Why did the New York Stock Exchange suspend trading without warning on July 8, 2015? Why did certain Toyota vehicles accelerate uncontrollably against the will of their drivers? Why does the programming inside our airplanes occasionally surprise its creators?
After a thorough analysis by the top experts, the answers still elude us.
You don’t understand the software running your car or your iPhone. But here’s a secret: neither do the geniuses at Apple or the Ph.D.’s at Toyota—not perfectly, anyway. No one, not lawyers, doctors, accountants, or policy makers, fully grasps the rules governing your tax return, your retirement account, or your hospital’s medical machinery. The same technological advances that have simplified our lives have made the systems governing our lives incomprehensible, unpredictable, and overcomplicated.
In Overcomplicated, complexity scientist Samuel Arbesman offers a fresh, insightful field guide to living with complex technologies that defy human comprehension. As technology grows more complex, Arbesman argues, its behavior mimics the vagaries of the natural world more than it conforms to a mathematical model. If we are to survive and thrive in this new age, we must abandon our need for governing principles and rules and accept the chaos. By embracing and observing the freak accidents and flukes that disrupt our lives, we can gain valuable clues about how our algorithms really work. What’s more, we will become better thinkers, scientists, and innovators as a result.
Lucid and energizing, this book is a vital new analysis of the world heralded as "modern" for anyone who wants to live wisely.
Arbesman (The Half-Life of Facts), a self-described "complexity scientist," presents a new framework for understanding and working with complex technological systems in this thought-provoking treatise. Arbesman argues that technological systems have become so complicated that not even those who design them fully understand how they work, nor do they always know what to do when their systems fail or return unexpected, possibly catastrophic results. He illustrates this through numerous examples of flaws or breaks in increasingly sophisticated systems such as traffic control, the stock market, machine translation, and medical devices. Despite the damage caused by bugs in programs and other system defects, they are valuable in that they reveal components of the technology at work. Arbesman proposes that programmers and designers approach technological complexity with the mindset of naturalists, who study the natural world by cataloging its variety. By treating failures or glitches in the system as by-products of the evolution of complexity, he says, we can predict paths to new technology and better prepare for the unintentional consequences. Arbesman moves confidently through his layered argument in smooth, clear prose. He convincingly conveys the relevancy of the subject to all types of industries, but his book will mostly appeal to readers interested in the theoretical component of computer science.