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New Technology and The Number Three
Why new technology can be dangerous and how time and experience can transform it into reliable infrastructure
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(fredness), September 2000

Elsewhere
  • WHY THINGS BITE BACK
    by Edward Tenner,
    Technology and the revenge
    of unintended consequences

So what does the number three have to do with technology and infrastructure? Under the best circumstance it takes at least three simultaneous systems to prove that a new technology can be made reliable. These systems breakdown loosely into the into the following three categories:

  1. Primary Infrastructure - optimized reliable technology
    the bit that you know you can rely on. You're reasonably sure that it won't get wet doing the job you need it to do. You know its limitation/no nos for. You know its idiosyncrasies for functions that you need it to do but which require peculiar work arounds/don't do thats
  2. Backup - backup reliable technology
    the bit you know you can rely on if something stupid happens to your primary (like you spilled water on it or lost it)
  3. Evaluation - new technology
    the new fangled bit that could explode of its own accord without you spilling water on it or losing it ... at least until you figure out its peculiar interface, no nos, and don't do thats

Metaphors - cars

Now the car has been an established icon of the 20th century. For over 50 years the basic interface and underlying technology hasn't changed. Why hasn't it changed? Because the car companies and their customers have come to expect cars manufacturers, fuel and service industry to be reliable infrastructure.

A car is reliable if it doesn't break down or run out of fuel. That an industry has grown up out of car owners need for convenient high quality affordable fuel is yet another element of the infrastructure that make cars reliable. Keeping cars from breaking down requires vigilance of the car owner to keep it maintained, or to purchase new when repairs are no longer viable. Servicing a car is simple if it a reasonably common model and/or the vehicle is well understood and has a good records kept about. Usually this is the case with a brand new car - but not necessarily.

My wife and I have three cars. I have a day job that requires daily commutes. My wife has some classes, and other light travel related needs that also require a vehicle. So why three cars?

  1. One that has just been to the shop and is a machine!
  2. Another one that needs to go in the shop in a few weeks for a few known not yet critical issues
  3. One that needs to go/is already at the shop
Now we could get by with just one. However to expect a single car to stay in perfect work order (i.e. to remain in A Machine! state) indefinitely is naive. At best it is going to require an oil change or some other annoying servicing and inevitably it will develop a fault requiring a major servicing (i.e. major logistical pain in the rear!).

Cars are complex. Way too complex for any one individual to expect to be able resolve all but the most simple malfunctions that it can develop.

If it is inevitable that a car will develop a major malfunction that will cause it to be unavailable during a time when its services are needed, then an backup vehicle is the only way to hedge against this. This explains the need for 2 cars. Now my wife and sometime both need the services of a vehicle, ergo two primary vehicles and a backup seems to suffice pretty well. And just in case, if two vehicle simultaneously have major malfunctions, a single vehicle can be time shared until major repairs can be completed.

New Technology = Major Malfunction

If a business, family, or individual is considering switching to new vehicle technology for their transportation needs (say going from car to a flying car!) it behooves them to keep two sets of the well known established technology around while they work the bugs out of the new technology. Ergo, three sets of infrastructure are required to prove out an implementation of new technology.

Ultimately a technology become so established and understood so well that it can be deployed reliably in the field WITHOUT A BACKUP! If a car is brand new, it is reasonable to assume that several months may pass without any required servicing (assuming it is driven safely in a low risk roads). New nylon shoelaces are pretty much indestructible for the first few weeks of heavy backpacking. Concrete and re-bar construction will probably withstand most wear and tear for several decades barring nuclear war or freak asteroid.

New Technology benefiting from the number 3 Technology that should be deployed with at least a single backup Established technology that may be used stand alone
  • automobile with active collision avoidance
  • automobile airbag
  • automobile safety belt
  • CDPD
  • digital cell phone
  • analog cell phone
  • installing a new OS on personal computer for the first time
  • pre-installed OS on personal computer direct from manufacture
  • 1 year or older OS on 1 year or older computer that has been routinely broken down and rebuilt
  • experimental battery technology
  • traditional battery technology (less than 6 months old)
  • brand new tradition battery
  • high performance race car1
  • late model car (2 year old or newer)
  • brand new car (6 months old or newer)
  • all electric automobile2
  • hybrid automobile
  • traditional gasoline/diesel engine
  • velcro
  • grey duct tape
  • nylon boot laces
  • speech recognition
  • optical character recognition
  • keyboard entry
  1. cost/benefit of new race car materials for everyday use
  2. Ubiquitous re-charge infrastructure, non-viable low weight electric batteries

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