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What would be the first thing to fail?

  1. Feb 4, 2006 #1

    Nereid

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    OK, the first ten or so things.

    In The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan wrote these much quoted words (my bold):
    Suppose the "almost no one" were to become one-tenth of what it is today; what would the first dozen or things be that would "blow up in our faces"? Why choose those ~10? How quickly would the (massive) failures occur?

    What if it were 1%, 0.1%? What about exactly 'no one'?
     
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  3. Feb 4, 2006 #2

    selfAdjoint

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    DId you ever read the classic novella "The Machine Fails"?
     
  4. Feb 4, 2006 #3
    Well, "blow up in our faces" sounds like a sudden situation. So medicine would not do that, you would just have a higher rate of mortality which is not really a sudden failure. Similarly for agriculture, food would continue to grow. Education would definitely suffer if you cut the number of educators to 1/10 so universities would quickly become vacant. Communications would be subject to catastrophic failure as networks go down with noone to bring them back up. This would cripple system-dependent transportation system as well like airports and rail to a lesser degree. Road transportation would decline more slowly as cars break down and cannot be repaired economically, but no real "blow up" here. The power grid would be likely to go down, like any other network, and also be too complex to bring back up until the system is dumbed-down to a manageable and less efficient level. Also throw away your cell phone and crackberry. Nuclear facilities would be shut down. Are we too dumb to maintain hydro dams and coal plants too? Probably not. The space program? Out and done with. So, back to the 19th century or so.
     
  5. Feb 4, 2006 #4

    Great book, really.

    There wouldn't be some sudden catastrophe. But what you would have is that because no one understands how the things in their life work, eventually they'll wind up doing something to cut themselves off from it. For example, the DMCA. Or the telcos trying to create a tiered internet. Trusted Computing. Thats where ignorance of technology is going to take us.
     
  6. Feb 4, 2006 #5

    turbo

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    Well, the first thing to go boom would be the world economy. Real wealth (valuable assets) usually does not get passed around, except in the case of precious metals and gems. What do we pass around? Promises of payment backed up by an almost entirely electronic system of record-keeping. The dollar bill in your pocket is not wealth, it is a promise of payment issued on the authority of a government, and it is only as good as the confidence of the seller in that promise. If a major part of the Internet was crippled by EMP, for instance, poor investor confidence in the security of their wealth would trigger a panic. It's not just the stocks, bonds, and commodities that are traded electronically, it's debt and debt-servicing and a million other things we rarely think of. The financial markets are heavily dependant on IT for day-to-day operations.

    Here is what can happen when people lose confidence in a currency.

    http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/hyperinf.htm

    This is an extreme example, but with today's almost instantaneous communications and the interconnectedness of the world's financial markets, much smaller problems could cause disastrous effects. There are already caps on automatic trading programs on Wall Street to keep them from trading when stock prices fluctuate widely. The industry knows of the dangers of volatility arising from these programs, but by embracing IT for its speed and efficiency, they have a tar baby on their hands and cannot let it go.
     
    Last edited: Feb 4, 2006
  7. Feb 4, 2006 #6

    Pengwuino

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    I don't think such a thing will happen as long as we stick with reudamentary capitalistic ideals. As long as science and technology is needed and there is a market for it (which is assumed by the situation), there will be enough people out there to understand and run the equipment. There will also be enough people out there to make a profit off of it which require a better or newer understanding of technology in order to bring new technology into the market.

    I believe this will be the case as long as we keep open markets and business practices alive. I believe the idea of no one understanding the technology is akin to the universe averaging out to a temperature of absolute 0. Not everyone needs to know what they're dealing with... infact, realistically I would say with growing efficiencies, 0.1% of in a sense "citizens : technicians/researchers" ratios would be perfectly acceptable (hell sometimes it feels like thats how it is now-a-days).

    Now if a meteor hits the earth, we might have a problem.
     
  8. Feb 4, 2006 #7

    turbo

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    There are no rudimetary capatilstic ideals. The rules change every day based on what is happening in the world market, and what the local trading regulations will allow. If you can leverage millions or billions of dollars with very tiny profit margins, you will soon be very wealthy. This is very remote from the concept that a person's income is proportional to their contributions to their tribe/town/country. This is not the creation of wealth, it is the siphoning off (bloodsucking!) of wealth created by others, and it has been elevated to a high art in the US.
     
  9. Feb 4, 2006 #8

    Pengwuino

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    Perhaps you do not understand what the word "rudimentary" means (although i did originally mispell it, i assume you know what i mean)...
     
  10. Feb 4, 2006 #9

    turbo

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    Pehaps you can explain what the the capitalistic ideals are. I would be happy to to know these ideals.
     
  11. Feb 4, 2006 #10

    Pengwuino

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    Well, from my admitedly limited knowledge of economics, I gather that some of the important fundamental principles behind capitalism are freely entered markets, basically un-restricted sales, buyers willing to pay sellers, sellers willing to sell to buyers, people attempting to sell what people want based on the people's need/desire to have things, etc etc. I'm not getting into some idiotic capitalism vs. socialism vs. communism waste of time because we all know socialism has capitalist roots and real communism doesn't include those principles in its foundation.
     
  12. Feb 5, 2006 #11

    Ivan Seeking

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    I think we have already seen the first such explosion - the programming of household appliances. There is an entire world of flashing 12:00s out there. So the first failure is time keeping.

    :biggrin:
     
  13. Feb 5, 2006 #12

    Pengwuino

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    I'm just too lazy to set all the times on my things. I mean theres a clock visible from every viewpoint in this house that i don't need any others :P
     
  14. Feb 5, 2006 #13

    Mk

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    Or you could just write the time on your hand and not have to worry about it all day.
     
  15. Feb 5, 2006 #14

    Astronuc

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    There are isolated cases of failure in various parts of the infrastructure everyday, and periodically big events like the destruction that Katrina wrought on New Orleans. Such failures are not inherently due to dependence on science and technology, as they are due to the failures of those responsible for the implementation of science and technology. There is a certain discipline required to effectively, reliably and safely apply science and use technology, however I see many cases where people try to 'cheat' or take short cuts, or are simply negligent.

    Most of the time, the everyday failures of science and technology are an inconvenience, or an increase in cost with an attendant reduction in one's quality of life. In the worst case, people are seriously injured or killed.

    For these reasons, especially the latter, I take very seriously what I do as an engineer!
     
  16. Feb 5, 2006 #15
    I think the prophylactic against the majority of these things experiencing sudden failure due to lack of people who understand them is that they aren't Government run public utilities. They are all businesses. You can't charge for something you can't deliver, so these industries make sure there are competent people to operate them, All except protecting the environment.

    Everyone realizes you have to ultimately avoid poisoning the environment for things to go on, yet, since there's no one making a direct buck off of doing that, these efforts lag far behind all others. So, I think that will be the first thing to go, if it already hasn't.
     
  17. Feb 5, 2006 #16

    Nereid

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    I don't think so; who's the author?
     
  18. Feb 5, 2006 #17

    Nereid

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    I initially thought similarly (suppose all the scientists and engineers suddenly died; there'd be intense market pressure to 'fix (some) things', leading to a demand for such folk, and offers of extraordinarily high salaries, contracts, etc).

    But then what if the systems needed for any sort of decent market were gone (no one to fix the internet's root domain servers when they failed, or large bank's systems for tracking customers' accounts)? Similar to what turbo-1 wrote. Perhaps the time to 'recover' would be too long?

    For sure, our current institutions may be less than optimal, but if senior engineers in nuclear power plants start retiring suddenly (over several years) in large numbers, then the market will 'fix' that problem, PDQ.
    And this illustrates another aspect ... that the Earth will be hit by another KT asteroid (or comet, or similar) is as close to certain as you can get; that this hit will be tomorrow is as close to zero as you can get. The 'technology' for addressing the in between (crudely: importance = probability x impact) is well known and well understood. Yet it was spectacularly lacking for Katrina (probability and impact were both very well known), and no doubt for many other modern disasters (perhaps the UK's mad cow disease scare?).

    Does this say that somewhat unlikely, but nevertheless reasonably well understood, potential mega-disasters are 'what will fail first' (a reasonable response to such, that is)? And that a series of these kinds of disasters, coming in quick succession, would mean curtains for the modern world?

    What do y'all think about a slow 'blow up'? For example*,
    • (irreversible) global warming (the seeds of which we have already sown),
    • all-antibiotic resistant bacteria (of many kinds; i.e. a convergence of trends already well under way plus a bit of unexpected acceleration),
    • widespread ecosystem collapse (same as the last, but for ecosystems)
    Anyway, back to my original question: what if, for some irreversible reason(s), the number of people who 'understand science and technology' were to drop, within {time t} to one-tenth today's number of such folk (spread evenly across all disciplines and sectors)? What would be the first (handful of) things to fail? How dependent on t would those failures be?

    And what if it were to drop to 1%?

    *for avoidance of doubt, I'm not saying any of these is happening, or has a probability of p of happening.
     
  19. Feb 5, 2006 #18

    turbo

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    About 10 years ago, I had had a contract with a very large pulp and paper company in the US to develop a trainining program for the operators of their power boilers and chemical recovery boilers. The company was experiencing a very high rate of attrition (death, illness, retirement, etc) and discovered that on-the-job training was could not keep their operators competetent. This is not an isolated incident.
     
    Last edited: Feb 5, 2006
  20. Feb 6, 2006 #19

    vanesch

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    I think you're misreading Carl Sagan ; he was not talking - I think - about the technician to repair the root server. I think he was talking in more general terms, about decision makers (and in democracy, their electorate) being totally ignorant of the very principles on which the entire machinery of their society is running, and hence would take totally disastrous decisions (pushed in doing so by their electorate) - or fail to take absolutely necessary decisions.

    As such, the first thing that might in a disastreous way, fail, is climate - as an example. Not the root servers. Much harder to fix.

    When oil gets expensive, transport might flunk. The pressure of the "market" will trigger armed conflicts.
     
  21. Feb 6, 2006 #20

    DaveC426913

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    The thing that will have the most immediate and profound impact on the average citizen will be the power grid. Not the least reason of which being that virtually every other thing we do is dependent on it.

    If the power went out in your area right now - and stayed out, how long do you think you (and your neighbours) could last?
     
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