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Works and Days

The Fragility of Complex Societies

March 15th, 2011 - 9:15 am

Homo Americanus

In a wider sense, America’s strength has always been found in the self-reliant, highly individualist, even eccentric citizen. We see these profiles still in the independent trucker or the small business person. And I think they were an (unremarked upon) essential ingredient to the Tea Party movement, which is why it terrified the metrosexual media, the government apparatchik, and those dependent on federal largess. We need these cranky independent people, if only as a minority to remind the rest of us who are plugged into huge conglomerations, both private and public, for our wages and sustenance that there are dangers with reliance on hierarchy, centralized government, and high density — which, well beyond fragility, inevitably results in groupthink, fad, and cultural uniformity.

So it is not mindless to resist high speed rail (here in California it would be far wiser and cheaper first to ensure a three-lane, safe north-south freeway 99 or I-5). Our larger corporate farms, given the lack of ground water on the West Side, are dependent on centralized federal water projects, which, when abruptly cut off, can end production altogether — quite a contrast to the eastern side of California where smaller farmers, a shallower water table, and ancestral, local, and gravity-fed, Sierra-sourced water districts, funded by farmers themselves, are more resilient.

Complexity Everywhere — Fragility Too

This fragility of complexity has especially bothered me the last 80 days, well before the tragedy in Japan. Some random experiences: I am teaching one morning a week at Pepperdine for the spring 15-week semester, each week alternating between flying and driving. One week in January, the power at terminal one in LAX just went out — no explanation, no rhyme or reason, no notice when or if it would return. Thousands of travelers were rendered helpless — no running water, bathrooms, overhead lights. All flights delayed or cancelled, as mobs packed flight counters or simply walked out of the darkened halls to the curb. Then abruptly later it went back on — again, no explanation. The attendants at the counter simply shrugged and said “they” must have fixed it. To paraphrase those in the Wild Bunch, who are “they”?

“Free” ways allow freedom not allowed by mass transit. But in our day and age we neglected them, thought them even passé, and now they are beginning to resemble mass transit in their congested fragility. Last week I carefully got off the 405 onto the single 101 freeway exit lane to the west to Ventura (the route has not changed much in 40 years). The traffic was almost stopped, with no margin of error. And then, of course, one pickup truck, with poorly tied down crates and used lumber, scattered his load over the freeway, disrupting the entire flow — and causing complete stasis. Imagine, a single lane from the multilane 405 leads into the 101 west; block it, and thousands are stranded.

The California freeways were brilliantly designed. On good days I can drive 200 miles without incident in three hours; but again there is now, with 37 million people in these dense corridors, no margin of error — given that the freeways were never designed either for the present traffic flows or the sorts of drivers that now use them — mutatis mutandis, so too the airports. Driving in L.A. this semester, I get the sense that there are literally thousands of drivers who, each and individually, have the potential, through their own ignorance of traffic laws, lack of skill, or carelessness about their loads, simply to shut down such a complex system for tens of thousands for hours. I wonder how many drivers that soar by even have licenses, insurance, or registration.

Then on Thursday my old email server from CSU simply went out — a recorded message says they are working on it. But it has now been six days without the reception of a single email, and I get phone calls inquiring whether I retired. (The help desk advised getting a new account from somewhere else. I did, but am curious about such advice that translates into: don’t rely on us for service; try someone else). Again, in a nanosecond one’s entire electronic network is demolished and no one seems to know how to repair it with dispatch — or care too much that hundreds were without service.

I could go on, but all this suggests another danger of complexity — the inability to transmit knowledge and the dire wages of specialization. The original architects of such systems are now mostly dead, and we, their replacements, often lack their education and respect for civilization’s protocols. The result is that millions of Americans are simply enjoying a system built for them by others which they are not quite able to use, repair, expand — or understand.

I am not worried that contemporary elite engineers could not build a high-speed rail network, but I worry that the operators and the mechanics would not be able to ensure that it would run safely and on time. Again, when I drive in Los Angeles, I am amazed at the ingenuity of a long gone generation that crafted such a complex and ingenious system, and appalled at the ignoramuses text messaging and weaving who seem to abuse it by their incompetence or indifference to basic traffic safety and protocol. It is almost as if the drivers were not worthy of their inheritance.

Today’s popular culture knows Facebook well, but does one in a thousand know that a bee is necessary for an almond to set, or what a piston and cylinder are, or the difference between a southern and northern storm? I once asked my students to explain the winter solstice, not just the astronomy of it, but what such a date portended in terms of work, culture, and mindset. It was in the 1990s, and my favorite answer was, “She was a rap singer, Sister Solstice that mouthed off too much.”

Herdsmen Beneath the Lion Gate

Are we becoming like Dark Age Greeks (1100-800 BC) who wandered amid the ruins of the Mycenaean palaces, curious how such “hemi-gods” and “Olympians” were able to build things like the Lion Gate and the tholoi tombs, so far beyond their own competence that they deemed them the work of all-powerful mythological gods? Or maybe we will become 8th-century AD Greeks and Romans who looted the marble from their predecessors’ temples and majestic gravestones to scavenge the lead seals and the iron clamps or to melt down the stones for lime — or simply to seek shelter in abandoned shrines and temples.

The apocalyptic movies have it wrong: we do not need a nuclear holocaust, earthquake, or asteroid to put us back to The Road. We can get there easily with rising ignorance and illiteracy as we drift among an infrastructure we demand, but do not understand or appreciate: Not with a bang, but with a whimper.

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