16 Jun 2008 7:25 am   //   Filed under: Failure, Travel

So complicated

I’ve heard it said that Americans are masters of building and operating complex systems. Think about Wall Street. The power grid. The Internet.

The problem is we don’t always seem good at the chores it takes to keep these systems running. Like maintenance. Like educating newcomers about how things work. Despite the amazing incentives not to, Wall Street bankers still manage to make knuckle-headed mistakes that cost themselves and the public lots of money. After the 2003 blackout it became obvious that no living person really understands how our system of electricity works. I heard once that the Space Shuttle is so complicated that we – as in, humanity – do not fully understand it. Now we’re getting ready to scrap it. Sometimes knowledge is so decentralized that it becomes essentially lost. And when the entire system fails, no single entity is responsible.

And yes, I’m about to get to airplanes. Here in the U.S. we have a baffling system of air travel. Many different public and private entities are all working on solving the same problem: transportation. The problem, as I saw yesterday, is that the system was built by people more ambitious than the ones now charged with operating it. Sometimes it’s just that simple: The job is too hard. It’s impossible to get a guy and his suitcase from point to point in the time he was promised when he bought his ticket. We built this system, but we’re not fully capable of operating it. It’s kind of depressing.