Book Review - Systems Ultra: Making Sense of Technology in a Complex World by Georgina Voss

Book cover for Systems Ultra.Every technology is a transitional technology. This book makes the case that the complexity of modern technology is, well, complex! Systems are designed by so many people that their outputs are an utter mystery to anyone - even those deeply enmeshed within them.

It is somewhat scattershot - leaping between sextech, payment processors, architecture, and half a dozen other subjects. Each chapter is a worthy examination of a complex technology - but I felt it would have benefited from being a little more focussed.

‘what happens when systems break?’ is that they become visible.

This, I think, is the crux of the book. We don't notice the systems around us until they no longer work. That might be because a power cable is severed, or it might be because we as individuals are rejected from it. There's a long discussion about accepting payment for adult services. It turns out that payment processors who refuse to serve that market aren't making a moral judgement - the economics of constant chargebacks and fraud simply make it unprofitable.

To invent the sailing ship or the steamer is to invent the shipwreck. To invent the family automobile is to produce the pile-up on the highway. Every technology carries its own negativity, which is invented at the same time as technical progress.
- Paul Virilio

Every system creates its own waste-product. To invent Internet tracking is to invent the data breach. To invent the password is to invent the cracker. It was Katherine Myronuk who said "All complex ecosystems have parasites" - but I think it is more pervasive than that. Complex systems have inherent flaws which reveal themselves in disturbing and unexpected ways.

Systems are both structure and behaviour.

If we engage with systems, it is our reaction to them which often shapes how they behave. Technology isn't just action, it must also be reaction.

‘In the future . . .’ is rife at CES. It smooths the gap between the cracked asphalt on the roads outside the convention centre and the promise of new sensor-embedded freeways that autonomous cars can navigate. ‘In the future . . .’ offers a familiar world with the same old culture but now, we have jetpacks.

This is the key misunderstanding that technologists have. We point to the future without ever explaining how on Earth we get there! Transitional technology is everything. And yet, we cannot invent a new system without creating a failure mode with severe ramifications.

The book is a little meandering and could do with some phones to illustrate the subjects it is talking about. But it is certainly an intriguing ramble through the complexity of the modern systems and some of the implications those complexities impose on our future.

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