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The2ndWheel Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Mar-09-11 07:41 AM
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Good complexity, bad complexity

"Its been a season of mechanical breakdowns here this winter. The batteries for our solar PV system started acting up this past Fall, and the condition has steadily deteriorated so that now theyre only holding a charge for about a day. Off-grid systems like ours are sized to provide five days of charge without sun in winter, so this is a drop in capacity of 80%pretty dramatic. Weve lived with solar for eight years; the golf cart batteries we started off with lasted the full five years they were designed for. So I figured for our next set we were ready for the newer, more powerful, and better batteries that are supposed to last twelve years. Theyre now three years old. Then a month ago our laptop suddenly stopped working. The computer tech I took it to was able to save our data, but he said the laptop was beyond repair. I bought another used one on e-bay. Two days ago the 4-wheel drive on my truck stopped working while I was driving up the driveway of a client to deliver a door.

A solar PV system, a computer, and a truck are all complex systems. As technological systems grow in complexity, the opportunities for failure of the whole system increase. I dont know which component of the computer failed, but when it did the computer stopped being a computer and became a waste disposal problem. When the batteries of the solar PV system lost 80% of their effectiveness, the entire system lost its effectiveness by an almost equal amountit still works at 100% only when the sun is shining. The truck runs, but with ice and snow still on back roads, it is useless going up hills and dangerous going down them or around curves. Both the truck and solar PV system will require an input of additional resources to fix. This is true of technological complexity generally. It solves a problem, but only at the cost of ongoing inputs of resources and energy.

Complex technologies also have the additional problem of unintended consequences. The automobile, one of the most pervasive and probably the most transformative technology of the twentieth century, provides a dramatic example. For while it solved the problem of personal transportation over large distances, the additional problems it has left in its wake are legion and in most cases intractable: automobiles have devastated landscapes; resulted in 40,000 American deaths on average every year for the past forty years; require in total more oil than the country has had available domestically since the 1970s; require an infrastructure of roads and highways that costs billions of dollars every year to maintain; have contributed more than any other single factor to global warming; and require an ongoing program of mining and drilling that must continue forever or until we are forced by the inevitable resource depletion to abandon the project altogether."
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GliderGuider Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Mar-09-11 08:34 AM
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1. Excellent, succinct statement of the underlying issue. K&R
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