16 July 2022

Looking back to move forward

Trusting machines, rational magic and the illusion of simplicity

There is magic all around us, driven by technologies, tools, systems and processes that make human quality of life easier, faster and more enjoyable.

On this particular day, I found myself sitting an aisle seat on a plane in the final stages of preparation for take-off. Given the limited view of the external world from that position, my mind started to wander towards paying particular attention to all that was happening on the inside of the aircraft. This felt a little odd, as most people around me were either staring deeply into their electronics or had their heads cocked and at the ready for some rest.

What kept me interested in that moment was to notice how wide the spectrum of visual and audio inputs actually was, something I probably would have glossed over if not for the aisle seat. The visual inputs consisted of stoic facial expressions, vibrating sections of plastic around the cabin, the video-like appearance of the static landscape outside as they crossed the aperture of the tiny windows. For the latter, there was the thunder-like roar of horsepower from the jet engines, more aftereffects of vibrating bits everywhere and the whining sound of electrical motors turning over — all coalescing into the overarching noise I came to label as ‘airplane noise’.

Within that noise, it was the symptoms of vibration within the cabin that was the most unsettling. This was the trigger that prompted the question of, ‘what if things were to go terribly wrong and today was my last day?’

Strangely, there was no immediate sense of anger, frustration or regret, but instead a feeling of acceptance. I realised that my life was completely in the hands of the aircraft and the people who were piloting the machine, and that there was literally next to nothing I could do to alter or influence that fact — as an individual sitting on that aisle seat.

I also realised that the moment of decision had long since passed. When I chose to step foot onto the aircraft and enter the cabin, I had implicitly decided to put my trust in the pilots and the machine, in exchange for expedient transportation from where I was towards where I needed to go.

Putting trust within sophisticated, complicated machines is something we do implicitly in every day life, and it was interesting to notice how my instinctive reaction in that moment was to think only about all the near-infinite ways of how things could potentially go wrong.

What if, the hydraulic lines leak and the pilot loses the ability to maneuver the aircraft?

What if, the broad sheets of seemingly thin metal of the wings were past their end-of-service-life and were to mechanically fail?

What if, the engines lose access to their stores of chemical energy?

And the list goes on and on.

Then I asked myself, ‘But what if things went right?’

What if, the plane continues to perform predictably in the hands of a competent pilot and arrives to the destination on time? This is the implicit chasm of trust that we all have to cross whenever we make use of technologies around us — most of which we will never reach any meaningful level of understanding of how they actually work but yet are able to reap maximal benefit from what they deliver towards improving quality of life.

This does not necessarily mean that it is not possible to, but my wager is on the side of technology versus the individual human — the sheer quantity of technologies that are necessary to support the modern life of a human being is already sufficiently staggering, the depths of how they work even more so. If you are trying to grasp the nuance of each and every component that makes up the stack, I wish you well.

An analogy that I regularly come back to is in contrasting the population size of ‘big’ cities around the world with the megacities. Off the top of my head, a ‘big’ city would have a population anywhere between 2–10 million — this range would include the all-star ones like Sydney, Singapore, Hong Kong, London and New York. Then, there are places like Tokyo, Shanghai and Delhi, the megacities, that host populations between 10–40 million people. If we just maintain a high level analysis of what these flat numbers actually could look like down on the ground and on the streets, just imagine what the basic utility networks would have to look like — in terms of food, water, electricity, gas and wastewater — to support such population numbers on any one day.

“Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking of them.”

— Alfred Whitehead

Abstraction is important, as it allows us to build towards greater and greater things on top of what was done previously, but there are times when it can be useful to divert away from blindly trusting the machine. That there are rational means for building one’s capacity to trust monolith-looking machines and to operate better in the grey, and one way to do this is by trying to understand a little bit more about how these technologies have been built up over time to get to where they are today.

Why is that? It is harder to trust things that you cannot perceive, understand or experience first hand. So the first step is to ask the basic questions and to work towards seeing the things, before asking higher and higher quality questions to dig deeper into the stack. Previously in ‘Layer cake’, I had used the analogy of cars to explore the idea that it is easier to understand how a car fundamentally works by looking at a race car than by looking at a typical family sedan — the idea that technologies start off in the beginning as simple, isolated, repeatable mechanisms, and become more and more useful, accessible and complicated over time.

When I say ‘airplane’, what are the first few words that come to mind?

For me, I think of the words:

  • Aerofoil
  • Jet turbine
  • Fuel injection
  • Pilot
  • Rudders

This list is by no means comprehensive and, if anything, only a tiny fraction of the many components that make an ‘airplane’ an airplane. This is the result of how far I have gotten in terms of ‘what I can perceive’ when looking at an airplane, which is not very far at all really. But at the same time, it is also a sufficient level of understanding to have some confidence to hold against the ambiguous fear of trusting a monolith-looking machine.

  • “Trust the machine” -> “Trust aerofoils”
  • “Trust the machine” -> “Trust solenoids”
  • “Trust the machine”-> “Trust hydraulic actuation”

This also reinforces the original point: that there is magic all around us, working silently behind the scenes and murmuring in the ‘airplane noise’, which enables us to make full use of material things without necessarily having to understand the entire scope of ‘how it works’ from back to front.

There is downside, of course, to this ever expanding scope of utilisation that comes with better and better technologies over time, which is the oxymoronic empirical behaviour encapsulated by the following statement: ‘the simpler and more elegant something looks on the outside, the more complicated and messier things are behind the scenes.’

Sitting in the aisle seat of an airplane and seamlessly getting transported from point A to point B in a fraction of the time that other means of travel would take is the unveiling, the luxurious final product, the prime time performance. It is the few that know and understand the rigorous maintenance schedules, the hairy electrical faults, the greasy hands and late night troubleshooting that such a performance demands from the people that work behind-the-scenes.

The world is always full of the sound of waves. The little fishes, abandoning themselves to the waves, dance and sing and play, but who knows the heart of the sea, a hundred feet down? Who knows it’s depth?

— Eiji Yoshikawa