The complexity of modern day life
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18-08-2011, 01:26 PM
The complexity of modern day life
On the 21 of September 1942 the prototype of the Boeing B-29 Superfortress made his maiden flight. Not only has this type of aircraft the dubious honor to drop the first atom bomb successfully deployed against enemy target, it also carries a second, much more bizarre, honor. The B-29 was one of the first pieces of machinery, so complex, that none of the engineers designing it hat a complete understanding on how everything worked.

To us people of 2011, two or three generations further, it doesn't sound so strange anymore. Parts get ordered by company's as black-boxes, installed according to specs and they do the things they're supposed to. Take a car for example. As a car mechanic, you know how to operate a diagnostics computer, if you are good, you even know what you are measuring but, can you open the thing, point at any component of it and say e.g.: "Thats the SMD feedback resistor on the measurement amplifier". And even if you can do that? Do you know how the software is written?

As a general repair technician, i try to keep an overview on the machinery I repair. In the same sense as the lead engineer of the Boeing design team had overview on the total concept of the aircraft. But I know that there are things I do on my job where I don't really know what I'm exactly doing, but I do get the desired results. Mostly I don't think about those things. Almost no one does... Do you really think about how a microwave works when you use it? Do you know who/what is involved when a bank gives you dividend? Do you know how or where that hot-dog you're eating is made?

I think this all to common situation puts some strain on our future. Why? I think it's unsustainable in the long end. It caters to the throwaway society we evolved to. MP3 player malfunctioning? Buy a new one. Television set broken? If you are lucky we can swap the mother-board. But that mother-board? throw away! Think about all the energy needed to recycle the old, and create a new one.

A more dramatic example could be the 2008 financial crisis. Correct me if I am wrong, but much of the crisis came forth out of financial institutions not knowing what other financial institutions where actually doing with those loans. Thereby lacking some serious foundations underneath their funds. IMO, too few people maintained overview.

When I think about this situation in an irrational manner, doomsday scenarios -Frankenstein style- pop into my head where humanity has created monsters of situations that they can't control anymore. I only have to turn to the recent events in Fucushima to think it's already too late.

As much as I think we are far better off in 2011 then the people of 1911, I think we all need to become much more aware of how the "world works" before we can really speak about progress. Todays world is more some kind of organized chaos witch we first need to straighten up before we can continue to progress.

Thanks for reading.
Your thoughts?

Observer

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18-08-2011, 01:41 PM
RE: The complexity of modern day life
The B-29 may have been the first piece of machinery that engineers built without knowing how everything worked but all the way back to the first machines and tools people have used them without a complete knowledge of how they work or how they use them. A farmer in the 1800's may have known enough to keep his machinery working but he had no idea about the physics behind his steam-powered engine. An indian living in the pre-colonization days may have been able to construct arrows but he had know idea about aerodynamics. People have always made things work without fully grasping the concepts of what they are using (at least in the modern age of tools and probably more specifically tools that are more complex than a stone knife). The disturbing part as you point out is the mindset of replacement. Consumers throw away that old MP3 player and DVD player because often times it is more expensive for them to fix them than it is to simply buy another. This is because the parts themselves are not always readily available because the manufacturer does not want people repairing them and most people simply don't have the technical skills to do so anyway. And these products are designed to be come obsolete in a few years anyway so the manufacturer can sell the replacement. Is it really worth repairing that 10 year old i-Pod for $20 in parts and $20 in labor when you can buy a new shuffle for about $50? No. I don't disagree that people should try to learn more about the things they use but we live in a society where it is cheaper for us to buy new than to repair (in some but not all cases. Cars for instance). The fact that items are becoming more complex is frustrating but also necessary it seems. I want my car to perform better and get better gas mileage. The solution is computer, electrical and mechanical engineering that all work together. The owner only needs to know how to operate it and identify a problem if it arises and a mechanic need only know how to troubleshoot the problem, identify the suspect piece of equipment and replace it.

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18-08-2011, 02:27 PM (This post was last modified: 18-08-2011 02:35 PM by k37713.)
RE: The complexity of modern day life
I know that this was not the point of your post. However, Fifi, the last flying b-29 in the world is in Dallas ,TX right now. I work right by Addison airport and have seen it take off a few times in the last week. Very exciting to see! ( kind of an airplane dork Smile ) Heart
(18-08-2011 02:27 PM)k37713 Wrote:  I know that this was not the point of your post. However, Fifi, the last flying b-29 in the world is in Dallas ,TX right now. I work right by Addison airport and have seen it take off a few times in the last week. Very exciting to see! ( kind of an airplane dork Smile ) Heart

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18-08-2011, 03:21 PM
RE: The complexity of modern day life
@thebeardedude
I know. And I don't see any problems with users not really knowing what it's all about either. What really bothers me is the fact that even most engineers seem to loose overview.

@K37713
It was the find of a video of FIFI starting up between videos of steam trains that triggered the thought process of the above post. (ex-airplane dork, born again steam train dork here)

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18-08-2011, 04:09 PM
RE: The complexity of modern day life
The most dangerous aspect... no, wait, there's not just one.

The most immediately and personally dangerous aspect of overcomplexity is that breakdowns are inevitable, because maintenance is expensive and requires too many specialized personnel: it will be neglected on public projects.
And breakdown cannot be foreseen, because nobody understands the whole thing; it's nobody's baby; nobody can "feel" its weaknesses. (Fukushima)

I'm not sure the financial crisis falls into this category, because there were, in fact, several warnings over at least a decade, but were overriden by vested interests, both financial and political.
This gives us a sub-category of danger: opacity. Only an expert can see the early cracks, and he's swept aside. (Challenger) Anybody can see the potential problem, but independent experts aren't allowed to inspect and the people in charge can hire experts to fudge the safety protocol. (Gulf of Mexico)

The most dangerous long-term social aspect is that nobody will even try to keep on top of large projects: the responsibility is too heavy, and they'd have to rely on information from too many dorks and geeks the administrator doen't even like, let alone trust, so they'll delegate to heads of departments.... who may or may not talk to one another or their technical team leaders. This is probably true in business as well as government. In giant hydro dams and epidemiology centers; munitions factories and disaster-relief agencies. And if some organization that we really, desperately will need at some point is headed by a competent and brave administrator, who sees a problem looming, you can bet s/he'll be overruled by a minister or CEO.

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18-08-2011, 04:32 PM
 
RE: The complexity of modern day life
There is a phrase offered as a boast: "I have forgotten more than most will ever know" -- I think this is quite prophetic and, unfortunately, more and more accurately describing our experts.

Twenty years ago I understood everything about computers, down to the last bits (I used to program them in machine code, using hexadecimal input of codes) -- now I just guess and hope for the best.
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19-08-2011, 06:13 PM
RE: The complexity of modern day life
(18-08-2011 04:32 PM)Zatamon Wrote:  Twenty years ago I understood everything about computers, down to the last bits (I used to program them in machine code, using hexadecimal input of codes) -- now I just guess and hope for the best.

I got your back Zatamon, and I got a 27 yo kid who works for me who's got my back. No single one of us can keep up anymore but we're gonna be okay. ... Better even. Smile

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20-08-2011, 11:54 AM
RE: The complexity of modern day life
At this point in our understanding I believe we are getting to the point where it is now impossible for all children to hold the capacity for all of the information demanded within public schooling (especially factoring in the torrents of extraneous information relevant or not). Some children are prevented from excessive exposure to alternate sources of data, and some have a higher memory capacity.

I actually believe that part of our recent dumbing down is a failure to understand the capacity of our own memories. With the unlimited data available to expose ourselves to we probably need to develop habits of exclusivity in our data consumption.

Unfortunately those like me who are prone to varied information are at a serious disadvantage nowadays as the space required for technical skill memory is often filled with other things. As a kid I constantly noticed that those who have very specific interests seem to advance easier along their line than even those who are highly competent in many aspects. With the current amount of information necessary for tasks a general education may be turning into a detrimental flaw in our development of our children.

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20-08-2011, 07:11 PM
RE: The complexity of modern day life
(20-08-2011 11:54 AM)Lilith Pride Wrote:  ....
I actually believe that part of our recent dumbing down is a failure to understand the capacity of our own memories. With the unlimited data available to expose ourselves to we probably need to develop habits of exclusivity in our data consumption.

This is a very interesting idea i've never encountered before. Oh, i've noticed that for every new person i'm introduced to, a name i used to know falls out - preferably a dead actor, not a live acquaintance - but i put that down to age. I haven't thought about what happens to children overloaded with information.
I suppose they not only have to be selective about what classes of data to put into long-term memory, but also use different, more sophisticated, labeling and retrieval systems than previous generations. And they may have to start specializing very much earlier in life. And maybe a lot of them are simply overwhelmed and give up trying. Or sit back and rely on machines to give instant answers to whatever - unpredictable - questions arise. This could become a serious, maybe even civilization-threatening, problem. Is anybody studying it and looking for solutions? (Yeah, right!)

Quote:... As a kid I constantly noticed that those who have very specific interests seem to advance easier along their line than even those who are highly competent in many aspects.
Yes, that's always been true, but it makes narrow, limited people who are not as happy.... No, i'm projecting now. Their lives wouldn't make me happy, but i don't know how they feel. They do seem sometimes to burn out early

Quote: With the current amount of information necessary for tasks a general education may be turning into a detrimental flaw in our development of our children.

But do we want a society of drones who can only do one thing and are ignorant of every other aspect of life? What happens when - not if - that skill is no longer required? And how do such people vote, or contribute to culture, or solve problems?

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20-08-2011, 07:32 PM
 
RE: The complexity of modern day life
I have been accused in the past of ‘over-simplifying’. My usual response is: “no, I do not over-simplify—you over-complicate”. Which only proves that everything is relative.

However, basic concepts our lives depend on are very simple. Birth, death, procreation, family, food, clothing, shelter, co-operation, companionship, love — you know what I mean. It is possible to build a very complex civilization on top of our simple basic needs, but NOTHING will change our basic needs for survival.

Often in History people lost sight of the basic necessities and allowed the self-created complexity of their human constructs to destroy their simple needs. Needs that determine whether we live or die, whether we are happy or miserable.
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