The Ingenuity


Things fall apart

Washington Post Book World
Sunday, 19 November 2000; Page X04

As the nation recovers from a steady parade of political candidates promising to solve seemingly insurmountable problems, political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon offers a welcome reality check by exploring problems that may well be intractable. While this or that campaigner has pledged a smooth flight and safe landing during the next four years, Homer-Dixon uses as his overarching metaphor the crash of United Airlines Flight 232 in 1989 to vividly suggest the ingenuity needed to cope with the fragility and complexity of our system-laden world. Faced with a horrendous situation after one engine disintegrated and destroyed all hydraulic controls, the flight crew displayed remarkable ingenuity in maneuvering the crippled aircraft to crash land at a nearby airport. One-hundred-eighty-five out of 298 passengers survived what might have been a total disaster.

As affluent elites in industrialized countries live longer, have healthier lives, travel faster, and have more material means at their disposal, the density, intensity and pace of humans' interactions with each other and the natural environment increases. The technological and social systems that support us have an increasing number of components and interconnections. As a result, many global information, energy, corporate and financial systems are more unpredictable, display more turbulence and tend toward chaotic moments. We may lose control of our destiny and become hapless, frenetic puppets manipulated by intertwined human-built and natural networks. Problems are overwhelming our ability to solve them; the "ingenuity gap" widens.

Having been alarmed by those who predicted a Cold War nuclear holocaust and dire millennial events, we might be initially inclined to dismiss Homer-Dixon as one more doomsday Jeremiah. Yet, after following his closely reasoned, accessible and lucid arguments for almost 500 pages, readers may begin to believe that they are on UA Flight 232 rather than securely traveling on spaceship Earth. Displaying impressive breadth of learning, Homer-Dixon explores such complex problems as international financial crises, AIDS, overburdened air control systems, yawning gulfs of wealth and poverty, runaway population increases, a crush of information, the fragmentation of ungovernable cities and a host of ecological problems.

Despite our having been overexposed to generalized laments about global warming, the loss of species diversity and the depletion of nonrenewable resources, Homer-Dixon, using imaginative metaphors and insights, concentrates our attention upon ecological problems. He provides fresh and thought-provoking environmental wake-up calls. We continue, for instance, to dump waste into--and prodigiously take fish out of--the sea without understanding the potentially disastrous impact upon oceanic systems. The "dirt" that we pave over or wash away through erosion is fertile topsoil that took more than 100,000 years to accumulate. Describing the processes within natural systems and the interactions among them, Homer-Dixon warns that we can wipe out in a few decades natural capital that has emerged over millennia.

His exploration of the U.S. air control system provides a sample of his lucid storytelling and reveals a paradoxical aspect of large, complex systems. For years the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has attempted without success to automate the system. However, it maintains a remarkable safety record because the system continues to depend upon the ingenuity of experienced front-line controllers who construct intricate mental maps of aircraft flight paths, a cognitive feat known as "having the bubble." If the airlines and the passengers continue to overload the system, however, even the most experienced controller may not be able to cope, to stay in the bubble.

Homer-Dixon has not abandoned all hope that we will close the ingenuity gap. He urges us to heed the advice of contemplative scientists and engineers who focus upon systems problems. (He has relied upon conversations with them to develop the themes in his book.) He warns us against the techno-enthusiasts and the sanguine economists who have a blind faith in the problem-solving capability of technology. He wants us to slow down, take less from the environment and give more to it. He urges us to invest in relevant research and development and reward those who close the ingenuity gap.

He fails, however, to expand upon a lesson that might be learned from the flight controllers. Their system is so complicated that decision-making must be distributed among the operators. Similarly all of us need to make informed, individual decisions that will close the ingenuity gap. We might choose to fly at times that will not increasingly overload the system. We might lower the thermostat and lighten up on the accelerator. We might forgo a tax cut to invest in ecological restoration. Hierarchical command and control by concerned policymakers alone will not close the gap.

Thomas P. Hughes, author of "Rescuing Prometheus," is a professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania and distinguished visiting professor of the history of technology at MIT.

© 2000 The Washington Post

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