Saturday, August 24, 2013

The problem of retaining human knowledge over generations and its implications for complex public and private systems

The service sector is bigger than other sectors of most economies around the world and this trend is increasing further. Essentially lesser and lesser people are required to manufacture the "things" (tangible "products and" intangibles products like software or digital products) the global economy needs. More and more people derive their livelihoods by providing services around these products. Just like water/sever systems/networks, transportation system/networks (including networks of roads, railways and airports), electrical systems/networks and telecommunication systems/networks arose over previous centuries, over the last twenty five years, larger and more complex systems/networks like the Internet and Mobile networks have become common and we are seeing further expansion of networks into homes, into hitherto unexplored space on/in/outside the earth. Moreover the capabilities enabled for humanity through these networks are also increasing. Essentially each human exists within a technosphere around which we have the physical atmosphere.

My point in describing the above was to point out the changing nature of cause and effect. Previously human actions/causes resulted mostly in local effects. It was relatively easy to link cause and effect. In the technosphere, the actions of few can have immediate effect on many who may be far. The sheer complexity of the systems and their interactions have increased so much, that we are having to delegate one-level of control to systems. The drive to increase up-time, improve reliability requires us to yield further control to systems. The number of people with end-to-end understanding decreases over time since there is nothing to "worry" most of the time and slowly people lose the drive to keep in charge of the system. This is a bit like the laws and practices to retain the awareness of the fire related procedures and related periodic testing of the fire-alarms to prevent the possibility of the "rarely" required knowledge being forgotten when needed or the fire-alarm from not working when needed. But this only just a bit like the fire case. The laws and social practices needed to manage the complex systems and their interactions that humanity needs are not fully identified, because we just don't know. The complex interdependencies and dynamic interactions between the systems running our social lives and community lives continuously evolve. Given that the very purpose of delegating control to systems is to reduce human errors, humanity will lose the knowledge over time since humans will forget their specifications, their fitness-for-purpose, etc. Yet the urgency of managing knowledge better does not seem to drive the behaviour of our thought and action leaders.

Due to the slight problem that humans die and take their knowledge with them, humans have tended to lose knowledge about how to achieve Nirvana. The knowledge about achieving Nirvana involves understanding one of the most important system on earth and yet humanity has been weak at managing it as described by the Buddha himself. Complex knowledge is difficult to capture, pass to next generations. While we have writing, the meanings of words/images change. Since the practices of capturing and retaining knowledge of our globally interconnected systems are weak, this knowledge over generations is obviously going to decay over time.

Despite knowing that systems may not be reliably designed to the correct requirements, may not constantly adapt to changing requirements and despite knowing that we do not adequately understand the in-use operations of our systems adequately to control them consciously and purposefully, humanity continues to deepen the inter-connected technosphere and slowly losing control due to slow loss of knowledge about its operation. I am reminded of H.W.Longfellows lines

    Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
        And our hearts, though stout and brave,
    Still, like muffled drums, are beating
        Funeral marches to the grave.

If some crisis were to hit humanity, would we retain our knowledgebase?

Whenever I walk in some parts of London, where previously occupied buildings now lie empty and whenever I hear about nuclear plants gone Kaput, I worry about a future where not-to-knowledgeable survivors of the human race try live in a city/country/world without understanding how it works and how to make it work - very dangerous and not very different from the present, where most of us do not know because we need not know. Today we need not know and understand the technosphere, but if we do not manage the knowledge about the technosphere, we may end up in a world not unlike the empty battlefields containing multiple land-mines left by the previous world wars, where ignorant remnants of humanity struggle to survive due to their ignorance of the relationship between cause and effect in their personal and social lives.


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