Real-Life Chaos Monkey

Disclaimer: It’s a purely theoretical idea at this point; I’m not actually saying somebody should just go ahead and take it upon themselves to implement it.

Netflix uses this thing they call “Chaos Monkey” which randomly disrupts their own service. The idea behind it is that, instead of making everything perfect (impossible, right?) they force themselves to design things in a way that anything can go wrong at any moment.

We can find this everywhere: Airplanes have a high degree of redundancy, because life’s “chaos monkey” wreaked some havoc and it was established that this was necessary. Buildings are built with the expectation that the ground under them is not always stationary. And so on.

However, we can’t see this much on the level of our large-scale infrastructure, like the energy grid or food distribution – things seems to go in the direction of “it’s good while things works fine” and “everything in one bucket”: as little redundancy as possible, because “hey, it’s cheaper!” (Nope: one single incident can wipe out all the previous profits, and then society as a whole pays for the sins of the few; see: any of the financial crises.)

A good example for this is the electrical grid in the United States, where if a small line goes down, entire states can go dark. Also, I recently read that we spend about 10x as much energy to transport our food to where it’s consumed than what the food contains (this number used to be close to 1), which means that if stuff goes wrong, we can have as much food as we want, still many will die of hunger because most of the places are just too far from it. Mono-crops can be wiped out as a whole by a random disease.

Maybe it would be time to implement a Chaos Monkey in real life as well. It would force our large-scale infrastructure to prepare for the catastrophes that are coming (not because it’s the end of the world, but because stuff is bound to happen simply because of math and because the components in our infrastructure are more and more closely coupled.)

This of course is not Netflix; if you start breaking things, people can die. But it would certainly benefit society as a whole if we came up with a way to force more redundancy and resilience into the system (of course without endangering lives in the process.)

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An interesting idea, related to the concept of the The Dice Man.

It applies beyond making “the system” more robust, to replacing the system, as in the saying, “Ordo Ab Chao”, and the famous stained glass window of the Fabian Society.

I don’t agree that everything needs to be replaced with something new. In fact, I believe that much of what’s around us is the result of a ridiculously long trail of trial and error, spanning through centuries and millennias. However, never before have resources, power, and control been as much centralized as they are now (in the hands of huge nation states and huge corporations, and a very small number of individuals), and it kills the bottom-up mechanisms that help the “system” to stay healthy and well functioning.

By the way, when I say “system” I don’t mean a particular political or social order, simply the interconnected mess that makes up our everyday life, starting with our private relationship, going on with how we do business, transportation, production, etc in smaller and bigger scales, and so on.

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I wasn’t saying that anything in particular needs replacing, and I’m certainly no Fabian, I was simply making an observation about phenomena.

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