Two months ago, an Arizona utility worker doing routine maintenance removed a piece of monitoring equipment at a power substation near Yuma. Inexplicably, it triggered a massive power outage stretching from Mexico to Orange County. Five million people lost electricity. Traffic gridlocked, schools and universities closed, flights canceled, offices and stores shut down, elevators jammed, trains and trollies stopped, house alarms shrilled, Scripps Hospital went into "full disaster mode" as their hospital staff conducted meetings by flashlight, and failed pumping stations sent two million gallons of sewage into the Penasquitos Lagoon. The mishap cost $100 million dollars. "The question now," said San Diego Gas and Electric President Niggli, "is how did that ripple through the rest of the system?"
Answer: Tight coupling.
Tight coupling is often referred to as the domino effect. Increasingly, everything is connected to everything else. This connectivity amplifies the potential for benefit, but it also amplifies the potential for damage. In today's world, one small event or decision can have huge ramifications in either direction.
Tight coupling is a condition of extreme interdependence where linkages are inseparably connected. All it takes is a small accident, some mishap, one detail that doesn't go according to plan to knock over the first link in a system. Tight coupling will take care of the rest. If we know what to look for, the examples are all around us and have been for some time. But as the decades roll by, the speed and dimension of risk involved have grown by many orders of magnitude.
Squirrel, 1984 - Elevators in Madison, Wisconsin, came to an abrupt halt. Throughout 3,000 buildings, including the entire University of Wisconsin campus, clocks froze at 12:05. Computer screens went blank, frying pans went cold, pop machines wouldn't dispense, and bowling alleys had to close. A lightning bolt? Student vandalism? It was a little red squirrel who ate his way through a power switch at an electrical station. The fact that one rodent can bring an entire city to its knees is a tribute to tight coupling.
Challenger, 1986 - The most complicated piece of machinery ever built at the time, the Challenger space shuttle had a million components. If each individual piece of technology was examined separately, there were a million flawlessly constructed parts. A marvel of human engineering. Yet in seventy-three seconds it blew up. Therefore, it was not a marvel; it was a disaster. The disaster, however, is only understood when the faulty O-rings are factored in with the other 99.9999 percent of perfectly functioning parts. The disaster only becomes apparent when analysis integrates all the technology together to discover how one flaw doomed the entire project in a tragic fireball. Millions of people witnessed an unspeakable hurtling funeral as seven astronauts were murdered by tight coupling.
Chernobyl, 1986 - The Soviet nuclear reactor at Chernobyl went from five percent rated power to one-hundred-twenty times normal power, a 600-fold increase, in four seconds. Tight coupling blew the top off the facility and spewed radioactivity for thousands of miles.
Chicago River, 1992 - A contractor doing work on a bridge over the Chicago River changed the position of a new piling a few feet and wound up cracking through a subterranean tunnel that connected to the Loop. City officials sent workers out with a barge full of mattresses and rocks that they threw into the whirlpool trying to plug the hole. It wasn't enough. In through the breached tunnel rushed 250 million gallons that flooded the Loop. Trading at the Chicago Board of Trade Building and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange ended mid-morning as water seeped into their basements. Some buildings ended up with 40 feet of water in their lower levels. City offices had to set up headquarters on higher ground. The tightly-coupled fiasco cost $2 billion to clean up.
Thailand, 1997 - Thailand's economy tanked in 1997, and the Thai baht collapsed. Few seemed to care. Officially, it was written off as a localized financial and currency issue. Then, in order, it shattered the government in Bangkok, toppled the thirty-year-old Suharto government in Indonesia, devastated the Malaysian ringgit, popped the prosperity bubble in South Korea, sank Japan even deeper into economic turmoil, collapsed Moscow's stock market, and threatened China's stability. Millions were impoverished, governments were overturned, ethnic Chinese in Jakarta were brutalized, and Boris Yeltzin personally drained all the vodka in Moscow.
The convulsion, however, wasn't exhausted. It jumped the Pacific, devaluing Brazil's currency. Next the contagion infected Ecuador, forcing many banks to close and overnight destroying people's entire life savings. This in turn led to massive labor unrest and finally resulted in the fatal shooting of an Ecuadorian legislator and his bodyguard on the steps of the capital. So maybe the Thai baht was insignificant--but you should tell that to the children in Quito who now mourn their dead fathers. All compliments of tight coupling.
Concorde, 2000 - In Paris, a sixteen-inch metal strip fell off a taxiing Continental DC-10. Five minutes later the metallic piece punctured the front tire of a following Air France Concorde. Tire fragments ripped into the underwing fuel tank, plunging the supersonic jet into flames and killing 113 people. Only tight coupling could use small shards of metal to turn the world's safest airline into the world's deadliest airline in three minutes, ultimately dooming the entire Concorde enterprise.
September 11, 2001 - Only tight-coupling could allow nineteen foreign Muslim youngsters with mere high school educations to hijack four jetliners, destroy the World Trade Towers, explode a hole into the Pentagon, kill 3,000 people and wipe out a trillion dollars. No previous era could enable a small group of inexperienced terrorists to strike such a devastating blow to the center of the most powerful financial and military centers in history.
Great Recession, beginning 2007 - Much of the West continues to struggle through the worst economic downturn since the 1930s. Nobody saw it coming, no one knew how deeply, quickly, and unpredictably it would strike, or how long it would last. According to the 2009 Davos World Economic Forum, forty percent of the world's wealth was destroyed in five quarters. Job loss was devastating and persistent. Volatility in all sectors was extraordinary. Russian markets shut down five times. Britain experienced the first run on a bank in 150 years. Belgium's government collapsed. Iceland was sold on eBay.
U.S. housing prices fell faster than in the Great Depression--even though Greenspan said it was impossible. Goldman Sachs lost a packet of money for something their computers said would happen once every 100 millennia. Citigroup spiraled downward, striking fear in the hearts of those who said, should it collapse, it could easily take the entire world financial system with it. The S&P 500 dropped like a stone until it finally bounced, perhaps appropriately, at 666. In essence, the economy fell off a cliff and was mere hours away from total collapse. How could this happen? Greed? Stupidity? Deregulation? Yes, of course. But also because of tightly-coupled systems with insufficient circuit breakers.
Eurozone Crisis beginning 2010 - As we saw in the last newsletter, French President Sarkozy defended his support of a Greek bailout by maintaining that "If Greece had defaulted, there would have been a domino effect carrying everyone away." Nations are roped together at the waist, and when one falls off a cliff the others are pulled down in rapid succession. Greece plunging over the side is bad enough, but the prospect of Italy or Spain slipping off the ledge awakens sweating, screaming economists in the middle of the night.
Electronic money flies around the globe at the speed of light and huge amounts of hot currency can be invested or withdrawn in the blink of an eye. The resultant level of volatility is custom-made for crisis. This global economic integration--a stated goal of several White House administrations--leads to tightly-coupled economic systems. And, as we have learned, tight coupling can lead to falling dominoes. Experts have lost the ability to predict how a shutter here will produce a seizure there, ricocheting though global markets. This year's economic miracle turns into next year's economic debacle. The truly frightening part is how often these changes are not even considered in the realm of plausibility.
Contagion, 2011 - As this star-studded movie illustrates, any microbe known to humankind can jump inside a human host and that person can fly anywhere in the world during the incubation period of the disease. In 2005, we had eleven million flights by US carriers flying 745 million passengers without a single fatality. Of course, this also means that incomprehensibly large numbers of viral pathogens were also safely transferred from one continent to another. Under such tightly-coupled conditions, it's a simple matter of mathematics to predict that eventually we will have a Category 5 pandemic with a high case-fatality ratio.
There are thousands of additional illustrations, almost all in some way benefitted by technology and thus related to engineering. Once the first link falls, the failsafe is gone. Systems crash and take people with them. The sheer size and complexity of systems assembled today inevitably create the byproduct of tightly-coupled instability.
Last Flight Out
At this point, I should inform you that nearly everything written above has been plagiarized from the works of Dr. Antoni Weissman, world-class genius, engineering professor, complexity expert, and patent multimillionaire. He has been called by his MIT students "smarter than the entire east coast."
Weissman is obsessed with the dangers of tightly-coupled systems. In one lecture he warned his engineering class, "Progress leads axiomatically to technological complexity; technological complexity leads axiomatically to tight coupling; tight coupling leads axiomatically to catastrophe. Catastrophe, therefore, is your inevitable future."
Now a second confession: Dr. Weissman is actually a creation of mine in the new novel Last Flight Out of Oz--so perhaps plagiarism is too harsh a word.
As a futurist, I've long ruminated on the inexorably increasing dangers of tightly-coupled systems. Despite the contemporary relevance of this topic, I could find no book--none, fiction or non-fiction--dedicated to discussing it. Time to correct that deficiency. Rather than writing another non-fiction book (I've authored seven), I decided to team with our son, Adam, also a professional writer, to convey the message in novel form.
Sometimes it is nice to be educated and entertained at the same time.
The Simplicity Antidote
It is probably evident that I'm not a technological optimist, i.e., technology will not solve all our problems, neither will it usher in Utopia. Technology is often wonderful and at such times we ought to be appropriately grateful. But technology amplifies everything, and that includes not only our successes but also our failures; not only our strengths but also our vulnerabilities. Faster, bigger, better often equal worse.
As we conclude this newsletter about tightly-coupled complexity, my word to you is simplicity. Simplicity involves a countercultural restraint. It slows us down and helps us focus on the things that matter most. It requires hanging a public Not For Sale sign on our affections, no matter the price. We're always digging deeper--not for gold--but for the timeless priorities. We allow things to pass by because we are on a much larger, much higher journey than that. We walk the mountain path and must travel lightly. We follow a different leader down a different road for a different purpose to a different destination.
The treasure that abides is one that cannot be bought or even owned. It is given to us freely by God. But we must certify it with our own consent and acceptance. Augustine once said that God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them.
Simplicity is a Christmas word. It is the chosen example of Jesus in the manger. Best wishes for a joyous, relaxing, love-filled Christmas Season.