Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Calm Down, Dear, It's Only Chaos

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Calm Down, Dear, It's Only Chaos

Article excerpt

The chaos at Heathrow's Terminal Five says a great deal about modern life. Within no time we had what the airport authorities themselves described as a meltdown.


"Meltdown", I believe, is increasingly going to be our lot in times to come. We are becoming ever more dependent on fiendishly sophisticated technology. Just what did we do before computers, microwaves and mobile phones? The problem comes when they break down, as machines inevitably do. Simple technology is simple to fix. But sophisticated technology, from a rail network to a flu vaccine, is not easy to patch up. When things go wrong, they go wrong in a big way, as they did at T5.

But that is not the end of the story. New technology is connected, linked up and networked. So, a breakdown in one system has a knock-on effect, unsettling some other system, perhaps even causing it to collapse as well. The potential for feedback--for things to multiply rapidly and dangerously--is enormous.

If you combine complexity with networks, you get uncertainty. When there are so many complex interactions going on at the same time, it becomes much harder to predict exactly what will trigger which effect. Just think how many competing companies, regulatory bodies, health and safety institutions, ministries and passenger groups make up the entire Great British railway network. They have different interests, competing plans, differing remedies. A minor hiccup at one point sometimes has a multiplying effect on the whole network. Result: everyone suffers.

When a problem happens we know about it instantly, in detail. Thanks to mobile phones, email and 24-hour news media, we are constantly in the know. We are primed to react, and thus set off new chains of reaction. The more we complain about a problem, the more we try to fix things, and the more likely we are to usher in the meltdown. …

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