Lessons from the last decade

This blog entry summarizes what I've learnt over the last ten years - and sets the agenda for the next ten as learning to express it better.
Written by Paul Murphy, Contributor

One of the more widely honored end of project traditions involves holding a lessons learned meeting and then burying results critical of the seniors who made the major mistakes driving the project to rack to ruin.

In that context what I've learnt over the last ten years comes down to two blindingly obvious -in retrospect- general laws of human behavior with broad applicability to both public policy and IT.

The easier of these to understand is something I've previously described as the real "Murphy's law" and now formulate as:

The consequences of actions in the real world align with expectations to exactly the extent to which the beliefs underlying those expectations align with reality.

Thus both the normal formulation in technological or engineering contexts: viz, that anything which can go wrong will go wrong; and the social analog known as the law of unintended consequences (claiming that public policy and/or legislation usually has consequences opposite to those intended) are really just domain specific observations illustrating the working out of Murphy's law.

To cite a simple public policy example - and I don't have to cite IT examples, do I? - it's obvious that newspaper recycling is a good idea. Right? Well, wrong, it turns out that this does far more harm than good - and in two ways:

  • First, a ton of new newsprint in North American costs very roughly what a ton of recycled newsprint does, but the price of the new stuff contains about $200 in taxes paid, while the price for the recycled stuff contains about $200 in public subsidies for an actual difference in economic cost of about $400. Since that additional money relative to new production goes mostly for collections (fuel and labor intensive), de-inking (chemical and infrastructure intensive) and sludge disposal (about 30% by weight of the collected newspaper ends up as dense, low digestibility, and marginally toxic sludge that has to be disposed of) the net effect on both the economy and the environment is negative; and,

  • not only does the reduction in pulp production mean more fires and thus fewer trees (illustrating yet again that the cutest victim of efforts to save the spotted owl has been the spotted owl), but the reduction in long fiber cellulose (paper can be recycled about six times before the cellulose fibers break down) in municipal trash significantly retards natural digestion processes in buried waste dumps - meaning that the half life of dump sites (the time needed for about half the material to become grossly indistinguishable from soil) gets extended from under 200 years to over 500 (for areas with 26" or more in annual precipitation).

The harder one to understand involves something I think of as the law of temporal spreading - the reality that we don't all operate in the same temporal zone in personal, political, or technological contexts.

At the IT level this shows up in many different ways - two of the most obvious being:

  • the widespread force fitting of control ideas evolved in response to the explosion in data processing during the 1920s to the (largely unrelated) technologies evolving from the development of science based computing in the 1940s and 50s; and,

  • the general pattern in technology adoption under which new ideas first get reviled and rejected before gradually becoming mainstream when copies made by the majority vendors get treated as exciting innovations - witness, for example, all the companies which declared the iPhone a joke, a mistake, a horror -and are now promoting their copies as somehow magically better, newer, and more innovative.

At the public policy level this shows up most clearly when you consider that large swathes of the world are dominated by 11th century societies cheerfully equipping their crusaders with AK47s, jet aircraft, and modern bio-labs.

It's when you combine these two laws - meaning, of course, the predictions the two allow you make about the behavior of groups you have to deal with - that the real challenges for the next decade become clear because the job is to succeed despite both temporal spreading and the operation of Murphy's law.

Consider, for example, the current crisis in air travel security - on the surface this is a situation in which a few nut cases successfully imposed new economic costs on airlines, airports, police, and about two million passengers a day at the world's airports. Look more deeply, however, and blame ultimately adheres to the people who made this kind of thing inevitable by blindly and stupidly insisting on applying 18th century ideas about personal identity verification to 21st century problems - themselves compounded by mixing 11th century social and religious behaviors with 20th century technology.

So, bottom line, what's the personal lesson learnt from the last decade? That I've only begun to understand this stuff, that both IT and social policy successes depend on testing every assumption against reality first, and that manipulating some self righteous idiot living in the 1920s DP world into doing something right, requires first understanding that the problem is the temporal and social boundary, not the person living inside it.

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