I don't believe in astrology, but this week I saw a celestial event influence the lives of millions. Of course, the event was the failure of a man-made body, the Galaxy 4 satellite, not the conjunction of natural ones.
The question that has raised to many is "are we too dependent on technology?" As usual, I think it's the wrong one. The real question is "do we understand how we depend on technology?"
People use tools, and the newest ones always bring the expectation of revolutionary change. Tools are tools. They make some things easier, and some things harder. People who expect tools that only change their routines in positive ways are due for a bolt from the heavens. And it'll probably hit their pager satellite.
So let's talk pagers. If your pager is a convenience, this outage was no big deal. You missed a couple calls, but if that were critical, then your pager wasn't a convenience. The folks who are up in arms are the ones who were using their pagers for critical applications without a backup plan. If you missed a critical call because the pager failed, I've got a truth you don't want to hear: it's your fault, because you didn't understand how you depended on your pager.
There are three things to consider with respect to failure when you adopt a tool.
- What are the consequences of failure? If they're important, you probably need a backup plan. If not, relax and buy that pager.
- What can cause a failure? What you'd really like to know is how likely one is, but that information is hard to come by. Find out what you can about the system; someone selling you a tool who can't tell you how it can fail should be someone not making a sale. You need to think about the combination of the consequences and the likelihood of the failure together. There's a reason pacemakers weren't hooked to the Galaxy 4.
- What is the cost of a backup system? If the failure of the tool has dire consequences, and the likelihood of failure can't be ignored, you need to come up with a backup system and figure out what it will cost.
That all sounds horribly techno-weenieish. Take an example: I own an MG. The consequence of failure for the MG is that I can't get to work, or somewhere else that I need to go. It's a British sports car, so it can fail in many ways, most of them electrical. I probably need a backup plan: I can bum a ride to work, bicycle, or telecommute. Pretty cheap to implement, and I know how I depend on that technology.
The pager question is an exercise for the interested reader.