We love to be in control, and nowhere do we become more obsessed with control than in the world of systems and automation. Once we’ve drawn the system boundary we can happily work in a world of our own. People can be a problem but if they are kept away – the other side of a human-computer interface – control can be maintained.
But not everything can be controlled. Navigation tools have always just been means to enable a skilled person to perform a wee bit better in a chaotic world. Knowing your own location and having a map helps enormously but does not make the wind blow in the right direction, keep the storms away or ward off pirates.
But we have become used to controllable worlds. The staggering thing about Amazon is that the mouse-click on “buy” is followed by the parcel arriving the next day. But this is the exception not the rule. Most of life is not like this.
Take the recent terrorist attack in Manchester. The attitude of the press and apparently much of the population is that for such things to happen there must have been a failure. Something must have broken. It must be someone’s fault. But when you look at the world of security and intelligence you realise that – as in the case of navigation – computer systems and processes are just tools to be used by skilled people in a hard-to-control environment. Of course there has to be an enquiry and lessons learned. Improvements will be made but don’t expect the world to be much more controllable as a result.
Nowhere is the “everything is controllable” myth stronger than in business. The recent failure of a British Airways IT system is a case in point. Much of running a business is controllable which is why dependence on IT systems has become very high. But it’s easy to become obsessed with making a system reliable to the exclusion of any thought about what happens when it breaks, as BA have just discovered. All systems break. Ironically, many of the “non-business” bits of BA still have a healthy respect for how much of life is uncontrollable which is why it remains one of the world’s safest airlines.
So come to “Urban Wayfinding and the Brain” on June the 14th. Here the system boundary has been drawn around the uncontrollable. There is no human computer interface; the people are on the inside. This is real systems engineering. One day all systems will be designed this way.
Urban Wayfinding and the Brain: 14 June. UCL, London. “How neuroscience solves human navigation problems”.