Politics, Complexity and the next big Outage

I worry a lot about how complex the world is and how unstable that makes things. 

I watch a lot of Adam Curtis documentaries which make me feel less alone in my thoughts but don’t make me feel better. I don’t think the world is run by some secret cabal or by the people at Davos. I think the world isn’t run by anyone. It’s a complicated mess that mostly works, most of the time, but there’s a lot of fragility under the surface.

The system as a whole is too complicated to be controlled. It can only be managed as best as we can.

I spent a lot of time in software engineering and saw so many problems resulting from systems that were too complicated. I also saw that large companies had developed some tools and practices to try to deal with these systems.. 

Some example are:

  • Clear Goals and Priorities – If you don’t even agree on the desired outcomes, your ability to manage a complex system to reach a positive outcome is almost nonexistent.
  • Deep Analysis – You have to be able and willing to put in the time to really analyze the data and look for what it’s really saying rather than just trying to confirm your priors.
  • Fix the Problem not the Blame – The concept of blameless postmortems when something goes wrong is one of the only ways to really be able to assess root causes and make progress on making things better for next time.
  • Disagree and Commit – Manifests in a lot of ways but essentially you need to have everyone trying to make the system work, not having people who didn’t get their way sitting back and criticizing things till they fall apart again.

These things don’t guarantee you won’t have problems but they are some of the best tools we’ve developed for dealing with complex systems and being able to manage them. Unfortunately these kinds of principles are basically 100% absent from our political system and the ways most people relate to it. 

We want simple answers and someone to blame. Those are easy to find but they don’t result in improvements which make the system better. We just paper things over, blame the other side and move on. 

Many of the practices above used by software companies arose out of necessity in response to various outages or crises. I don’t know how big a crisis will need to be to change our perspective, but I do know that it will be bigger than the 2008 financial crisis or the Covid pandemic.







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