Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Are we experiencing a complexity collapse in software and finance?

At the same time our economy is collapsing in mysterious ways I've been fighting a personal software war at work and at home on OS X and XP and the iPhone.

It's been one software bug atop another. I've seen emergent bugs from the interaction of different data models on an iPhone app and a Cloud data store, bugs in servers, bugs in clients, bugs in desktop apps, bugs in authentication, bugs related to digital rights management, bugs related to old fragile Outlook plug-in infrastructure, bugs from security fixes driven by relentless viral attacks, bugs one atop another in infinite combinations.

Swarms of bugs.

It's not as though these bugs are coming from amazing new functionality. In many cases my software environment is regressing -- losing functionality.

Bugs aren't new; but they aren't always this bad. I remember how bad things were with DOS 3.x and TSR apps and expanded/extended memory. This feels like a similar cycle -- on a grander scale.

And now we add to this computing chaos the Flight from the Cloud.

Which leads one to wonder what the collapse of our finances might have in common with the collapse of my computing environment. Do the six or so finacial collapse contributing factors have some underlying cause?

One common cause might be the problem of the sustainability of complex systems - in computing and in finance.

Thanks to my extended cybernetic memory, I see that I've made this software and society complexity connection before. What I can't find is any mention of a lecture I attended a very long time ago.

The lecture, which might have been at the old Society of Teachers of Family Medicine (STFM) conferences I once attended, was about Complexity. It might have been related to this 1983 book. What I recall were intriguing charts of the trade-offs between complexity and risk.

Maybe the near-collapse of my personal computing environment and my family's financial security share some common roots in the instability and incomprehensibility of rapidly evolving complex systems.

Update: via Krugman, Keynes during the early years of Great Depression I ...
... But to-day we have involved ourselves in a colossal muddle, having blundered in the control of a delicate machine, the working of which we do not understand. The result is that our possibilities of wealth may run to waste for a time—perhaps for a long time...
I didn't know people once spelled to-day with a hyphen, it's not like it was a new word in 1929. Nowadays hyphenated words rarely last more than a few years before they lose the hyphen. Faster times, greater understanding, still greater complexity.

Update 11/28/08: A similar theme in a nov 2007 post of mine.

Update 12/3/08: See also
Dan's Data: Lemon-fresh power supplies

... When sellers know how good their product is but buyers can't tell, you have the all-important asymmetric information" that makes a lemon market possible. (Akerlof's study of this phenomenon won him a share of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Economics.)

Lemon-market rules applied to a lot of stock-market crashes. Look at the dot-com bubble, or the Enron collapse, or the crash of 1987, or the recent US subprime mortgage debacle - which is having cataclysmic effects on the US economy even as I write this....

and the details that convince me this really is a complexity collapse.

Update 12/21/08: More people are picking up on the complexity, resiliency meme.

Update 4/4/10: I've been looking for twenty years for a book I heard about in the 1980s. It was about complexity collapse. Recently Clay Shirky wrote about it, the book was written by Joseph Tainter in 1988 -- The Collapse of Complex Societies. It's $36 on Amazon at the moment - probably print on demand. I think I attended a Society of Teachers of Family Medicine (STFM) meeting @ 1988-1990 when someone walked through the arguments in this book.

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