(No, this post is not about sex…sorry. Nor is it about electrical engineering, though it might at first give that impression.)
The often-interesting General Electric blog has an article about drones, linked to a cloud-based AI platform, which are used to inspect power lines and detect incipient problems–for example, vegetation which is threatening to encroach on the lines and short them out, or a transformer with a tendency to overheat. The article mentions a 2003 event in which an encounter between an overgrown tree branch and a sagging power line resulted in a wide-area blackout that affected 50 million people.
The inspection drone sounds like a very useful and productivity-improving tool: obviously, inspecting thousands of miles of power lines is nontrivial job. But the deeper issue, IMO, is the fact that one problem in one place can propagate over such a wide area and affect such a vast number of people. Power system designers and the people who operate these systems are certainly aware of the need to minimize fault propagation: circuit breakers and fuses, network analysis tools, and the technologies of protective relaying were developed, by GE among others, precisely for reasons of fault localization. But experience shows that large-scale fault propagation still sometimes does take place.
This problem is not limited to electrical systems. The mention of the tree-branch-caused 2003 blackout reminded me of a passage from the historian Hendrik Willem Van Loon:
Unfortunately in the year 1914 the whole world was one large international workshop. A strike in the Argentine was apt to cause suffering in Berlin. A raise in the price of certain raw materials in London might spell disaster to tens of thousands of long-suffering Chinese coolies who had never even heard of the existence of the big city on the Thames. The invention of some obscure Privat-Dozent in a third-rate German university would often force dozens of Chilean banks to close their doors, while bad management on the part of an old commercial house in Gothenburg might deprive hundreds of little boys and girls in Australia of a chance to go to college.
This probably overstates the interconnectedness of the global economy as it existed in 1914, but would fit our present-day global economy very well. (The author was talking about the origins of WWI, which he blamed largely on economic interconnectedness…not correct, IMO, but the war was largely caused, or at least reached the scale that it did, because of another type of interconnectedness…in the shape of alliances.)
I think much of the reaction against globalization is due to a realization, often-subconscious, that coupling can have bad effects as well as good ones…especially, a feeling that events are beyond the control of those who are most affected by them and have instead passed under the control of those with no “skin in the game”, to use Nassim Taleb’s terminology.
The advantages of interconnectedness are real: in the case of power grids, heavy loads in one location can be picked up by generators located in areas where loads are light–and local generator failures can be backed up by the entire grid. In the case of food supply, crop failures in one country are far less-devastating than they once were. A recent article on coffee described the complicated worldwide supply chain that is involved in bringing you your morning cup, ending with these words:
Globalization has downsides, and these Indiana steelworkers might be a casualty. But free trade has been a great boon to humanity. The global poverty rate has fallen, lifespans have jumped. Consumers have been given access to a dizzying variety of goods. As the Stanford economics professor Russ Roberts says, “We already tried ‘Buy local.’ It’s called the Middle Ages.”
That closing quote, though, ignores lots of other distinctions between medieval food supply and that of the present day…better fertilizers, irrigation, crossbreeding of plants, the use of power equipment, and lots else. Looking beyond agriculture at the statements about the declines in poverty rates, the longer lifespans, the availability of more consumer goods, it would be ridiculous to credit all of this to trade while ignoring mass production, steam and electric power, railroads, antibiotics, etc.
And while the advantages of interconnectedness are real, so are the disadvantages. Easy travel between countries facilitates the spread of epidemics…easy immigration can facilitate the spread of toxic cultural values as well as beneficent ones. Globalization of the food supply means that an American political decision to turn corn into ethanol causes food prices to go up for low-income people in countries far away. Globalization of manufacturing means that Chinese wage rates have a big impact on wage rates in Michigan and Indiana. And, in general, interconnectedness tends to take control out of the hands of those most affected and place control in the hands of those to whom the matter in question is more abstract.
The key to establishing and running resilient systems is the ability to benefit from interconnectedness while limiting the propagation of failures throughout the system. This issue does not appear to be well-understood by our political class.
I’ve read several stories about police being called to deal with extremely bad…even dangerous…behavior of schoolkids. The pattern seems to be that teachers and administrators are prohibited or at least strongly discouraged from doing anything about disruptive and hostile behavior…suspensions, expulsions, and the like…until it becomes so bad as to be a matter for the cops. Reminds me of those idiots who used to respond to a blown fuse by putting a penny in the fusebox, thereby keeping their toaster toasting, but possibly burning their houses down.
In our society today, we have by analogy too often not only put pennies in the fuseboxes, but have also bypassed the high-voltage circuit breakers that protect the transmission and distribution lines.
Finishing up this post, I see that GE has another piece on power grid protection, this one dealing with the problems of stability and the minimization of failure propagation. It gives some idea of the complexity of the issue…and this system, unlike economic and social systems, is largely deterministic.