What would be the first thing to fail?

  • Thread starter Nereid
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In summary, if almost no one understands science and technology, it could lead to a disaster as our global civilization heavily depends on it. Some of the first things to fail would be the world economy and financial markets, as well as key industries such as transportation, communications, and education. This could happen gradually or suddenly, depending on the level of understanding and the occurrence of events like natural disasters. However, as long as there is a market for technology and profit to be made, there will likely always be people who understand and can maintain it. The idea of no one understanding technology is not feasible in a society that values open markets and business practices
  • #1
Nereid
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OK, the first ten or so things.

In https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0345409469/?tag=pfamazon01-20, Carl Sagan wrote these much quoted words (my bold):
We've arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements - transportation, communications, and all other industries; agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment, protecting the environment; and even the key democratic institution of voting - profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.
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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  • #2
DId you ever read the classic novella "The Machine Fails"?
 
  • #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 no one 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.
 
  • #4
Nereid said:
OK, the first ten or so things.

In https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0345409469/?tag=pfamazon01-20, 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'?


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.
 
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  • #5
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.
 
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  • #6
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 that's how it is now-a-days).

Now if a meteor hits the earth, we might have a problem.
 
  • #7
Pengwuino said:
I don't think such a thing will happen as long as we stick with reudamentary capitalistic ideals.
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.
 
  • #8
Perhaps you do not understand what the word "rudimentary" means (although i did originally mispell it, i assume you know what i mean)...
 
  • #9
Pehaps you can explain what the the capitalistic ideals are. I would be happy to to know these ideals.
 
  • #10
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.
 
  • #11
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:
 
  • #12
Ivan Seeking said:
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:

I'm just too lazy to set all the times on my things. I mean there's a clock visible from every viewpoint in this house that i don't need any others :P
 
  • #13
Or you could just write the time on your hand and not have to worry about it all day.
 
  • #14
Nereid said:
OK, the first ten or so things.

In https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0345409469/?tag=pfamazon01-20, Carl Sagan wrote these much quoted words (my bold):
We've arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements - transportation, communications, and all other industries; agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment, protecting the environment; and even the key democratic institution of voting - profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.
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'?

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!
 
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  • #15
We've arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements - transportation, communications, and all other industries; agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment, protecting the environment; and even the key democratic institution of voting - profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology.
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.
 
  • #16
selfAdjoint said:
DId you ever read the classic novella "The Machine Fails"?
I don't think so; who's the author?
 
  • #17
Pengwuino said:
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 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.
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 that's how it is now-a-days).

Now if a meteor hits the earth, we might have a problem.
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.
 
  • #18
Nereid said:
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?
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.
 
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  • #19
Nereid said:
OK, the first ten or so things.

In https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0345409469/?tag=pfamazon01-20, 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'?

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.
 
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  • #20
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?
 
  • #21
DaveC426913 said:
If the power went out in your area right now - and stayed out, how long do you think you (and your neighbours) could last?
As long as it takes. I have a woodlot, a wood stove, and accessible water. I can chop and buck the wood by hand (assuming that no power means no gas pumps and thus no gas for the chain saw). I have guns and ample ammunition and a nice garden spot, so food would not be a problem. We would have to can vegetables on the wood stove, and grow extra turnip, carrots, etc, that keep well in a cold cellar. My nearest neighbors on either side are transplanted city folks from another state. They would probably last until their scented candles ran out, then resort to looting. Better get more ammunition...
 
  • #22
DaveC426913 said:
The thing that will have the most immediate and profound impact on the average citizen will be the power grid.
This is true, everyone knows it, and therefore it's among the most protected of all these things from some kind of loss of understanding of how to operate it. If you don't supply people with electricity you don't get paid. Same with water and gas.
 
  • #23
vanesch said:
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.
Thanks; I should have been more clear ... I was using Sagan's quote as a lead into a discussion, with no particular intention of sticking to what the quote was intending to say.

And yes, the degree of understanding of science and technology varies a great deal (it's not at all binary, as Sagan implies) ... you need a range of 'maintenance engineers' to keep almost anything running, and the longer you do without non-mechanical inputs (i.e. beyond 'reading the manual'), the more certain failure is to happen.

In the sense that you paraphrase Sagan, I guess Katrina would be a classic example, as would China's initial response to the SARS epidemic, and the UK Ministry of Health's (or was it Agriculture?) to Mad Cow disease.

In each of these cases, and perhaps to an extent the 'blow ups' which may already be unfolding (a KT asteroid impact, irreversible global warming, ecosystem destruction, ...), the failure comes down to an inability to appreciate that there are powerful techniques for handling uncertainty, techniques which allow us to work around the way our brains are wired.
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.
Indeed, slow-burning blow-ups.

I was thinking a bit more about the market ... perhaps the situation is considerably rosier than I painted it ... when scarcity kicks in big time, those with the necessary scientific and technology training/capability would gain in status ($, political power?, mates)?

Perhaps the first things to go would be those where human instincts are stongly inconsistent with the hard-won lessons of science? So, perhaps a retreat into isolationism and economic protectionism (as a response to an economic shock)? Or a war to "secure" access to scarce resources? Or continued destruction of fisheries and depletion of fish stocks (a version of the tragedy of the commons)?
 
  • #24
zoobyshoe said:
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.


Shoot, I'm planning on being an environmental engineer :-p Oh well, maybe someone will start taking it seriously when the fish are COMPLETELY gone (close to it already), the water becomes undrinkable, and the forest fires get so big, they burn down entire cities.
 
  • #25
Yes, the economy will be the first thing to blow up in our face. And what a blow up it will be. Widespread banking failures will trigger the panic reflex in so many people's minds, and rioting will go down. Think about the masses and masses of ghetto and trigger-happy americans, and all the pedophiles waiting for a chance to grab that booty they've been wanting for so long :devil: . With all the changes in America since the last depression I'm pretty sure that's when the order-with-force policy will be implemented.

Let's hope the biosphere doesn't come crashing down around us during these times, too, because the world will have already blamed us for the economic meltdown. With our big SUVs and big, fat people and wasteful attitude, I can see the third-worlders blaming us for the Earth crisis, too.

Next, if we begin starving, I see our present way of life blowing up in our face as it's being taken away. All the toxins we've accumulated in our bodies during our stay in this toxic world will tear it down once we aren't able to replenish it, and many diseases will arise from this which no one will be able to explain. It'll be all-around suckiness.

Sad thing is, I see this kicking off some time soon. The depression will probably hit some time this year, with the collapse of the oil markets creating a systemic crash that'll affect just about every aspect of the economy, eventually. I can see this climate situation worsening at an accelerated pace, and those two are all you need to spell apocalypse.

As long as it takes. I have a woodlot, a wood stove, and accessible water. I can chop and buck the wood by hand (assuming that no power means no gas pumps and thus no gas for the chain saw). I have guns and ample ammunition and a nice garden spot, so food would not be a problem. We would have to can vegetables on the wood stove, and grow extra turnip, carrots, etc, that keep well in a cold cellar. My nearest neighbors on either side are transplanted city folks from another state. They would probably last until their scented candles ran out, then resort to looting. Better get more ammunition...

There are 6 billion people in this world, and how many of them already know what to do when they're starving? They won't just give up and die, for the betterment of the everyone else. They'll want to live, and they'll chop wood and hunt game and fish until everything is gone or beyond repair. What really irks me, however, is that I don't think we are where we are by accident. It seems like we've been backed up into this wall on purpose. :rolleyes:
 
  • #26
Nereid said:
OK, the first ten or so things.

In https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0345409469/?tag=pfamazon01-20, Carl Sagan wrote these much quoted words (my bold):
We've arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements - transportation, communications, and all other industries; agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment, protecting the environment; and even the key democratic institution of voting - profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.
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'?

Sagan was a nice guy. That said, he's made a number of assertions, and logical leaps from those assertions in this piece that are tough to defend: 1) that there has been deliberate structuring (by the Illuminati, perhaps) of "global civilization;" 2) that the institutions of that deliberately structured "global civilization" are understood by anyone; 3) that the "anyone" understanding are scientists and technicians, and no one else; and, 4) that such institutions depend upon a population of scientific and technical staff for maintenance, rather than the "cut and try" mechanisms through which they originally evolved.

If exactly "no one" has had a clue for the past 10 - 20 ka, what fails first? The same things that have failed first for the past 10 - 20 ka; the fundamentals, food, water, shelter, prime movers, as either a result of "the tragedy of the commons," or shifting weather patterns, climate, or other natural events.
 
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  • #27
Sagan was a nice guy. That said, he's made a number of assertions, and logical leaps from those assertions in this piece that are tough to defend: 1) that there has been deliberate structuring (by the Illuminati, perhaps) of "global civilization;" 2) that the institutions of that deliberately structured "global civilization" are understood by anyone; 3) that the "anyone" understanding are scientists and technicians, and no one else; and, 4) that such institutions depend upon a population of scientific and technical staff for maintenance, rather than the "cut and try" mechanisms through which they originally evolved.

Sagan was a smart guy then, for I too am bearing witness to all this. When scholars confront ancient writings that don’t make sense in the world that we experience today, they reserve comment and move on to other "more fruitful" areas of study. But if you really read through it all as if through the eyes of an unlearned native, you can see that what these people witnessed were actual events.

And imagine the implications of it. Once you know who these people controlling the world are descendents of it's not hard to see how they would be able to climb back into a seat of power. But realizing who we the masses are, you also understand what our role is and what these men feel like they have to do. You can begin to understand our situation a little better.

Take a look at Mars, that place got torn up. So whatever happened there probably also sent us back to the stone age, and dethroned these guys here on Earth. Our history is a lot more colorful than what we've been led to believe, and we always have to consider that when we wonder, "what the hell are these old guys thinking?"
 

Related to What would be the first thing to fail?

1. What factors contribute to the first thing failing?

The first thing to fail can be affected by a variety of factors, such as the quality of materials used, environmental conditions, and the complexity of the system.

2. How does the first thing to fail impact the rest of the system?

The failure of the first component can have a domino effect on the rest of the system, leading to further failures and potentially causing the entire system to malfunction.

3. Is there any way to predict what the first thing to fail will be?

While it is impossible to accurately predict the first thing to fail, risk assessments and regular maintenance can help identify potential weak points in a system and prevent early failures.

4. Can the first thing to fail be prevented?

In most cases, it is not possible to completely prevent the first thing from failing. However, regular maintenance and proper usage can help extend the lifespan of components and reduce the likelihood of early failures.

5. How can the first thing to fail be repaired or replaced?

The best course of action for repairing or replacing the first thing to fail depends on the specific component and the extent of the damage. It is important to consult with experts and follow proper procedures to ensure the system is restored to its optimal functioning state.

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