The Machine Stops

…is a wonderful short story by E.M. Forster, set in a dystopia where everyone lives underground in little cells and only communicates with others via technology. On the Friday after Thanksgiving, UC Berkeley’s email, calmail, crashed and has been available in fits and starts at best ever since (for several days only via a web client), with long periods of complete inaccessibility. As of this evening, it seems to be OK again. All week, I’ve been thinking about that story, and also about an obscure Fuentes novel I read many years ago, La Silla del Aguila, which is set in a Mexico of 2020. Some sort of tiff causes the US to completely shut down all of their electronic communication and computers, so the whole novel is epistolary, in old fashioned letters.

It’s been an interesting lesson in how much we have come to depend on this channel, and on how seriously UC is undercapitalized (including undermaintained capital) generally. Here’s our CIO with the story (he starts at about 24:00 of the whole video).

The whole campus is about 30,000 people. If our time is worth $20/hr on the average, and we all waste an hour because of some tech failure, that’s $600,000. Not having email, having to get and send my mail through a web client instead of downloading it in batches to Outlook, temporarily moving my communications to gmail and try to figure out how to reach other people for whom I only had a calmail address, and related kludging over the ten days certainly wasted at least four hours of my time. If I had been traveling, I would have been unable to download a batch of mail to read and reply to on the plane, so for at least some of us, there’s several hours lost right away. If I’m typical, that’s more than $2m gone up in smoke, not to mention that we’re probably spending as much again fixing the damn thing.

It seems we dodged an asteroid: no mail was lost, just delayed. But what if a few days of mail had been trashed? I can’t link this breakdown directly to our big Operational Excellence cost-cutting project, but it does illustrate the overall effort by our citizens to teach the government horse to live on one less tablespoon of oats a day.

Read the Forster story.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Michael O’Hare

Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.