The Machine Stops

…is a wonderful short story by E.M. Forster, set in a dystopia where everyone lives underground in little cells and only communicates with others via technology.  On the Friday after Thanksgiving, UC Berkeley’s email, calmail, crashed and has been available in fits and starts at best ever since (for several days only via a web client), with long periods of complete inaccessibility.  As of this evening, it seems to be OK again. All week, I’ve been thinking about that story, and also about an obscure Fuentes novel I read many years ago, La Silla del Aguila, which is set in a Mexico of 2020. Some sort of tiff causes the US to completely shut down all of their electronic communication and computers, so the whole novel is epistolary, in old fashioned letters.

It’s been an interesting lesson in how much we have come to depend on this channel, and on how seriously UC is  undercapitalized (including undermaintained capital) generally. Here’s our CIO with the story (he starts at about 24:00 of the whole video).

The whole campus is about 30,000 people.  If our time is worth $20/hr on the average, and we all waste an hour because of some tech failure, that’s $600,000.  Not having email, having to get and send my mail through a web client instead of downloading it in batches to Outlook, temporarily moving my communications to gmail and try to figure out how to reach other people for whom I only had a calmail address, and related kludging over the ten days certainly wasted at least four hours of my time. If I had been traveling, I would have been unable to download a batch of mail to read and reply to on the plane, so for at least some of us, there’s several hours lost right away.  If I’m typical, that’s more than $2m gone up in smoke, not to mention that we’re probably spending as much again fixing the damn thing.

It seems we dodged an asteroid: no mail was lost, just delayed. But what if a few days of mail had been trashed? I can’t link this breakdown directly to our big Operational Excellence cost-cutting project, but it does illustrate the overall effort by our citizens to teach the government horse to live on one less tablespoon of oats a day.

Read the Forster story.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

3 thoughts on “The Machine Stops”

  1. This is one of the repeatedly-unlearned lessons of the past few decades: infrastructure organizations can impose costs on everyone else far out of proportion to their own budgets or capitalization. It happens in traffic jams every day, it’s what happened in the bank meltdown, and the only good thing about the cal experience seems to be that the mail operation wasn’t outsourced, because then the liability costs would have shut the system down entirely.

  2. Shades of what is happening with US postal mail service as we speak. First class postage is no guarantee of speedy delivery. In this day and age of immediate communications of all forms, why is the postal service the only corner of the government that has to be self-sufficient on a stand-alone basis?

  3. Curious: they try to impose that on Amtrak too, more or less. Congress basically keeps it barely breathing.

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