Bridge Collapses and Failed States
Stephen Wolfram looks at the Minnesota bridge collapse -- and bridge failures in general -- in the abstract. Wolfram makes the point that certain mathematically optimal structures don't look simple at all. The strongest bridges, he argues, may not look it all.
But it's been known for a while that the best networks (shown at the bottom) don't have that kind of simple structure. In fact, they almost seem in some ways quite random. Well, what about bridges? I strongly suspect that there are much better truss structures for bridges than the classic ones from the 1800s--but they won't look so simple. ...
So what should the bridges of the future look like? Probably a lot less regular than today. Because I suspect the most robust structures will end up being ones with quite a lot of apparent randomness.
Those new kinds of bridges being built may be a bit shocking at first. After all, classic regular bridge structures--and things like the Eiffel Tower--are icons of our modern engineering-based civilization. And in fact, even biology--with its iterative process of natural selection--probably can't find structures as good--and irregular--as the ones I expect are out there.
It may be that history will show that one of the reasons the US did so poorly early in Iraq was because it labored under a mental structure with rigidities that facilitated failure. That contrary to conventional wisdom the fundamental problem with the Administration was that it had a plan -- but the plan was the wrong one. While I am not arguing against the utility of timelines and exit strategies in general, I have always wondered how applicable they were in complex situations. Anybody who expects events to develop according to a scheduled timeline and plan will be very lucky indeed. Every time I hear a politician citing some newspaper clipping to prove "the failure" to achieve a predetermined outcome I sometimes think that the citation itself is proof of intellectual failure of a different but more basic kind, one of which the politician is blissfully unaware.
What is really useful in complex situations is a loose kind of algorithm that will enable the decision maker to understand what is important, within a given period, and allow him to choose paths to an improved situation. Stephen Wolfram is of course, investigating physical and mathematical structures and I do not mean to translate his arguments directly into the messier human world. But being able to discern see the real information structure beneath the apparent randomness strikes me as a key skill. Otherwise we see, but don't really see at all; we plan but only to achieve our prejudices.