Optimized Failure

I saw an online conversation about the book How Infrastructure Works by Deb Chachra. In this book that I apparently have to buy, the author mentions that resilient systems are not optimized systems. To have a network, an organization, a team be resilient you need redundancy, slack time, backup, vacation time, whatever. Doing something perfectly doesn’t mean you’ll be able to keep doing it because being able to keep doing it isn’t part of actually doing it.

This is a very obvious statement that very obviously gets missed everywhere. If you’ve ever had to explain to someone that their network needs backup or that the fastest transport route isn’t necessarily reliable you get the idea. I know I’ve been there.

I also think it explains a lot about the brittleness in today’s world. We see collapsing ecosystems, housing prices going out of reach, and stagnant wages. We’re supposedly in this high-tech age with fast deliveries and electronic banking, an optimized age, but it’s fraying isn’t it?

A big part of this is that we figured businesses, hell even government, should all be optimized to one goal – profit. Make money really well, and that’s it! Of course, at that point all you get good at is making money – probably very fast of course. You have quarterly reports to make after all.

I think this means a lot of companies and other organizations are brittle as they’re optimized to just make money. They’re not resilient as they rely entirely on getting as much cash as possible. Sure they can spend that cash when things are painfully non-resilient, to get through bad markets and so on, but it’s not the same as actually enduring. Ask anyone who’s been through a third round of layoffs.

It also means that there’s damage to the resilience of society. Regulatory capture means there’s less resilience brought by laws and policies. Layoffs to protect the bottom line destroy lives. The environment takes a hit from our pollution and dumping and the like. Bought-off politicians avoid doing anything to help people, anything resilient.

Profit-focus is just another form of optimization. Like optimization, it backfires.

Today I hear talk about the kind of larger crisis our world is in. But I think a lot of it comes down to optimizations in profit-seeking. We got so good at turning things into money, we ignored resilience. Now we’re going to have to switch back or face some pretty severe consequences.

I know what order I expect, sadly.

Steven Savage