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Digital snow days

Folks in the Anchorage bowl woke Wednesday morning to widespread power outages, trees down, traffic lights out, and closed schools and businesses. An early September winter storm created hurricane force winds. The power at the house was out for about eight hours, and we have a tree down in the yard. Much of Anchorage is in the same boat. Score one for Mother Nature in man’s apparent battle for control over nature. Fortunately this power outage came in early September and not the dead of winter, serving as a good consciousness-raising event and needs assessment for future power outages. So this post is both pragmatic and fanciful, covering personal, pragmatic issues related to sudden loss of complexity events and some “what if” questions about the future of digitization. I’m typing this during brownouts and occasional triggers of the generator, which got its first real test last night. We are near a trunk line, with underground power, so our power came back quickly. But close neighbors are not so lucky. Today is woodcutting day, for us and our friends, whether we need the wood or not. So this post may ramble a bit, like my thoughts, between the impacts of events at the larger scale like windstorms and regional blackouts, and personal preparation at the local scale.

As we progress further into descent, we will see more electricity brownouts, blackouts, and other events where there is a sudden failure of complexity, resulting in a shutdown of productivity. This failure of complexity has created a new urban word–“digital snow day.” And since our digital snow day in Anchorage coincided this time with termination dust on the mountains, the name is especially fitting. When we lose complexity suddenly, much of modern life stops, as our subsystems are highly connected. When complexity brownouts occur, what systems will be impacted, and what will some of those snow days look like? Does digitization make the failures worse, with a drop to a lower trophic level than would have occurred without digitization?

We used to live in southern Mississippi, in Hurricane Alley. The locals there were resigned to big winds, and were pragmatically proactive about protecting power lines and the house. Many would cut down all the pine trees in the yard, as pine trees were wont to snap off about 20 feet up in a big windstorm. A tree came down in our yard last night next to the house. Trees that stand together are protected from high winds but once you thin or have isolated trees, they are hit with the full impact of a storm and are vulnerable. The Venturi effect also creates vulnerability, as wind is funneled around rigid structures such as buildings that do not sway with the wind. What might have been harmless in a yielding natural system is magnified and made deadly in a man-made system ill adapted to flexibility in the face of the larger scale impacts. Beach groins, dams, and channelization of rivers are similar examples of the dangers of inflexibility. These physical principles have lessons to teach us about the importance of community and flexibility in descent. We recycled the branches into a brush pile at the back of the property. Our command and control neighbors don’t like our brush pile, but it keeps biomass on the property and helps to create a complete ecosystem, with homes for voles, ermine, rabbits, and other small consumers.

Alaskans are able; we loaned out both of our come-alongs before 9 am Wednesday morning. One friend with no backup source of heat was already reevaluating her situation for the winter. Another friend called around to find freezer space for her salmon stock. Much of the communication occurred via cell phone and Facebook–those without either cell phone connectivity or internet access were isolated. One acquaintance admitted to driving around in her car so that she could charge her cell phone. Our social reliance on the digital world may be our worst Achilles heel. A friend complains that if she lost her cell phone, she would be in trouble, since she no longer memorizes or writes down phone numbers. As more and more communication shifts to digital means, we hollow out face to face relationships and old ways of doing, such as analog address books, land lines, and snail mail. We don’t have to talk to neighbors anymore, talking instead to friends around the globe. If digital communication fails, our local support systems lack history and a basis in habit to support trust and resilience during times of stress.

A nursing friend recently had a digital snow day. And when the digital snow day occurs in intensive care, it is a bad day. The computer systems went down together in the hospital early in the day, stopping all work. Pharmacists couldn’t access the drugs, orders couldn’t be placed, lab-work couldn’t be processed, and notes couldn’t be written. Because all the systems were interconnected, they all went down, and the systems couldn’t be easily rebooted. Paper alternatives existed, but did not work as there were too many complexities of returning to the old system. Patients did not get any medications, because nurses are now required to scan all medications using a bar code scanner system, and pharmacists use several computerized dispensing and cross-checking systems. Nurses went home in tears, as most of their responsibilities were thwarted. Chaos ensued, and patient care was inadequate. My friend charted on the electronic medical record the next day, when systems resumed function.

Hospitals are one of the worst places for power outages. Intensive care units have red power receptacles that will supply generator power for essential equipment such as ventilators. But what happens to the many other operations of a hospital in a blackout? What happens when your essential people are trapped on an elevator, and patients cannot be transported downstairs for diagnostic tests? Or employees cannot come and go, or wash their hands adequately, or a myriad of other essential tasks in a hospital? It is hard to put complexity in reverse and back down.

Science fiction? No, this is an event happening all over the US, now that we have digitized many aspects of healthcare. The same sort of paralysis could happen in many other digitized forms of modern life. Consider some of the many existing forms of complexity created by reliable electricity and the added complexity of digitization:

  • Reliance on electricity for moving resources, people, and wastes in urban settings
  • Digitization of communication systems through cable, internet and cellphones–landlines and public telephones are increasingly rare
  • Digitization of books and journals, with storage and retrieval issues
  • Digitization of photos
  • Digitization of journalism as the newspapers switch to the internet
  • Digitized commerce through RFID, cash register systems, payroll systems, time clocks, and inventory systems with just-in-time vulnerabilities
  • Digitization of money through credit and debit cards, Bitcoin, ATMs
  • Digitization of stock markets through securitized assets, exchange traded funds, and other complex derivative trading systems that are only achievable through computerization
  • Digitization of clocks, ignition systems for furnaces, and other appliances
  • Data storage and retrieval for large internet commerce and financial companies (is the cloud one step too far?)
  • Distance delivery education and digital libraries–how many of our university libraries have dropped paper journals and books in their transition to electronic media?
  • Digital security and civil defense systems such as municipal safety 911, and warning systems at the personal, municipal, and national levels (who has a windup radio these days?)
  • Digital voting systems such as Diebold
  • Transportation system coordination (traffic lights, trains, buses, airport traffic control, runway lights and beacons, ticket systems, TSA, and electric power for gas stations)
  • Digitization of records such as mortgage deeds (MERS robosigning scandal)
  • Digitization of music–in the digital era, you cannot easily share or bequeath your music collection, and if formats change, your collection is subject to instant obsolescence
  • Digitization of electricity, especially in security and stability of smart grids
  • Digitization of social relationships through reality games such as Second Life, smart phones, Facebook communications, messaging, and other digital relationships
  • Global networks (trade, missile defense, satellites)

If there is a human institution in life, we are rapidly creating a simulacrum online. We work, we shop, we love, and we connect online. Digital reality can hollow out our real lives and the real economy, so that digital interruptions create vulnerabilities and gaps. Those connected and vested in a digital second life are part of our information storm, separated from reality and vulnerable to events that decrease complexity.

Vulnerabilities from added levels of complexity

Odum, 1995, p. 24

Trophic levels are descriptions of organisms’ position in the energy hierarchy through their positions in the food chain. But what people do not realize is that trophic levels extend from natural ecosystems on into human economies, as higher and higher amounts of energy and other resources are transformed to build added complexity (see an example of this hierarchy in a figure at the end of the post). If we consider human economies as complex extensions of the food chain, then electricity and transmitted cultural information yield higher trophic levels that have undergone a series of energy-using transformations that exert top-down control in regulating productivity. Information is one of the most highly embodied forms of energy, and high transformity digital information can be shared over a large territory with global impact. Odum was especially concerned about the long-term storage of information in a digital age. How many of these digitized formats have paper backups that are relatively secure for the long-term in an increasingly chaotic world?

Tom Abel – a simple visualisation of a hierarchy of world energy from an anthropological perspective, including human trophic levels. Does this “food chain” look stable?

We think that added complexity improves and makes systems secure. But when the entire system insists on a steady flow of energy, any wobble in energy production, either directly through electricity or indirectly through connected parts of the system such as drought, can create instability. When almost all subsystems of our economy rely on electricity and increasingly on computerization, then failures cascade and the system grinds to a halt. Over-reliance on two different levels of complexity, electric power and the more complex, demanding high emergy complexity of the internet creates instability if it fails. Extended internet outages could be a mechanism for one or more lost trophic levels of complexity.

Digitization allows for centralized control and potential manipulation, hacking, and other security issues, as demonstrated in some trading schemes and Diebold voting machines, for example. Information systems that grow and change too fast do not allow the legal system to keep up with inequities and problems. Digitization can be an excuse for planned obsolescence, with the need to buy the same music or book in a different format with little added value. We are sure that more technology and more complexity is always an improvement, but when resource inputs fail, vulnerabilities cascade. Technology requires increasing amounts of energy for every step in added complexity.

Technology is a double-edged sword, with our over-reliance on consistent operation as an Achilles heel. Exploding transformers in a windstorm create fires. Nuclear power plants without power are at risk of meltdown. Online courseware and e-textbooks fail. Infrastructure that expects electric power as a given creates safety hazards when inner rooms of larger buildings become completely dark. Newer university buildings have digital classrooms with lock-down features–what happens to those in an outage? Students said that many doors in their dorms use electronic key readers. They were stuck in their dorms on lock down because they could not come or go easily, with finger foods to eat since the complex electronic ignition gas stoves in the cafeteria did not work either. One wit in my class said that the unintended lockdown was probably a good idea, because, “at least it kept the Zombies out.” Tall buildings that are taller than four stories rely on electric power for elevators and plumbing to move people, resources, and wastes up and down. Fixed windows mandate a controlled climate demanding heating and air conditioning. In a world with variable power, we will need to either abandon or rethink these buildings. Our engineers have a blindspot about the reliability of electric power in the future.

What we need are low-tech or down-sizing specialists, who consider and prepare backup systems for some of our high-tech organizations. In my nursing friend’s case, that hospital needs a resilience committee to begin decomplexifying their systems. At the very point in our complex economy when we should be making choices to simplify overly complex systems, we are going for broke with one last step into digitization of systems that is difficult to step down from, even on a short-term basis.

Rombouts et al., 2013: Trophic level connectivity before and after stress with depletion of higher level species

I started collecting manual appliances about ten years ago. I try to avoid acquiring things that have an electric plug. Students said that they had cans, but no manual can opener. Friends this morning found that they could not grind their morning coffee, use their cell phones, open their small businesses, get gas for their car, or flush their toilets if they were on wells, at least on a local level. My friend without the coffee rescued her habit when she remembered that she had powdered commercial coffee and a camp stove. But that is a short-term fix, reliant on storages of imported, commercially prepared foods with a long shelf life from big companies. When outages are patchy geographically or temporally, community can accommodate losses, especially when the community has adequate storages. But when outages are uniformly broad over a geographic space or over long periods of time, trouble arises and behaviors rapidly fall back to a lower trophic level. In the example of the hospital network failure, my friend was able to finish her charting the next day. But in a long-term outage, the system would have to adapt to a lower trophic level of complexity in a hurry. Another example of this was one of the many hurricanes that hit south Florida in 2004. Many gas stations were closed, since gas stations cannot pump gas without electricity. Friends spent all day waiting in a line to get gasoline to run their generator. Our friends found that the time spent in long lines was better spent working on other problems like downed trees, while adapting to lower energy for basic activities of daily living by skipping the gas-hungry generator, instead using their camp stove and outdoor grill to cook, which only sipped fuel. Attempts to support the higher trophic levels of complexity fail over time as we try to sustain complexity when the power wanes.

swiped from financialarmageddon.com, Bernanke as a child, click for full effect

Monetary digitization is especially vulnerable. It is much easier to trade globally and control the system when your money is digital. In a crisis, printing digital money is easier and faster than devaluing paper money, and switching to a new currency could be seamless and helpful for those in control, but not for affected people who might lose out in conversion of currencies. If we were forced to rely on paper money alone, could we have built the level of complexity in securitized assets, derivatives, and global financial complexity that we now see?

After a while, failure of the internet becomes unthinkable. But we need to think the unthinkable, as the internet is not a permanent, growing, expanding aspect of a future with fewer resources. Ironically, this week, I updated WordPress and an interaction with a plug-in in the update locked me out of the website. I had to cut the complexity by deleting all fancy bell-and-whistle plug-ins, at least temporarily. While not actually degrading information directly, successive iterations of improvement (tape player, 8 track, personal music player, ipod, iphone, beta/vhs, dvd, blu-ray) destroys information by demanding growth and expansion of the system with each improvement, making old information storage defunct and demanding continued investment while companies have mandates for growth, creating a mandate to always innovate, whether the innovation adds any value or not. Are we at the limits of information, when adding value becomes counter-productive?

At this point, iterations of improvement are derivative. Eventually the derivatives are piled on more derivatives so that profits can continue, becoming so far removed from reality that they become unstable and unsupportable by the resources. Complexity of information creates instability and errors. Complexity collects until it reaches the limits of resource availability. Descent will be complicated by the volume and interconnected nature of complexity that needs to be maintained for a large, concentrated population that is heavily reliant on just-in-time processes. Waste products of our complex civilization such as environmental pollution, swings in weather due to climate change, and accumulation of waste, information errors, and decreasing infrastructure and information maintenance will complicate the problems.

Ever increasing complexity cannot be supported in a lower energy world. Where do we draw the line and begin to make choices for a simpler society? The time is now for people to develop less complex backup systems, in response to a message sent by blackouts and disaster preparedness memes. At some point in the future, those simpler backup systems will evolve into the main system, with higher complexity residing in pockets of higher resource availability. As I edit this post on Saturday morning, some people in Anchorage are still without power after four days. I think we got the message here in Anchorage.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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