Looking Towards the "Fault Tolerant Society"

09/03/2010 03:42 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It wasn't the collective gasp, followed by the sigh of relief I expected. Instead, the response among those I spoke with to the news of another oil rig disaster in the gulf, along with the follow-up report that its impact appeared to be minimal, was something more akin to a collective deer-in-the-headlights episode. Casual observers -- as well as the media -- seemed not to know what to do with the news.

Call it "disaster saturation," perhaps, but the response was strangely dulled -- almost slack-jawed. Not in an apathetic or disinterested way, but in a way that suggested a profound sense of powerlessness and confusion, and maybe just a hint of fatalistic resignation. "Now what?" seemed to be the message in the eyes of my neighbor.

"Now what," indeed.

As any historian or philosopher will tell you, human society has progressed in lurches, rather than in a steady, manageable growth pattern. Working against a pronounced (and understandable) tendency towards personal and cultural inertia, the human world tends to change when crises are thrust upon it. As much as intellectuals would love to see us develop ourselves along a considered path of collective self-actualization, it's large scale changes in the status quo that get us moving. Perhaps an aggressive neighboring warlord amasses an army and invades our land. A large scale viral epidemic impacts the population. An economic collapse reveals the weaknesses of the financial system and displaces the established social structure.

This is when things really change. Some might see this as mere collective short-sightedness, but I've always seen us as more of a "when the chips are down" kind of species. We are nothing if not adaptable, and when you combine that adaptability with our inherent social nature and the associated evolutionary imperative of altruism, it seems clear that we are at our proudest moments in these times of crises.

And that is what makes this moment in history so uniquely frightening.

Consider: the only way we know how to make dramatic, systemic changes for the better is when disaster is upon us. It's what we do. Sure, we fritter around the edges in the meantime, but it only amounts to so much. Like children, we learn from experience first, not so much through foresight.

But consider also the economic, industrial and environmental scale of modern human society -- when one oil rig disaster can threaten to turn a vast swath of ocean into a dead zone and potentially collapse an entire region's economy.

The fact is that technology and population have raised the stakes of our mistakes to such an unprecedented level that our species and our very planet cannot necessarily sustain our old way of evolving as communities. Learning-by-disaster is not a sustainable pedagogy when the disasters now take place at such a scale, they may be catastrophic for entire ecosystems and the human cultures that depend on them.

But how do you change a pattern so fundamental to human history?

The climate change debate is a crystalline example of this dilemma. Any intellectual analysis of the changes already underway due to planet-warming pollutants -- even a passing analysis -- should elicit enough concern to generate meaningful action, and yet what have we been seeing? On the one side, adamant denial despite incontrovertible evidence. On the other, an increase in conspicuous, emblematic "green" commodities, but very little decrease in the conspicuous consumption that feeds the crisis (and in the context of an economic downturn that is having relatively little impact on the wealth of the upper middle and upper classes in this country). And all the while, both sides spend most of their energy being frustrated with the other, rather than fully engaging (either intellectually or materially) with the actual crisis.

But the problem isn't stupidity on one side or greed on the other, so much as it is the fundamental way we learn and evolve as a species. Human history can be seen as a process of fault response, and fault response is inadequate. This is why those that advocate stepping away from social and technological progress and returning to "simpler" times are misguided. To survive into the next century, we need to fundamentally shift from a fault response society to a fault tolerant one.

Ironically, this means looking to the model offered by the most "cutting edge," even radical, sector of society - technology; the very sector that many might be simplistically inclined to blame for the inevitable situation we find ourselves in.

IT systems are defined by their fault tolerance. Since fault can be catastrophic, it has become simply unacceptable in complex, enterprise-level operations. A hospital, public infrastructure or large corporate operation can be irreparably harmed by a systems failure -- and systems failures can come in unanticipated ways. What makes an IT infrastructure sound, then, is it's ability to continue operating in the face of the unanticipated. Back-ups, secure servers, and drives operating in parallel in such a way that allow for the catastrophic collapse of any one discrete system without the accompanying collapse of the entire infrastructure.

In this way, the Information Technology field has countered this human paradigm by working around it in an uncharacteristically forward-looking way. Critical errors still inevitably occur, but the greater system is structured to accommodate them so that these problems can be addressed as inconveniences -- or even as urgencies -- but not as catastrophes. Generally speaking, the stakes are simply too high to allow for any other approach.

How to translate this concept to the world at large and build the Fault Tolerant Society? Obviously, as with any high-sounding theoretically notion, it's the application that's the hard part. We are so used to looking at social change in a polarized way; driven from the top down or the bottom up. Building the Fault Tolerant Society will take a little of both. In a democracy, fuel for change obviously emanates from the electorate, but it's just as clear that there's a need for visionary leadership in making any abstraction into a reality. The currency of political debate can't continue to slide backwards towards warring views of religion and cosmology, it needs to be about building a world that will allow us to continue disagreeing about religion or oil or whatever without suddenly having it all collapse out from under us as the result of our next big mistake.

As clear that this is all easier said than done, it's just as clear that the current administration in Washington has neither the interest nor the vision to approach such a challenge. It's simply not in the portfolio of a president who, for whatever reason, seems incapable of appreciating the full implications and urgency of the very campaign rhetoric that swept him into office.

But the first step is clear; it's well past time for the citizenry to start asking our would-be-leaders what systems they intend to put in place, not simply to prevent disaster, but to deal with disaster -- and their answers to those questions should be the among the first criteria used to judge those would-be leaders worthiness of our support.

The author is currently working on a book examining the concept of fault tolerance in political, economic and environmental institutions