I ran across the following quote today. I think that it is applicable to the kinds of systems that I encounter in my research: the internet, mobile ad hoc networks, and dynamic spectrum access networks. I also think it has something to do with my nascent sabbatical project, although I haven’t quite worked out what.
Systems that are both tightly coupled and highly complex, Perrow argues in Normal Accidents (1984), are inherently dangerous. Crudely put, high complexity in a system means that if something goes wrong it takes time to work out what has happened and to act appropriately. Tight coupling means that one doesn’t have that time. Moreover, he suggests, a tightly coupled system needs centralised management, but a highly complex system can’t be managed effectively in a centralised way because we simply don’t understand it well enough; therefore its organisation must be decentralised. Systems that combine tight coupling with high complexity are an organisational contradiction, Perrow argues: they are ‘a kind of Pushmepullyou out of the Doctor Dolittle stories (a beast with heads at both ends that wanted to go in both directions at once)’.
– Donald MacKenzie, “How to Make Money in Microseconds,” London Review of Books, vol. 33, no. 10, pp. 16–18, May 19, 2010.
Update: In my haste to post this, I forgot to include a link to the original essay, which is quite fascinating. The link has been added. As far as I know, Donald MacKenzie is no relation of mine. (However, I have several close relatives on my father’s side that I have never met. So, who knows. Donald MacKenzie is a professor in Scotland, though, and most of my unknown relatives are American and Canadian.)