Monday, April 19, 2010

Failure in the World of Atoms

By now we have probably grown up out of Nicholas Negroponte's Being Digital vision in which the world of bits transcends and trumps the world of atoms; but it seems to be important that we receive periodic reminders, however painful they may be, that atoms still matter. It is all the more important when those reminders come on a global scale, since those like Tom Friedman who evangelize globalization have a tendency to see commerce strictly in terms of the exchange of bits, with atoms playing no more than a peripheral role. From this point of view, both Negroponte and Friedman sorely need the antidote that Ken Auletta prescribed to Google in the context of his cautionary remarks about "bumping into" reality.

The reality in this case is very much in the world of atoms; and it concerns the eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull volcano, which, while showing signs of abating, has created a cloud of ash that continues to cover the better part of Europe. Perhaps the best aspect of this case concerns its impact on aviation and the reaction of Giovanni Bisignani, the head of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), who, in an interview this morning with the BBC, declared the situation "a European embarrassment and... a European mess." Now, in Auletta's terminology, the real "bump" in this situation is between the world of commerce, as represented by IATA, and that of air transport customers. However, this is one of those situations of "mission-critical" decision making; and these days almost all decisions are made through the world of bits, even when they impact the world of atoms.

Bisignani's "mess" stems from the cautionary approach that the European Union (EU) has taken in exercising control over opening European air space to air traffic. The EU is exercising regulatory authority as a matter of safety. The BBC interviewed a jet pilot who had flown through a cloud of volcanic ash over Indonesia and experienced his engines failing, one by one, until none were available to help him bring his craft down safely. (At least we know he survived to tell the tale.) EU air traffic is extremely heavy, moving the atoms of both people and consumable goods (many of them perishable and in need of rapid transport) for the best part of every day of the year. In the world of Negroponte and Friedman, all of this is deftly managed by an even heavier traffic of bits, most of which are moving through the Internet. (I even recall a suggestion from yet another evangelist that, if planes could communicate with each other, they could do a better job of negotiating over runway usage than an air traffic control tower.) However, the world of bits does not really account for the people involved in the process, whether they are flying in the plane or down on the ground in the secure assumption that a plane will not drop out of the sky and fall on them.

From this point of view, Bisignani's outburst basically comes down to frustration because, in this particular situation, the world of atoms just cannot behave the way the world of bits is prescribing. He is right that the situation is a mess, but he wants to resolve the mess by circumventing any regulatory authority and letting the individual airlines make their own decisions about which of its flights are safe enough to resume. This is, to say the least, extremely scary. To take an example of an airline that is trying to exercise its own judgment, if British Airways (BA) were to decide unilaterally that it is safe to resume flights between London and New York, what would United Airlines do? Would it examine the results of the BA test flights? Would it critically review how BA made its decision before accepting its logical soundness? Alternatively, would it quickly follow suit to avoid losing customers to BA?

None of this is to deny the value of bits. It is only a question, as Humpty Dumpty put it to Alice, of "which is to be master." The current crisis over air traffic should remind us that the world of atoms is the proper master, simply because that is our world. Decisions about that world may be facilitated through the world of bits, but we are the ones stuck with the responsibility of deciding whether or not safety is a value to be enforced. The EU seems to have made that decision; and, in so doing, they have recognized and accepted one of the most important principles of governance.

No comments: