Easy-to-Fix

The economist Arnold Kling inadvertently did a great job of describing how we need to shift the paradigms of spacecraft design. I’ve replaced only one word in this quote:

 “We tend to think of the task of engineering as one of making systems hard to break. An alternative to consider is making systems easy to fix. Think of a computer. You can try to use firewalls and anti-virus software to make your computer hard to break. But it still pays to back up your data to make it easy to fix.“

The substitution changes the meaning entirely, but doesn’t alter the truthiness at all.

I look at it this way: both things that are easy to fix and those that are hard to break are robust. ‘Robust’ spans the gap between fragile and antifragile. Hard-to-break is on ‘fragile’ end of the spectrum while easy-to-fix is closer to ‘antifragile.’

I’ve used this example before, but what are two of the coolest fictional spacecraft? The Millennium Falcon and The Serenity. What do they have in common besides a roguish, gun-slinging captain, a crew avoiding the authorities, smuggling compartments and frequent comparisons to various trash receptacles?

They’re both really easy to fix. On top of being a great plot device, I think in the end it allows earned confidence, rather than assumed confidence.

A lot of technology has trended towards ‘hard to break’ – cars, phones, and appliances come to mind. In these cases, hard-to-break may be preferable because the replacement costs have dropped dramatically, both in terms of money and effort.

On the other hand, if you’re millions of miles from the nearest mailbox, you can’t exactly a replacement ship on Amazon. Given the remote hostility of space, which category would you rather your ship fall into?   I know which one I’d choose.

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