A few truths are beginning to surface. One recent
example... Jurgen Hubbert, the Daimler-Chrysler board member
in charge of Mercedes, admitted publicly that the car
industry has serious problems with electronic equipment. And
when a company, such as his, tries to be innovative, things
get worse. The concern is so deep that there are plans to set
up a consortium of automotive manufacturers to rationalize
applications and join forces to experiment and develop more
The question is... what took them so long? Its
been a known fact for several years (though rarely reported
in mainstream media) that there are serious problems with
electronics in motorcars. But carmakers (as well as other
industries) have continued to add electronic devices without
checking carefully enough what works and want doesnt
and which applications can cause more problems
than they were supposed to solve.
Basic car technologies havent changed in a century..
There have been talks about turbines and rotating pistons,
etcetera, but the engines are based on the same concept and
structure as over a hundred years ago. There are verified and
functional alternatives, but we are still burning fossil
fuels (see Hydrogen and the
internet.) Traction has moved from rear
to front (or both) but its basicallystill the same
four-wheel vehicle. Inflated tires were invented in 1888.
Those old technologies, over time, have been improved.
Driving has become easier and (relatively) safer. Even
electronics work reasonably well when they relate to
functional, and extensively tested, applications. Though all,
sometimes, make mistakes, in most cases industry knows how
to manage design and manufacturing as long as they are
in the fields of its specific competence and experience.
Computerized design and engineering have helped to
achieve considerable improvements in performance and
reliability. But no competent manufacturer puts a new model
on sale before extensive road testing. Sometimes recalls are
necessary because a car (or some other product) turns out to
be unsafe or unreliable, but those a are relatively rare cases.
Its a different story when, in a competitive race
to add a not always desirable abundance of accessories, a car is
crammed with information or communication technologies that
are not designed by its makers engineers, but by suppliers
who suffer from an incurable tendency to promise what they
dont deliver or offer advanced
solutions without checking if they are adequately functional and
manageable (or at all useful.) Of course, when more gadgetry
is added, more thing are likely to go wrong.
After a hasty and inconsiderate race forward in the wrong
direction, the automotive industry (as well as others) is
beginning to understand that its better to step back and
re-discover the values of ergonomy.
An old cliché, that has been around for many
years, says that «if cars worked like computers they
would run at 500 miles an hour and would do a thousand miles
with a gallon.» But most people forget the second half:
«... and they would blow up five times a day.»
Unfortunately this isnt just a joke. There have been several
accidents, some fatal, caused by inefficient applications of
electronics in motorcars.
Of course it is possible to make ground vehicles that can
run at 400 miles an hour. But it would be crazy to put them
on the market, because there are no roads to fit such speeds
and only highly specialized pilots could know how to drive
In industrial applications the prevailing trend is to
proceed with efficiency objectives and when automatic
production equipment doesnt live up to quality standards
most companies know how to step back to more reliable
resources. But when it comes to information and communication
technology most companies find themselves stepping out of
their areas of competence and into a confusing complexity
of available tools.
Its a proven fact that investments in ICT
technologies without precise objectives and a clear idea of process
dont lead only to an enormous waste of money, but also
to all sorts of organizational problems and loss of quality.
Of course its possible to make and use reliable
computers and networks. In most cases the navigation systems
of airplanes, electronic equipment in surgery, and other
applications that put human lives directly at risk, have good
levels of efficiency (and adequate backup.) But there are
many large systems that dont work as well as they should.
Even in elaborate scientific and technical pursuits, such
as space exploration, there have been several surprising
accidents due to poorly conceived or applied technologies.
A clever bomb is a very stupid machine.
It uses sophisticated navigation systems to reach a specific
destination and then activates a device. It has no idea that
by doing so it will self-destruct and blow to bits lots of
things including a number of human beings. Its up to who
conceived it, as well as those who use it, to make sure that
it achieves the largest possible result with the least
possible collateral damage.
In the daily use of electronics the consequences are much
less dramatic, but they cause every day all sorts of problems
that could be easily avoided if technologies were designed
and applied to fit the needs of people and organizations. We
are strangely accustomed to this disease. Most people seem to
believe that that the inefficiencies of computer and network
technologies are unavoidable or that, when things dont
work, its their fault.
An industrial robot works better than a human being when
it performs with repetitive precision a simple task. But when
complex procedures are to be managed technologies are much
Most people today, unless they are totally incompetent in
this field, no longer speak of computers as electronic
brains. But there is still a fairly widespread delusion
that we can delegate thinking to machines.
Its important to understand that machines
are stupid. We should never expect them to be able to perform
without human supervision. The reason why so many devices
work poorly, and tend to get worse, isnt a mischievous
perversity of machines or of the abstruse codes that run
them. Its human stupidity.
It isnt just nearsighted, but positively stupid, to develop
technologies to fit the whims of programmers (or gee-whiz
marketers) rather that the needs of all other people. And things
get worse with the widespread habit of treating people as idiots,
and forcing them into obedience, instead of encouraging (and
helping) them to adjust technologies and procedures to their needs.
A machine works well, most of the time, when its
designed in the simplest possible way to perform a precise
task. Even a machine that does a variety of different things,
such as a personal computer, would work much better if
functions were kept separate and independent, with shared
resources only when they are necessary or really useful and
convenient. Things would work much better also if each
person, or organization, could install only those functions
that it really needs instead of being forced to operate in
a clutter of unwanted, and often unknown, devices that
interfere with each other and cause a lot of unnecessary trouble.
The technologies that were conceived thirty years ago to
run the internet, and fifteen years ago for the world wide
web, were basically efficient, reliable, open and
transparent. They still are, and they still work. But on
those sound foundations too much stuff has been added.
Clumsily conceived and hastily built cathedrals, fragile and
often unsafe, that suffer from the same diseases as the most
widespread operating system for personal computers, with all
its cumbersome applications.
To demolish that proliferation of useless clutter,
irritating complications and unacceptable inefficiencies, we
dont need a bulldozer or a weed killer. The best medicine is
a strong dose of practically applied common sense. And a firm
determination to put the machines in the service of people,
not vice versa.
An unusually bright headline in an Italian newspaper, La
Repubblica, on April 14, 2004, called it the long night
of electronics. For too many years we have been kept in
that uncomfortable darkness with more nightmares that we
want or deserve. Are we, at last, waking up?