Contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data 2021, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
We all know that people aren’t perfect. You may not realize how those imperfect people (and the organizations they work in) are a good argument for being a prepper! People aren’t perfect. Prepare accordingly.
The systems we depend on for survival and comfort are pretty reliable:
- If you get cold, you turn up the thermostat and magic heat blows out of the vent.
- You flip the switch and the lights come on.
- When you turn on the faucet, clean water drops into the sink..
- You go to the grocery store, and the nice curbside person brings you food and household items.
- When you run out of toilet paper, Amazon will get you a big box full of it the next day – free with Prime. And you can treat yourself with those new hiking boots you’ve had sitting in your cart for weeks.
- When you stop by the gas station, they have cheap fuel to help you get where you want to go.
- You pull your phone / computer out of your pocket and check the status of your Amazon order. You call your aunt / uncle / brother / daughter / friend on the other side of the state / country / world and catch up on world events.
- You pay for all of it with a convenient system of credit cards, ACH withdrawals, and an occasional check. On the rare occasion that you need cash, you stop by one of the millions of ATM’s on your block.
- On Friday night, you can have margaritas delivered with your tacos.
Our infrastructure is a marvel. When you compare our supply chain, power grid, water and sewer, and our transportation infrastructure with what our parents had as kids, it’s amazing how sophisticated, reliable and capable they are. We rarely think about it. We never worry about it, because it always works. Except when it doesn’t work for seemingly random reasons:
- The thermostat doesn’t bring the magic heat because the wells, refineries, and pipelines are frozen by an intense winter storm.
- The lights don’t work because the local power plant runs on natural gas.
- The pumps that send water up to the water tower run on electricity, so the water is out.
- There is a new and dangerous virus spreading across the world, and everyone wants to stay home. There aren’t enough masks for people to wear, and because they expect to be locked in their homes, they stock up on everything. The shelves at the grocery store are empty.
- You try to order TP on Amazon, but there is a global shortage of shipping containers due to huge shipping demands. The company that makes the pulp can’t get it to the factory. And those boots are stuck on a ship lodged in the Suez Canal.
- The gas station is out of gas because a hurricane knocked out a refinery on the coast.
- When the power went out, the payment infrastructure went out with it. The one store open during Snovid 2021 had a sign on the door: “Cash only.” Of course, the ATM runs on electricity.
- Good news: If you live in Texas, you can still get Margaritas delivered! You have to have cash to pay for it though.
- Bad news: The the cell phone tower doesn’t have any electricity, and the backup generator ran out of gas.
With the exception of the last thing on the list, all of these things have happened in the last 12 months. Another few days of snow in Central Texas, and the cell phones would have gone down.
We expect the systems and structures we RELY on to be RELIABLE. Most of the time they are, but it hurts when they aren’t. You may be asking yourself – why do these systems fail? Simple: Our systems are so complex they need perfection, and we all know people aren’t perfect. So we should be prepared to see them fail..
Systems are Complex
Amazon is awesome. I LOVE Amazon. I use it all the time. I’m a prime member, and I get stereo equipment, groceries, toilet paper, AC filters, light bulbs, clothes, camping gear, stuff for my truck, and oh yeah – books. Pretty much every week, I get something from Amazon. It’s cheap and convenient.
Back when I was a kid, there was another retailer who was taking on the world. Walmart turned countless downtowns into ghost towns. Why? It was cheap and convenient. That’s the beauty of Capitalism, IMO. It’s not perfect, but it absolutely drives innovation. Walmart is still great, but Amazon is kicking Walmart’s butt because they’re cheaper and more convenient. Consumers want what we want, and we vote with our dollars. Someday, someone will come up with something cheaper and/or more convenient than Amazon. Change is already happening due to COVID – so many more delivery options, including those margaritas.
Walmart’s innovation, much like Amazon’s, was enabled by technology. Walmart was famous at the time for their state-of-the-art supply chain that used barcodes and computers and <gasp!> AUTOMATICALLY ordered refills on items when they were low on stock. All of this is now possible due to a variety of technologies, but the computer is probably the most important. Amazon’s success, and the successful maturity of ALL of our systems, has likewise been driven in large part by the cool things that computers can do.
Since Amazon came on the scene, computer systems have gotten a LOT more complicated. Without going into details, just assume that dozens of ‘computers’ play a role in accepting and fulfilling your next Amazon order. We consultants call those nodes in the system. A node is basically just a piece of the process that does some sort of work. We build networks to link these nodes, and we objectify them, clone them, and automate every automate-able aspect of their operations. As a result, these networks of nodes become large and complex. They frequently don’t work, although usually it’s something minor. You get a 404 error, you hit refresh, and the page loads. Twitter gives you whales and birds. Google says “Something went wrong.” Lots of ways to say the same thing – “That didn’t work. Try again maybe now, maybe later.”
We’ve applied these same concepts, and this same level of complexity, to ALL of the systems we rely on. And it has paid off. Global supply chains. Responsive power network. Ubiquitous and seamless commerce. Reliable / predictable transportation. And it’s still cheap, believe it or not. Inflation hasn’t really impacted us too much since the 80’s, in part because we don’t need to pay as many people to do the same stuff we used to do. Instead of clerks, we have delivery drivers. The clerking has been automated, and someday soon the driving will be too.
We only need a few people to keep it all running, and if those people are perfect, then it runs smoothly.
People Aren’t Perfect
Everyone knows that people aren’t perfect, but not everyone understand the implications of that imperfection. I am a prepper and blogger by night, but my mild-mannered alter-ego is as a business consultant. In my 15 years of consulting, I’ve had the privilege of serving governments, name-brand retailers, key infrastructure players, and tech companies providing the backbone of the internet.
The vast majority of the people I’ve worked with are conscientious, smart, experienced professionals. There have been a few dummies and some assholes, but overall I’ve really enjoyed working with my customers. There are some bad apples (more on that in a moment), but t’s like I tell my kids – most people are good. But they are people and people make mistakes. To further complicate things, these people work in organizations that are FAR from perfect.
Most people reading this either know other people, have experience working in organizations, or both. So you probably know when I mean when I’m talking about imperfect people and sloppy organizations. I could list a ton of examples I’ve seen, but I’ll skip that for now and just say this: There isn’t some super-breed of people who are specially made or selected for critical jobs. They’re just people. They make the same kinds of mistakes as other people. The organizations they work in aren’t magically efficient and effective either. They have the same warts as your employer, the store you shop in, the DMV where you get your license, etc.
A Good Reason to Be Prepared
I will wrap this up with one important example. We see stories all the time about successful attacks on organizations’ computer systems. Just this week there’s a malware attack at Colonial Pipeline that is going to probably impact gas prices for about 20% of the country for a few weeks. Just in time for Memorial Day weekend, no gas. I don’t know anything about this hack except what I’ve heard on the news, but I will tell you one reason that these events are increasing in frequency.
The primary driver isn’t an increase in hackers’ sophistication. There are MUCH more sophisticated hacks, i.e. Solar Winds, but there’s also a rapid increase in more mundane and pedestrian attacks. Why? Because securing computer systems is hard work. It’s hard work for people and the organizations who have to manage it. So you can imagine what happens when you combine a difficult task, imperfect people, and a dysfunctional organization. Things that are supposed to get done either don’t get done, get done late, or get done incorrectly.
We shouldn’t be surprised at the increase in hacking events. If anything, we should be surprised that there aren’t MORE hacks than there are. It’s just a factor of too many systems to hack and too few hackers.
A great example is the Solar Winds hack – weeks after the hack was announced, and the far-ranging implications were known, there were public lists available, updated daily, that listed vulnerable networks. All an aspiring hacker needed to do was read up on the exploitation method, pick an IP address on the list, and go to work. It isn’t hard or complicated. The only reason they ALL didn’t get exploited is there weren’t enough hackers.
The Main Reason I’m a Prepper
For me, the logic of prepping is simple: imperfect people + imperfect organizations + complex systems = risk.