Friday, February 5, 2010

When the Blue Screen of Death Really Means Death

The Blue Screen of Death. Even Mac users know what this means. It means that you have a problem. The problem may be small, or it may be big. You may have lost some time, or you may have lost a piece of your soul.

Why the seeming inevitability of the Blue Screen? Because computer code is complex. New programs interact with old programs, and with the operating system, in ways that are all-but- impossible to anticipate. The only way to find out for sure what will work and what won't is to try things out. (Ergo the concept of the Beta version.) When you try things out, sometimes they don't work right. When that happens... BSoD.

Now here's how another computer user experienced the Blue Screen of Death (from today's NYT):

It was a Saturday afternoon, April 19, 2008, and [Guadalupe] Alberto, a 77-year-old former autoworker, was driving her 2005 Toyota Camry. Within blocks of her home, witnesses told police, the car accelerated out of control, jumped a curb and flew through the air before crashing into a tree.

Mrs. Alberto was killed instantly, leaving her family stunned at how such an accident could happen to someone who was in good health, never had a speeding ticket and so hated driving fast that she avoided taking the freeway.

Her car was not among the millions of Camry models and other Toyotas recently recalled for sticky accelerator pedals. And it also did not have floor mats at the time, which were part of a separate recall.

Instead, the crash is now being looked at as a possible example of problems with the electronic system that controls the throttle and engine speed in Toyotas.

Mrs. Alberto was not aware she was using a computer when she left her home. But she was. Any automobile built in the last decade has computing power comparable to... a personal computer. In today's world, computing power is ubiquitous. The water from your faucet? The power in your home? These and more infrastructure services are brought to you by "supervisory control and data acquisition" systems--referred to by professionals as "SCADA" systems--the category of software that runs the background programs for everyday life in industrialized countries. (If you're interested in that sort of stuff, you might want to check out this... and if you're really a glutton for punishment, this.)

Recognizing that society's operating system = computers + the built environment + people, the BSoD itself becomes a ubiquitous metaphor. The Challenger and Columbia crashes. The Northeast power blackout. Katrina. All BSoD phenomena in one way or another.

Now let's get back to the Blue Screen we started with--the one on your computer. How do you deal with it? We all know that the only way to deal with the BSoD is to expect it to happen, to prepare accordingly, and to get good at recovering rapidly. In other words, you need to be resilient. After all, what good is weeks, months, or years of efficient, productive work if it all gets lost in one Blue Screen. Ask Akio Toyoda.

The 20th century was all about growth. Not the 21st. For communities, businesses, and nations, resilience is the quality that matters most.

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