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Move slow and fix things

3 min read

There's been a slew of recent good pieces coming from Aeon's partnership with The Maintainers, and this one by Patrick McCray is a doozy. Read the whole thing; I'm mostly putting these quotes here for my own ease of access, rather than trying to distill the essay.

Efficiency, therefore, is not some timeless universal value but something grounded deeply in particular historical circumstances. At various times, efficiency was a way of quantifying machine performance – think: steam engines – and an accounting principle coupled to the new applied sciences of mechanics and thermodynamics. It was also about conservation and stability. By the early 20th century – the apogee of Taylorism – experts argued that increases in efficiency would realise the full potential of individuals and industries. Dynamism and conservatism worked together in the pursuit of ever-greater efficiency.

But a broad look at the history of technology plainly shows that other values often take precedence over efficiency, even in the modern era. It would, for example, offer several advantages in efficiency if, instead of every apartment or home having its own kitchen, multiple families shared a communal kitchen, and indeed in some parts of the world they do. But in the prevalent ideology of domesticity, every family or even single person must have their own kitchen, and so it is.

Nor, despite what Silicon Valley-based techno-libertarians might argue, does technological change automatically translate to increased efficiency. Sometimes, efficiency – like the lone eccentric innovator – is not wanted. In the 1960s, for instance, the US military encouraged metal-working firms, via its contracting process, to adopt expensive numerically controlled machine tools. The lavish funding the Department of Defense devoted to promoting the technology didn’t automatically yield clear economic advantages. However, the new machines – ones that smaller firms were hard-pressed to adopt – increased centralisation of the metalworking industry and, arguably, diminished economic competition. Meanwhile, on the shop floor, the new manufacturing innovations gave supervisors greater oversight over production. At one large manufacturing company, numerical control was referred to as a ‘management system’, not a new tool for cutting metal. Imperatives besides efficiency drove technological change.

Bonus snippet:

Our prevailing focus on the shock of the technological new often obscures or distorts how we see the old and the preexisting. It’s common to hear how the 19th-century telegraph was the equivalent of today’s internet. In fact, there’s a bestseller about it, The Victorian Internet (1998) by Tom Standage. Except this isn’t true. Sending telegrams 100 years ago was too expensive for most people. For decades, the telegraph was a pricey, elite technology. However, what was innovative for the majority of people c1900 was cheap postage.


Hanjin: optimisation is the enemy of resilience

3 min read

So a big shipping company went bankrupt -- why should you care? Because it's a sign of serious trouble in the global infrastructural metasystem also known as "the supply chain":

With little or no inventory of essential goods and raw materials retailers and manufacturers are subject to disruptions all along their supply chains which reach around the globe. A breakdown at any step can quickly bring activity to a halt on the factory floor or on the sales floor.

Just-in-time is very efficient financially (until, of course, it isn't). Little money is tied up in inventories or the space to warehouse them. But just-in-time is not very resilient. It used to be that businesses stockpiled goods and critical resources to ensure against disruptions. But the advent of computerized tracking combined with more efficient shipping practices worked to end the stockpiling of inventories.


The Hanjin bankruptcy also calls into the question the wisdom of allowing so much freight--7.8 percent of all trans-Pacific U.S. freight--to be handled by one carrier. And yet large size and just-in-time systems create what economists like to call economies of scale. Goods and services are provided more cheaply.

But such systems are not resilient. Resilience often requires redundancy and that spells inefficiency in today's business climate.

This problem is endemic to the majority of infrastructures, if not all of them. Optimisation is the enemy of resilience -- and, indeed, can end up being counterproductive. All complex systems end up with a certain amount of loss to noise and friction, and it is often possible to iterate much of that lossiness away by tweaking the system, adding feedback loops, that sort of thing. But there's a problem not unlike the EROEI problem in energy extraction, in that once the major problems are fixed, the minor problems that remain become ever more subtle and difficult to work on, and you eventually reach a tipping-point where you're expending as many resources on trying to squelch the noise as you expect to recover by squelching it (which takes you into Red Queen's Race territory, wherein you're running as fast as you can simply to stay in place).

This is compounded by an approach to systems management that indulges in what Haraway indentified as the God's-eye view -- it is impossible to truly understand any system to which you perceive yourself as being somehow external or superior.

But mostly it's a bottom-line thing: businesses like Hanjin compete on capacity, as pointed out above, which means that profit margins are very, very thin (a fact obscured by the sheer number of transactions), and the arbitration systems on which the market is based keep a downward pressure on price (to the extent that it is often possible to find shipping capacity available at negative prices -- capacity which the shipper will effectively compensate you for using). The Hanjin bankruptcy may mean we've reached a point where the profit margin of running a sizable shipping company has reached parity with the inescapable losses from noise in the system: they effectively cancel each other out, and the organisation runs at a net loss.

What happens when there's no money to be made in moving matter around?


Lessons from infrastructural history: Angkor Wat edition

1 min read

Perhaps Ozymandius died of thirst?

Evans, however, now believes that environmental factors played a significant part [in the collapse of Angkor Wat]. “Looking at the sedimentary records, there is evidence of catastrophic flooding,” he says. “In the expansion of Angkor, they had devastated all of the forests in the watershed, and we have detected failures in the water system, revealing that various parts of the network simply broke down.” With the entire feudal hierarchy reliant on the successful management of water, a break in the chain could have been enough to prompt a gradual decline.

Optimisation is the enemy of resilience. And if you think that you don't live in a feudal hierarchy reliant on the successful management of water, I recommend that you look at capitalism from a slightly different angle.