 13, 2012

Optimism vs Pessimism

As I mentioned at the end of my post yesterday, many of the comments on my recent Bloomberg column chided me for being overly optimistic about the future of humanity, and especially about our capacity to create a sustainable future, especially through the intelligent use of technology to help us control and manage a complex world. The criticism was elegantly put by David Johnson:
I just saw your piece on Bloomberg on augmenting our decision making skills artificially, and I am sorry to say, based on quite a bit of painful experience, that this doesn't actually work as one might hope.

I'm retired now, but I spent nearly thirty years as a computer software designer, and I can't tell you how many times I have seen people flatly refuse to believe counter-intuitive results coming from some sophisticated program. 

Indeed, even simple instruments, such as pressure gauges can present results that cause system operators to dismiss the data as the output of a defective sensor. 

For example, the accident at Three Mile Island was the direct result of operators misjudging the meaning of two gauges that were apparently giving contradictory readings.  One gauge implied that the level of cooling water was getting too high, while the other implied that it was dangerously low.  The operators could not envision any scenario in which both could be correct, so they decided (arbitrarily and without ANY cross-checking!) that the low reading was invalid, and they shut down the emergency cooling water, which was precisely the wrong thing to do.

In that case, it turned out that there was a vapor lock in the plumbing connecting the two parts of the system that the two gauges were monitoring, so, indeed, the pressure in the cooling water supply was rising, even as the water level in the reactor vessel itself was dropping dangerously.  However, as simple as this problem really was, it was totally outside the experience of the operators, so they never considered the possibility.  Moreover, the system designers had not recognized the possibility either, or they would have designed the plumbing differently in the first place.

My point here is that a problem of this sort is stupidly simple compared to the complexities of systems like the global climate, yet even trained professionals cannot handle the level of weirdness that can result from one unanticipated discrepancy.

In other words, we are generally stupid enough that we cannot understand, much less accept, how stupid we really are, so there is no way that the average person will casually defer to the judgment of an artificial system like a computer program.
I received many comments making similar points, and I'd like to say that I agree completely and absolutely.

The way I look at the argument of Sander van der Leeuw is that he has identified a weak point in the nature of our relationship with the world. Our brains individually and collectively simply cannot match up to the complexity of the world in which we live (especially as our own technology has made it much more complex in recent decades). It's this mismatch that lies behind the pervasive tendency for our actions and innovations to have unanticipated consequences, many of which have led us to very big problems. Hence, he's suggesting that IF WE HAVE ANY HOPE of finding some solutions to our problems through further innovation it will be by finding ways to help our brains cope more effectively. He suggests information technology as the one kind of technology that might be useful in this regard, and which might help -- again, if used properly -- to heal the divide between the real complexity of the world and our pictures and models of it.

I think this makes a lot of sense, and it ought to inform our future use of technology and the way we use it to innovate. But I certainly wouldn't want to go any further and predict that we will actually be able to act in this way, or learn from this insight. If asked to bet on it, I would actually bet that humanity will have to suffer dearly and catastrophically before we ever change our ways.

Even more than stupid, we are stubborn. On this point I also could not agree more with David Johnson:
Seriously, the Arctic ice cap has been more or less stable, within a few percent, for about three million years, but now, in just thirty years, about 75% of the mass of ice has disappeared.  Yet, millions of people simply ignore this massive and extremely dangerous change.  Instead, they chalk up the reports as evidence of a conspiracy by climate scientists to frighten taxpayers into supporting more fictitious make-work for those self-same scientists.  That is a lethal level of stupidity, but it still passes easily for "common-sense" among a very large fraction of the general population.