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For the last century or so, technology has been a great driving force behind many global economic growth. Businesses have seen technology as a pathway to success and profits. The recent unexplained behavior of some Toyota cars with electronic throttle controls calls this belief into question. While many of us see technology as something that brings predictability and comfort into our lives and have a great deal of faith in it, there is also another side to technology: that of unexpected consequences and uncertainty.
The sociologist Charles Perrow pointed out several decades ago that “tightly-coupled” systems were prone to unanticipated failures as the result of the close proximity of many sensitive and interactive parts. Examples include Chernobyl, Three-Mile Island, and the Space Shuttle Challenger disasters. Then, in the 80’s and 90’s, chaos theory and fractal geometry showed us that highly complex systems are likely to experience unintended consequences as a result of the non-linear interactions that erupt in many types of “non-equilibrium” systems (i.e., weather, living things). In certainly could be argued that modern automobiles, while not quite living things, are also tightly-coupled systems that are sometimes subject to non-linear behavior.