Redundancy | March 1998

FMBR Editorial: March, 1998


Marshall Pease

As I write this, I am doing it by hand, having been without power for almost a week, the result of the storms which have besieged us lately. In addition, I am somewhat concerned that the main road out of my area is being threatened by what is normally a creek but has become a torrent. There is a secondary road but, in the best of times, it is little more than a farm road. What it is now I can only imagine. What impresses me about all this, however, is not the hardship, but its lack! While the situation is somewhat of a nuisance, it is really nothing more.

People elsewhere have faced real loss and hardship. For some it has been truly a disaster. Yet even as we sympathize with them, we should find it astonishing how few they are. This is why their situations find the headlines. I think of what would have happened under similar conditions even a hundred or so years ago if the area had been as densely populated as now. Then it would have been a disaster for massive numbers of people as they faced starvation, exposure and other major threats. Even today comparable storms are disasters in many of the less developed countries.

The reason why the storm has been little more than a nuisance for most is the substantial degree of redundancy in our society. Some of it is deliberate, the result of planning against known possibilities. A notable example I have witnessed is the yeoman work of the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. in rebuilding the local power network. (It required putting in poles and stringing new wires along the aforementioned main road into here, all accomplished in a few days after the town's officials gave their consent.) Other uses of the redundancy have involved improvisations -- people and institutions finding effective ways to respond to what has often been a totally unexpected need. A notable example in the recent news has been the successful effort to rescue a horse which had fallen down a bank into a stream turned river.

For improvisation to be possible, the resources must be there. These resources must not be those essential to life in normal situations, otherwise they could not be diverted to the sudden and unexpected need. Therefore, they must be normally unused or at least under-used resources leading to significant inefficiency under ordinary circumstances. Perhaps this essay should be titled "In Praise of Inefficiency!"

A recognized engineering principle is that, in order to make a system "fail-safe," it must be over-designed with more and better components than needed for ordinary "cost-effectiveness." In this sense, it must be inefficient. Inefficiency is not necessarily good; it can in fact not only be wasteful but can even reduce reliability. But it does mean reliability always violates cost-effectiveness vis-a-vis normal conditions.

Human societies, particularly the more advanced ones, have considerable resilience meeting unexpected environmental stresses and misfortunes. Indeed, a case can be made that the driving force behind the development of societies in general has been mankind's need for just such protection against the unknown. Perhaps this is the genius of humanity -- that it knows when and how to be inefficient.

Marshall Pease

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