Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension

Samuel Arbesman. Current, $23 (256p) ISBN 978-1-59184-776-2
Arbesman (The Half-Life of Facts), a self-described "complexity scientist," presents a new framework for understanding and working with complex technological systems in this thought-provoking treatise. Arbesman argues that technological systems have become so complicated that not even those who design them fully understand how they work, nor do they always know what to do when their systems fail or return unexpected, possibly catastrophic results. He illustrates this through numerous examples of flaws or breaks in increasingly sophisticated systems such as traffic control, the stock market, machine translation, and medical devices. Despite the damage caused by bugs in programs and other system defects, they are valuable in that they reveal components of the technology at work. Arbesman proposes that programmers and designers approach technological complexity with the mindset of naturalists, who study the natural world by cataloging its variety. By treating failures or glitches in the system as by-products of the evolution of complexity, he says, we can predict paths to new technology and better prepare for the unintentional consequences. Arbesman moves confidently through his layered argument in smooth, clear prose. He convincingly conveys the relevancy of the subject to all types of industries, but his book will mostly appeal to readers interested in the theoretical component of computer science. (July)
Reviewed on: 06/20/2016
Release date: 07/19/2016
Genre: Nonfiction
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