Two Books on Incomprehensible Man-Made Systems

Two books: One I’m reading and one I just heard of. Their essences below, no detailed notes yet.


Normal Accidents

“Normal” Accidents: What Perrow calls System Accidents. Normal Accidents have two characteristics:

  • The complex interaction of multiple discrete failures that are not in operational sequence.
  • Opaque processes: due to that complexity, the systems are incomprehensible, making identifying and correcting these accidents difficult and compounding the situation through apparent operator error. Often times System Accidents are wrongly labelled as mere operator error.

The accidents are inherent in the system because it is so complex. The accident may not be common but it is inevitable (thus, “normal”).

Coupling: Tight coupling is where events are dependent on each other. Loose coupling is where independent events occur in the same sequence.

Perrow is interested in the top-right quadrant here specifically, in reducing the coupling or the complexity of interactions in order to make systems safer and more comprehensible. Some systems may not be salvageable.

It’s a fascinating book, and I’m looking forward to investigating Perrow’s future books, building on this. I know that his 2007 book discusses strengthening fragile systems through “target reduction” (as opposed to more preventative measures, or faster disaster response), which appears to be about decentralization but I don’t know for sure yet.

Good notes from Jordan Peacock here: intro, pt1, pt2.


Reflections on Judging

In a book I just heard of today, Judge Richard Posner is concerned with two judicial problems regarding complexity: one, that judges may not understand the increasingly complex fields that they are making important decisions about, and two, that judges own internal decision-making systems are becoming needlessly esoteric, internally complex and contradictory (perhaps by lack of collision with pragmatic failure in the outside world).

Posner (circuit judge, U.S. Court of Appeals; [..]) uses his judicial experience as a platform for an in-depth discussion of the challenges facing the federal judiciary, chief among them the growing complexity of federal cases. He examines the impact of complexity as it pertains to the subject matter of cases being heard and as it exists in courts’ own systems, habits, and traditions. He analyzes the difference between legal formalism (adherence to established principles for interpretation of laws and the Constitution) and legal realism (fact- and context-based jurisprudence) and advocates for a wider application of the latter. There is an excellent chapter in which the author indicts appellate opinion writing as needlessly verbose, esoteric, and rich in “gratuitous internal complexity.” He proffers solutions to bad writing with rigorous yet practical guidelines for improvement, which, though directed toward appellate opinion writers, might be applied in all legal writing. […]

—Joan Pedzich, formerly with Harris Beach PLLC, Pittsford, NY