In other words, our economy and society have been optimized for failure.
If we look at the fragility and instability of essential systems, it’s clear that 2022 will be the year of breakdown. Let’s start by reviewing how systems break down, a process I’ve simplified into the graphic below.
1. Regardless of whether it was planned or not, all systems are optimized to process specific inputs to generate specific outputs. Each system is pared down to maximize efficiency as the means to maximize profits. This efficiency in service of maximizing profits requires trade-offs that only become visible when some key part of the system fails.
The system that ships containers around the world offers a useful example. Shipping containers revolutionized shipping and reduced costs by commoditizing containers (all standard sizes), container ships (specifically designed to carry thousands of containers and container ports with specifically designed cranes, docks and truck lanes / queueing.
It’s possible to load a container on some other craft with a jury-rigged crane, but the efficiency of that is essentially a fraction of the optimized system: the jury-rigged crane will only be able to load a handful of containers, the ship will only be able to carry a few containers, and the likelihood of the containers shifting increases.
The infrastructure and labor are both highly specialized. Calling out the National Guard to speed up container offloading is a useless gesture unless the Guard can deliver more cranes and experienced operators.
The greater the optimization, the greater the fragility as the breaking of any one link brings the entire system to a halt. Throwing in equipment and labor that the system isn’t designed to use will fail.
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