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ENGINEERING AS A SOCIAL ENTERPRISE Pondering the Unpredictability of the Sociotechnical System ROBERT W. LUCKY How is society influenced by technology? How in turn does society shape technology? These are complex philosophical questions that we seldom consider or debate. As individual engineers we seem powerless before the omnipotence of society as a whole. Our livelihoods appear to be determined by the fickle whims of government and market forces —forces that signal to the engineering community the needs of society in ways that are in the short term tenuous and difficult to read, while in the long term compelling. The engineer tries to swim in these forces like a minnow in a school, following the fashions of the day. Those that swim against the tide are soon forgotten. In the day-to-day solving of problems that we engineers face, we seldom have the opportunity to stand on the shore and observe the flow of this external tide. Yet who sets these tidal forces in place? In some mysterious way, we all do. MODEL FOR SOCIAL NEEDS As engineers we seek to understand systems by constructing simplified models. I confess that I have such a model for the changing societal needs. It is not a model that many people will be happy with, but it is one that captivates me, and expresses the deep frustrations and impotencies that are endemic in our society. I hesitate to raise it before the august body of my professional peers, but it is based on the old-fashioned Ouija board. Perhaps they have since passed from fashion, but I remember the childhood curiosity of using a Ouija board to predict the future. This is a board with letters of the alphabet and “yes” and “no” inscribed, together with a movable
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ENGINEERING AS A SOCIAL ENTERPRISE pointer that rides on the board similar in shape and feel to the computer mouse of today. All the players join their hands upon the pointer, and someone asks the Ouija board a question. With a slight trembling hesitation and a few false starts the pointer begins to move from place to place on the board, its passage traversing certain inscribed letters that are given great significance by all present as an other-world answer to the question posed. The Ouija board contained great magic. Why did the pointer move at all, and why did it point where it pointed? As a budding scientist, I rejected the notion of supernatural intervention. Since I was not consciously steering the pointer myself, someone else must have been dictating its motion. I was skeptical when I always found that other people felt exactly the same way. They were not in control; someone else was. In some mysterious way the Ouija pointer expresses the common will of the participants in directions that are often surprising to all. I have often felt exactly the same way about how social concerns shape the engineering environment. The nation—and more and more, the world—has its collective hands on a pointer that moves unbidden past squares denoting fashion, style, trends, needs, wishes, and such. Unlike the parlor Ouija board, however, the board here is so large that individual players are unable to see the movements of the pointer directly. Instead, there are privileged spectators representing the media who report on their interpretation of what they see. We get these media interpretations continuously during the game, and they seem to influence the tenuous, erratic course of the all-knowing pointer. But none of us determines that course; only the fragile, unconscious collusion of this or that segment of society does. It is perhaps an instance of chaos. Our predictions for the future take the form of judging the current movements of the pointer. Someone says that the pointer is moving in a northeast direction. No one dares to suggest that the pointer will move in a northeast direction. Like yesterday's stock market results, the needs and desires of society seem calculable only in retrospect. Looking back, we say that because of this trend or that discovery, we should have known that such and such would happen. In addition to expressing the common will of society, the pointer seems to be affected by random fluctuations caused by perturbations external to the participants. Partly this random influence reflects a low-level, societal noise of a thermal nature whose occasional fluctuations drive the pointer into unexpected states, but partly also the randomness has as its origin the sporadic impulses of cataclysmic events. These happenings are like lightening bolts on the Ouija board of societal behavior. Recent history highlights many examples of cataclysmic events that change the taste and wishes of society. Three Mile Island teaches us about meltdown, and we turn away from nuclear power. OPEC fixes petroleum allocations, and we discover the attraction of fuel efficiency. The Exxon Valdez runs aground in Alaska, a chemical plant in Bhopal spews toxic fumes, and one winter morning
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ENGINEERING AS A SOCIAL ENTERPRISE we see on television the breaking up of the Berlin wall—cataclysmic events all. Each event had many smaller, predictive antecedents, but in each case the occurrence of the event itself rivets people 's attention, and the collective will triggered by the broadcast news moves the pointer determinedly in a new direction. As I look to the future, I do not expect the basic character of this model to change. However, there will be changes in the playing of the game. For example, the board has been globalized. More significant players huddle around the table and influence directions. Moreover, the time constants associated with pointer movements are becoming shorter. The increasing global communications infrastructure has eliminated the information float. All of the players get faster feedback on the shape that societal needs is taking at any given instant. Governments, businesses, and the media take daily polls to tell us what we are thinking. The financial communities vibrate ever faster with the slightest news. Indeed, those of us who have studied control theory wonder about the stability of the system as the gain is turned ever higher. Amidst this complex world of human drama, the domain of engineering seems clear and simple. We bring capabilities to society—tools that can augment man's mind and muscle, that can lead to better communications, entertainment, education, transportation, and the things that make life pleasant, productive, meaningful, and enjoyable. But the technological products are only tools in themselves; they must be accepted and used by society for its betterment. Where engineers often see simple solutions, society sees underlying difficulty. Society is wary of technology and distrustful of seemingly naive technological solutions to societal problems. Technologists are often forgetful of this widely held aversion. I was made painfully aware of this during an appearance as a guest on a television talk show devoted to the future. After speaking glibly about a future made more pleasant by robots, high-definition television, enhanced entertainment and education, and the like, I was roundly criticized by the other guests, who insisted the future is bleak. The environmentalist on the television show was strident in his recitation of statistics on pollution. The educator spoke of the decline in literacy. The economist talked about global starvation, and the cop-turned-television-producer sitting beside me on the sofa warned of the inevitability of drugs and crime. The gun inside his pants leg pushed against me and seemed to lend a physical reality to his worldly insight. Everyone agreed that cities were decaying. Forlornly, I held to my optimistic view that now is a much better time to live than a century ago, thanks largely to technology; I expected the future to be even better. They looked at me with scorn. What does a technologist know about such things? Silicon Dreams (1989, St. Martin's Press), a book I recently wrote about information technology, suffered a critical review for a similar reason. “Lucky displays complete optimism about technology and its ineluctable contribution to progress and the well-being of all people,” the reviewer complained. "An
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ENGINEERING AS A SOCIAL ENTERPRISE optimistic attitude like this is expected from engineers, who regularly tackle seemingly impossible tasks, and it no doubt makes technological advance possible.” This reviewer holds little enthusiasm for “technological advance.” Many people share his views, I am sure. Although the review contains an underlying antipathy to the engineering attitude, there is an element of truth to the logic. Engineers are often unreasonably optimistic about the application of technology, but as a consequence we make progress possible where none is expected. Unaware that cities are a hopeless cause, we design urban transportation systems like BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit] or the Washington Metro that transform the urban environment. Oblivious to the hopelessness of the educational crisis, we design and build technological aids to education. Drugs may overwhelm the urban population, but we work toward increasing industrial productivity and enhancing leisure time enjoyment. Yes, we are often naive about social imperatives, but our single-mindedness can also be a positive attribute. HOW SOCIETY APPLIES TECHNOLOGY When I look at the history of my own field—telecommunications—I can only shake my head in frustration at the inability of technology to either follow or lead society. It reminds me of two clumsy people trying to dance, each attempting to lead with the wrong foot. Let me cite four examples—the Picturephone®, home information systems, facsimile, and cellular telephony. The first two were technologically driven market failures, while the last two were unanticipated market successes. The Picturephone The Picturephone® was a celebrated development of the Bell System in the late 1960s. It was a personal irony for me that when I took a course in “managing innovation” during this period, the development of Picturephone was used as a case study of a “perfect” technological development. It met schedule and cost objectives while overcoming significant technical obstacles. Unfortunately, it was soon to be discovered, there was more to life than successful technology. The Picturephone® was introduced as a product in 1971, primarily in Chicago, with a monthly price of about $125. Market studies had, of course, predicted its acceptance and growth. The mathematical model of the predicted market growth was similar to that of a contagious disease—you did not want to be the first to get one, but after a certain number of your friends got one, you would be likely to jump on the bandwagon. Thus it was predicted that the market would start slowly and then after reaching a certain level, would take off. This prediction turned out to be half right.
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ENGINEERING AS A SOCIAL ENTERPRISE In retrospect there were a number of difficulties or mistakes in the Picturephone® debacle. Some people say the price was too high, or that the black-and-white Picturephone came out at a time when people were expecting color, or that the resolution was too low. These observations are undoubtedly true, though probably in themselves not the reason for market failure. My own belief is that the Picturephone® offered too little benefit to human communications to justify the awkwardness and technological intrusiveness of the instrument. The Picturephone® failed because the market—society's need—was seriously misjudged. It was a case not only of mechanically incorrect market projections, but of a lack of fundamental understanding of the true societal nature of communications. These issues are deep and murky, and not amenable to simple technological solutions. It even took the ordinary telephone several decades to gain acceptance from a wary public. Home Information The second example of misjudging societal needs and desires during the last decade is home information systems, introduced in many countries throughout the world. The Prestel system in the United Kingdom set a gleaming technological example. With an ordinary television set and an adapter for the existing telephone line, it was possible to get individualized information, such as stock prices, news and weather, sports, home shopping, banking, and so forth. Technologists were fascinated with the possibilities of home information systems. Market trials were conducted in many countries in which selected customers in certain communities were given free service. Follow-up interviews and questionnaires were used to determine the market acceptance of the service. Most of these trials predicted glowing market acceptance and a willingness to pay about $10 per month per home. So many conferences were devoted to the subject that, as the early market returns from actual paying service began to turn sour, one speaker quipped that the only people making money in this business were the ones running conferences. It seemed that people had said they wanted this service only while it was free. It was fun to be selected to be part of a trial, but paying real money for a service that was viewed as marginally useful was something else. The ultimate success of home information is still questionable. It is likely that Prodigy and Compuserve and others in the business would argue hopefully that such services are becoming popular. But I suspect that most people in telecommunications outside of those with a vested interest would say that the acceptance by society of home information services has been far less than technologists hoped for or expected. The big exception to this generalization would be Minitel in France, where the government provided both planned vision
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ENGINEERING AS A SOCIAL ENTERPRISE and subsidy to put miniature computer terminals in millions of homes. The role of government in shaping this social information age crusade in France is a fascinating subject, and not unrelated to the topic at hand, but would take us to far astray from the current theme to be worth the trip. Facsimile Turning now to the two examples of social acceptance exceeding technological expectation, let me first mention the facsimile machine. Surprisingly, versions were invented three or four decades ago. We can remember the “wire photos” of the newspapers, for example. Yet no one seemed to appreciate the value for ordinary business dealings until the late 1980s. Several things happened about that time. Technology, and Japanese manufacturing skills, had reached a point where a good-quality fax machine cost roughly $1,000—a level at which middle-level business managers could justify, and perhaps more importantly, could authorize, the purchase of a machine. Reaching a price threshold is a familiar technological achievement, but other factors may have been more responsible for the fax machine 's success. This was shortly after the time that Federal Express had created from almost nothing the appreciation of the value of time in the delivery of written material. As the advertisement said, “When it positively, absolutely has to be there overnight.” Suddenly, time mattered. Thus it may be that fax rode on the crest of a social revolution fostered by overnight delivery services. Another important element in the facsimile revolution was the role of standards in both codifying and shaping societal needs. As long as your own fax machine could talk only to an exact mate produced by the same manufacturer, the usage was minimal. International standardization opened the door to cross-usage, multiplied the power of individual machines, and provided the boost that carried the usage over a critical threshold of universal acceptance. Today standards are preeminently important in telecommunications. Often, as it happened so often in the past, new standards only certify what has become a de facto guide because of market dominance, but more and more of today's standards lead the market. Perhaps the round tables where parties meet to determine standards are a modern, parliamentary equivalent of that Ouija board. Cellular Telephony The final example of societal interplay from telecommunications is the cellular telephone. A new form of high-capacity mobile telephony was conceived from basic principles during the early 1970s. There was no market need that could be asserted to justify the need for orders of magnitude more mobile telephones. The market at that time was small and relatively stagnant. Opening up more mobile capacity was a gamble similar to building highways into swamps.
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ENGINEERING AS A SOCIAL ENTERPRISE Federal policy arguments and decrees held up the spread of cellular telephony for years. It is not a happy tale, but issues of competition, fairness, and the role of government came to bear on this technology, as they have on other technologically inspired social innovations. Eventually, a form of competition was mandated and the base stations and mobile telephones began to be built in quantity. But how big was the market? One high-priced, in-depth market study was influential in predicting a very small market. Those that need car phones are a special, small segment of the population, the study said. They will buy cellular telephones regardless of price. No one else needs or wants such a telephone; thus there is no price sensitivity. But these market predictions were completely wrong. This time society adopted the original technological dream. Society decided that the cellular phone was not the exclusive province of the rich or the enslaving tool of the traveling salesman, but rather a means of extending human networking and societal togetherness for the common person. The original architects of the cellular system must feel proud, even if the vagaries of government policy and the inexactness of marketing predictions have decided that the financial rewards would go elsewhere. Lessons Learned In each of these examples the technology was not so important per se as the societal acceptance of the technology. In some real sense the facsimile and the cellular telephone were social inventions rather than technological inventions. The primary way that society signaled this acceptance was through the economics of the marketplace, though we see that governmental action was significant in the cellular telephone and in the relative success of the Minitel in France. Government policy in an indirect way also influenced the Picturephone®, in that the development of this system was allowed as a part of the rate base for the telephone monopoly. Thus society, according to decisions of its government, funded the Picturephone®. When later it was given a more direct vote on this matter in the form of individual purchasing decisions, it decided against the product. Other examples of technologically inspired social inventions are all about us. I consider the copy machine, personal stereos, music videos, ESPN, CNN, the USA Today newspaper, and even the plethora of video rental stores as social derivatives of technology. Many of these institutions have affected our lives in significant ways. Who would have believed 10 years ago that practically every commercial street in almost every little town in the country would have a video rental store? Certainly the engineers working to perfect the video tape recorder had no conception of how they would change society. Nor did the inventors of the optical disc have any thought that their technology would be used for audio recording (when it was so obviously intended for video), and would completely displace the long-playing vinyl records from the shelves of the world's stores.
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ENGINEERING AS A SOCIAL ENTERPRISE The examples also show the frustrations in market predictions about how society will act in accepting or rejecting technology. Asking individuals, taking polls, conducting discussions with focus groups, running field trials, and other market studies seem regularly to fail. It seems to me that the information simply is not there to be uncovered prematurely. As in the Ouija board, what is required is a joint decision over a period of time by a great many people —people who are largely unaware that they are even contributing to the decision. There seems to be no substitute for the market itself as an arbiter of societal taste. Thus engineers must dare to try. Some technology will fail, but sometimes the determined application of a technological dream—even a simple one—can forever change society for the better. TRENDS IN THE SOCIOTECHNICAL SYSTEM When we look at the great technology trends from the past, we see how they created social revolution. Technology made possible the industrial revolution, and in this century it is forging the information age. All around us now we see the deepening of this computer-inspired age of information. The heavy industries are languishing, while service industries proliferate. Computer networks enmesh the world, and the global village seems more a reality than a tired cliché. Computers are underfoot everywhere, and we are increasingly dependent upon them to keep our records and do what amounts to the bookkeeping for business. More and more information is coming on-line, and digital libraries are just around the corner. When the industrial revolution made the mass production of standard goods possible, it also took away the freedom of choice. Computers in the information age promise to give us back our individuality. Not only will information itself be customized to the recipient, but through flexible, computerized manufacture we will be able to have large varieties of individualized products. This deepening of the information age also brings a number of negative consequences. One of them is information overload. Computers are getting faster, but we humans are not changing in our fundamental ability to consume and produce information. Every day I feel this limitation more and more acutely. I cannot read all that is being produced that seems relevant to my work. The flood increases every day, but I read only at the same rate, and the number of hours in the day remains fixed. In addition to information overload there is communications overload. The fax machine and the cellular telephone are examples; so is the rise of electronic mail, voice mail, telephone answering machines, cable television, phones in airplanes, pagers, and so forth. Being connected is wonderful, but being entwined is something else. It is easy to drown in the din of virtual junk mail being produced in the various broadcast and personalized media. A fundamental residue of the information age is the increase in complexity — complexity of technological systems, of business systems, and of social systems.
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ENGINEERING AS A SOCIAL ENTERPRISE They seem to demonstrate a form of the second law of thermodynamics. Entropy is always on the rise. We see this particularly in large-scale systems. The telephone network, for example, was easily understandable and manageable only a decade ago. Now it seems to have slipped past the comprehension of any single person. The collapse of a significant portion of the AT&T network on January 15, 1990, was a singular event that underlined a new vulnerability mired in complexity. The control software for an electronic switching center now comprises about two million lines of code. That in itself is overwhelming, but the true difficulty is that these switching centers are themselves networked on a higher level. In other words, they talk to each other. Other large-scale, interconnected systems include transportation, the environment and the earth's ecosystem, the air traffic control system, and the strategic defense system. Many of these systems have to do with what we call infrastructure. It is a major problem of our day—while the traditional infrastructure seems to be crumbling, the emerging infrastructure is fraught with complexity. These new systems are all manifestations of the accumulation of unfathomable complexity permitted and encouraged by the information age. Perhaps the most important problem of our time is the management of complexity. In his best-selling book Megatrends, John Naisbitt observed that the computer is a tool that manages complexity, and as such, just as highways encourage more cars, the computer invites more complexity into society. The question is whether the ability of computers to manage complexity can keep up with the concomitant increase in complexity. There is considerable hope, because one of the most important tools that computers bring is the ability to simulate. If we are able to make useful models of important social and technical systems, then the power of supercomputers may be brought to bear on sociotechnical problems, giving us new understanding and ability to manage our societal problems. Computers also give us an enhanced ability to monitor and control our large social systems. An example is the vision of an intelligent vehicle highway system, where highway traffic is measured in individual detail, transmitted within a computer network, processed with respect to mathematical models, and used to regulate and control flows. Our infrastructure will also be aided by structural monitoring of bridges, buildings, and airframes. Certainly there will be rich opportunity for the application of artificial intelligence, particularly in the development of expert systems that are able to apply heuristics to these seemingly intractable problems. The social and business systems have also been adapting to the information age. Intellectual property has become a new branch of law, and has contributed its own ambiguities to an increasingly litigious society. The financial system has new problems of stability and control, as exemplified by program trading and the increasing volatility of the market. Moreover, the savings and loan crisis has shown the vulnerability of the banking system. The time constants
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ENGINEERING AS A SOCIAL ENTERPRISE evolving in the economic system have also worked against the development of new science and technology, as business leaders have focused more and more on the short-term profitability rather than the long-term investment required for stable research. THE FUTURE What comes after the information age? Obviously, no one knows, but I could suggest two possibilities. One would be an age of wisdom, where the myriad details of information that are overwhelming us now became subsumed in a higher-level emphasis on ideas. I assume that computers will be given many human abilities, such as speech recognition, language understanding, and image understanding. They will be able to do the detailed work that now seems the province of humans. It seems a characteristic of the information age that we have become a nation of clerks. Millions of people work in front of a computer screen, reading extracted information and relaying it to someone else. Computers will take over these clerical jobs, freeing us for something more worthy of our human intellect. If and when this happens, technology will again have transformed the very fabric of society. The other possibility I could foresee would be another age of renaissance —almost a turning away from technology. I spoke earlier of the basic distrust that much of society has for technology. It is getting worse; C. P. Snow's two cultures are drifting further apart. Half the nation works on computers, while the other half (a larger half, to be sure) cannot program their video tape recorders. The increasing complexity of life is a worrisome thing to most people. A very small segment of society is equipped to deal with this complexity. Technology is widely viewed as responsible, and it is conceivable that there could be a movement away from technology—toward art, religion, music, and philosophical thought, for example. However, there is also the possibility of a negative movement. It is probably significant that the book Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten is a best-seller. It expresses a desire for simplicity, but in a form that seems to me to be regressive. The simplicity that people so desire can be achieved through the application of higher-level technology, but it can also be achieved by the outright rejection of all that technology stands for. It is comforting to be told that you do not need to know anything about the complexities of the world, but I am afraid this is a self-defeating message. I believe that we are going through a difficult period in terms of both increasing complexity and decay of the infrastructure. I believe that technology will offer solutions, but what do I know; I am only an engineer.
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ENGINEERING AS A SOCIAL ENTERPRISE Appendixes
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ENGINEERING AS A SOCIAL ENTERPRISE This page in the original is blank.
Representative terms from entire chapter: