Frankenstein, Blow-Out Preventers and the Boston Zapper

We seem to be surrounded by complex technologies that we didn’t know existed until they went wrong.  The world is suddenly full of monsters unleashed by technologies created in the dark by today’s Dr.  Frankensteins whether those are giant mechanical devices like blow-out preventers or infinitely small circuits like those that produced the so-called “Flash Crash” in the stock market.  In the case of the “Flash Crash” it was the algorithms wot done it and if you weren’t already paranoid enough remember that the word algorithm stems from the name of a 9th century Muslim mathematician called Al-Kharizmi. 

Conspiracy theories take hold when we fail to communicate effectively about complex technologies that are driving business whether in the financial markets or deep-sea drilling.  As the newly formed Principal Traders Group, a trade group of high frequency traders, is discovering, it can be hard to explain what you do after things have blown up on you.  We may never know whether the Flash Crash was caused by illegal or unethical activities such as the “quote stuffing” discussed in today’s Financial Times.  Nor may we learn much more about what actually happened to the blow-out preventer being hauled ashore to be inspected at a NASA facility.  What we can learn from these accidents is that companies and industries would be well served to spend more time explaining their complex technologies to relevant publics as they evolve rather than playing catch up when things go wrong.  We have seen what running around like Igor after the monster escapes looks like.  It isn’t pretty.

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