Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Future Principles: Redundancy

The idea of redundancy I first learned, probably in high school, was based on the first dictionary definitions: superfluous repetition : an act or instance of needless repetition 4 : the part of a message that can be eliminated without loss of essential information. (Merriam-Webster.) It became a useful concept in editing, for example, as well as something impressive to yell at somebody in an argument.

But there's another, technical meaning. Redundancy is the use of redundant components, and redundant in this sense means: serving as a duplicate for preventing failure of an entire system (as a spacecraft) upon failure of a single component.

It sounds so sophisticated and technological, but it's really a principle that's summed up by a common wisdom: don't put all your eggs in one basket. That is, don't let the failure of a single component result in the failure of the entire system, i.e. your life.

It's an increasingly important principle, partly due to fast-changing pervasive technologies, and also to a future of multiple risks.

A word that's very fashionable among people and groups concerned with the mounting threats to the future is resilience. Well, one way to build resilience into a system, or into your life, is with redundancy. With diversity of means to attain necessary ends.

It is a principle not very fashionable in a society that gloms onto the latest new basket--ipad/phone/pod, or more broadly, wireless microwave technologies--and promptly throws everything into them, including the kitchen sink.

It is as well a principle that corporate capitalism does not favor. The point of corporate capitalism is to make the largest profit possible, which involves cost-cutting and taking market share, including the ultimate market share of a monopoly. Duplicating involves spending more. A diversity of means provided by different companies cuts into market share. Neither is good business.

That is, until the enterprise crashes. Like the BP oil rig in the gulf. I thought of that example while reading a new book, When the Lights Went Out: A History of Blackouts in America by David E. Nye (MIT Press) which is about the electrical grid, among other things. It's a complicated situation, but it's clear that there is neither enough redundancy nor resilience in the electrical grid to be very confident it will continue to deliver electricity dependably, or even sufficiently. Part of the reason is deregulation and corporate capitalism.

But my own point of view owes more to the pace of change I've seen over my lifetime. It used to be that new technologies overlapped for awhile with the old. (Nye writes about how long it took for electricity to become so dominant--for a long time, the previous technology of gas for lighting remained part of the mix in most homes and businesses.) Now millions of people rely entirely on cell phones, with no land line. We know about the theoretical power of a weapon or a situation that could disrupt microwave transmissions. But microwave has become so dominant that much of society would be thrown into chaos if some artificial or natural force seriously disrupted those transmissions.

We are utterly dependent on satellites, including and especially a relatively few that are the key components of the Global Positioning System or GPS. If something were to happen to that system, the feared consequences of the once-dreaded Y2K glitch would probably seem like a relative picnic.

Electrical power and communications are bad enough, but our greatest vulnerability may be food. We import too damn much of it relative to how much we grow. And the overwhelming bulk of it comes from too damn far away. We're very vulnerable to all kinds of catastrophes, from the effects of aformentioned failures in the complex and fragile global web of communications, as well as problems with transportation for any number of reasons, including suddenly prohibitive fuel costs or supplies.

In terms of a principle for the future, redundancy means that we should be careful to retain useful older systems and not become so totally dependent on new systems so fast. It means that meaningful redundancy should be built into new systems--not just technologically, but in how they are organized and managed. It means increasing viable local and smaller scale alternatives, like local power sources and local agriculture.

As families, individuals and communities, we should build as much redundancy into the systems we depend on as we can. Those with the most obvious resources--like money--can control more, and install that backup generator that can draw power from solar panels, etc. But people can make choices with redundancy in mind. And communities can use what they've got. Maybe it's land left vacant by vanished industry, as in Detroit, where neighborhood gardens are providing food and a whole lot more to distressed neighborhoods.

Although this community where I live has its advantages (local and nearby food sources, expertise in off-the-grid power, etc.) I worry that we don't have enough redundancy in this house. But power outages have provided lessons. We have a gas stove, at least (though with enough electrical components and controls that some of it is useless in an outage), and a loss of electrical heating won't kill us thanks to our climate. And we have the advantage of a 1950s home, with windows that open (which we've improved to include insulation as well as ventilation.) Homes and other buildings built since the 1950s are too dependent on air conditioning, heating and other uses of electricity. In some ways, my apartment in an old building (from the 1920s) in Pittsburgh was even better: heat by radiators, a gas stove with no electrical components, rooms designed to take advantage of ventilation, a lot of resources--food, clothing, medicine--within walking distance in an established city neighborhood. In many ways, older is better.

Old as well as new, local as well as imported, land line as well as cell, even bad old batteries as well as rechargeables, and maybe even tapes as well as CD/DVD/online. Oh yeah, books and newspapers as well as the Internet. The principle of redundancy, for the future, which is coming to your neighborhood soon.

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