Catastrophized Cascades

The upshot is: Infrastructure cascades and catastrophizing about infrastructural failure have a great deal in common and this has major implications for policy and management.

An infrastructure cascade happens when the failure of one part of the critical infrastructure triggers failure in its other parts as well as in other infrastructures connected to it. The fast propagation of failure can and has led to entire systems failing over quickly, where “a small mistake can lead to a big fail.” The causal pathways, however, in the quick succession or chain reaction of interconnected failure are often difficult to pinpoint, let alone analyze, during the cascade, and even afterwards.

For its part, catastrophizing in the sense of “imagining the worst outcome of even the most ordinary event” obviously has some overlap with this notion of cascade, but by and large the imagining in catastrophizing is written off as irrational—the event in question is not as bad as imagined—while infrastructure cascades are real, not imagined.

We may want to rethink any such weak link when it comes to infrastructure cascades and catastrophizing failure across interconnected infrastructures. Consider the insights of the recent book by Gerard Passannante, Catastrophizing: Materialism and the Making of Disaster (2019, The University of Chicago Press).

In analyzing cases of catastrophizing (in Leonardo’s Notebooks, an early work of Kant and Shakespeare’s King Lear, among others), Passannante avoids labeling such thinking as irrational and favors a more nuanced understanding. He identifies four inter-related features to the catastrophizing from his material.

First (no order of priority is implied here), catastrophizing probes and reasons from the sensible to the insensible, the perceptible to the imperceptible, the witnessed to the unwitnessed, and the visible to invisible. Accordingly, the probing and reasoning involve ways of seeing and feeling as well. Second and third, when catastrophizing, an abrupt, precipitous shift or collapse in scale occurs (small scale suddenly shifts to large scale), while there is a distinct temporal elision or compression of the catastrophe’s beginning and end (as if there were no middle duration to the catastrophe being imagined). Last, the actual catastrophizing while underway feels to the catastrophizer as if the thinking itself were involuntary and had its own automatic logic or necessity that over-rides—“evacuates” is Passannante’s term—the agency and control of the catastrophizer.

If so, the features of catastrophizing take us much closer to the notion of infrastructure cascades as currently understood. In catastrophizing as in cascades, there is both that rapid propagation from small to large and that temporal “failing all of a sudden.” In catastrophizing as in cascades, causal connections—in the sense of identifying events with their beginnings, middles and ends—are next to impossible to parse out, given the quick, often inexplicable, processes at work. And yes, of course, cascades are real, while catastrophizing is speculative; but: The catastrophizing feels very, very real to, and out of the control of, the catastrophizer as an agent in his or her own right.

In fact, one of the most famous typologies in organization and technology studies—that formalized by Charles Perrow in terms of coupling and interactivity of complex technologies—sanctions a theory that catastrophizes infrastructure cascades. The typology’s cell of tight coupling and complex interactivity is a Pandora Box of instantaneous changes, invisible processes, and incomprehensible breakdowns involving time, scale and perspective. This is not a criticism: It may well be that we cannot avoid catastrophizing, if only because of the empirical evidence that sudden cascades have happened in the past.

The four features, however, suggest that one way to mitigate any wholesale catastrophizing of infrastructure cascades is to bring back time and scale into the analysis and modeling of infrastructure cascades. To do so would be to insist that really-existing infrastructure cascades are not presumptively instantaneous or nearly so. It would be to insist that infrastructure cascades are differentiated in terms of time and scale, unless proven otherwise. That, in fact, is what our research suggests. At the risk of tooting our horn:

“Much of the more sophisticated network analysis of interinfrastructural interconnectivity suffers from the same defect as sophisticated quantified probability assessments—both assume that if an infrastructure element (node or connection) is not managed, the system is not managed. One clear objective of recent network of networks modeling has been finding out which nodes and connections, when deleted, bring the network or sets of networks to collapse. Were only one more node to fail, the network would suddenly collapse completely, it is often argued…

“But ‘suddenly’ is not all that frequent at the [interconnected infrastructure] level. In fact, not failing suddenly is what we expect to find in managed interconnected systems, in which an infrastructure element can fail without the infrastructure as a whole failing or disrupting the normal operations of other infrastructures depending on that system. Infrastructures instantaneously failing one after another is not what actually happens in many so-called cascades, and we would not expect such near simultaneity from our framework of analysis.

“Rapid infrastructure cascades can, of course, happen….[Yet] individual infrastructures do not generally fail instantaneously (brownouts may precede blackouts, levees may seep long before failing), and the transition from normal operation to failure across systems can also take time. Discrete stages of disruption frequently occur when system performance can still be retrievable before the trajectory of failure becomes inevitable.” (E. Roe and P.R. Schulman, Risk and Reliability, 2016, Stanford University Press, pp. 28-29)

Let me leave you with another extension inspired by Passannante’s analysis. If infrastructure cascades, when catastrophized, have endings entailed in their beginnings (leaving in between only attenuated middles or no middles at all to speak of), the catastrophized cascade turns out to be the entailment of “just before” and “immediately after.”

That is, we are to believe we are in a state where disaster avoidance is no longer possible and disaster response has yet to start and remains unavoidably ahead. We are expected to experience cascade-as-disaster as all too close at hand for us to think about anything else. But the point is: No one experiences time and scale as an excluded middle; what is unimaginable is real time operations without duration and depth.

Opportunity costs of the missing drop of realism

Economists long insisted that the heroic stakes were framed around Market Competition versus State Planning, with Competition clearly winner of the palm. Who needs Illiquid Government when you have Liquid Markets?

Odd then that economists began to agree that the maintenance of the storied perfect competition (all price takers and constant returns to scale) would have undermined entrepreneurial capitalism as actually practiced. Odd that one winner of always-late capitalism would not have been possible without imperfect competition (some price makers and increasing returns to scale) and an important role for—guess what?—government policies to foster technological change. Odd that, after all those storylines about the rising tide of market liberalization lifting all ships, it turns out that liberalized capital markets continued to be associated with rougher seas of financial instability.

Even odder is that implacable criticism economists levelled against price-setting by planners who couldn’t possibly process all that complexity when everyone knows that price discovery through markets does so much better. In the aftermath of 2008, however, economists told us that even core market mechanisms like auctions—Léon Walras must be turning in his grave!—can’t work because of the sheer complexity of the instruments of financial economists to be auctioned—which meant the defamed planners had to get involved anyway. Odd that economists also told us we needed dark pools and out-of-sight markets because price discovery, rather than being the raison d’être of markets, is merely a public benefit that markets may, but need not, provide.

To be fair, markets manage some risks better than government, but only those risks and certainly not the uncertainties that can come with their managing those risks through markets. The management of the latter has been placed in the hands of government and regulators.

There’s probably no part of the economic stories told us that even an eye-dropper’s worth of realism wouldn’t have improved.

Short and not sweet

–There had to cheaper ways for the U.S. to get oil than undertaking two wars in Iraq. The lesson, denominated in US standards: Don’t do stupid with room-temperature IQs.

–People think of real-time economic stability in comparison to the past record. How stable before is the retrospective view. Prospectively, that economy is only as reliable as the next downturn ahead. This holds because the reliability of society’s critical infrastructures is foundational to that stability or growth. Economic growth has prospective reliability to the extent critical infrastructures and their link to productivity are the driver.

This means the relationship between the economic short run and long run changes with the development of infrastructure and mandates for their reliability. For, if you cannot manage an electricity system—or water, public health, or other foundational infrastructure, now when it matters—why ever should we believe your promises to manage better and reliably over the longer term?

–Have you attended those presentations where engineers propose all-benefit-and-no-cost innovations in design and technology of such fantastification as would bring a failing grade to any student in public policy and management? The slides on their own are like a tableau vivant of Revelation pulling the “thing” out of Nothing, with thingamajiggery then sacralized as Invention.

–When I read criticisms that blame deaths or injuries in a disaster on the “lack of coordination,” I expect to see answers to two immediate questions: (1) can it be demonstrated that the lack of coordination did not arise because the responders knew—or thought so at the time—that they were undertaking activities just as urgent; and (2) can we conclude that the event in question would (not could, should, might or perhaps) have been better responded to had it not been handled the way it was (the classic counterfactual)? Rarely, I find, are answers even attempted, let alone provided.

–Consider those business schools that provide modern-day equivalents to Mirrors for Princes, the early Islamic and European guides for leaders in the Land-Where-Leaders-Reign-Better? Their curricula: More like the “instructions for travelers” used by 16th century returning travelers to write up their journeys. Their outputs: Little better than travelogues to dynasties legendary. The scariest are the students who think they shine in the reflected glory of the exoticism.

–What would we be reading now to be as collectively agitated as were early readers of Machiavelli’s Prince, the French classes delving into the Encyclopedia of Diderot and d’Alembert, or Beccaria’s On Crime and Punishment, or those stirred by Michael Harrington’s The Other America?

Or is the point quite the other way round? The “we” is expanding, every day, by agitations of other media?

–Writer, James Baldwin, wrote that the “the purpose of art is to lay bare the questions hidden by the answers.” In policy and management where the Big Question is “What’s missing that’s right there to be seen?,” the challenge is to uncover answers that have been obscured by all the other questions.

–Go look for one of those early 20th century American landscape paintings by, e.g., Redmond Granville, of wildflowers spreading across fields or Edgar Payne of a remote lake in the snowy Sierras. Then look at virtually the same painting, but this time with a young woman in her calico dress or cowboy on a horse. In an instant, this painting dates the preceding one. What had been an idealized-now flips to a historicized-then. Public policy is full of such flips: reforms that work on paper but date immediately when real people with real problems in real time enter the picture—both as subject and as frame.

— Samuel Taylor Coleridge argued “matter” was treated like a pincushion whose surface was hidden by all the sensations, thoughts and properties stuck into it.

You ask today’s version of, “What’s the matter?,” and you get a pincushion of sentences affixed with an “etc.” Each implies the unnamed factors are only critical to the point we needn’t clutter the analysis any further by naming them. Yet why are we reading this stuff if not to find out what the writers think are critical enough to name?

–Two sets of opposing pressures drive the anxiety: the centripetal pressures of closing in on what we think we really know (or can know) and the centrifugal pressures of opening up recasting what has been taken as unknowable or for granted by the person involved. The pressures and anxiety drove Victorian eclecticism, they are to be found in the complexities of mid-20th century modernists, and so too they drive policy messes. The anxiety, in case it needs saying, is over the instability that comes with the entailment of the “really know” and the changing “I.”

This is Proust in translation: “What we have not had to decipher, to elucidate by our own efforts, what was clear before we looked at it, is not ours. From ourselves comes only that which we drag forth from the obscurity which lies within us, that which to others is unknown”. We only know that which we create—and with this, the anxiety both at the knowing and at the recasting.

The first words in Shakespeare’s Hamlet are, “Whose there?” Indeed. And at its end, what life isn’t unfinished? In both cases, arithmetic averages wobble.

Professional, amateur, apprentice; or, As good as Manet’s (missing) fingernails

–The more you aim for good enough reliability, the more specific and narrow are the criteria of “just how good is good-enough” (“you must respond within x minutes of a call. . .”). As such, goal displacement is risked where the meeting the criteria equates to the assurance of reliability. Good enough reliability in this way ends up recognizing that the preclusion of must-never-happen events no longer has an institutional niche of social dread.

The absence of the niche drains any special prescriptive role for reliability professionals (e.g., those control room operators and support staff) and their unique knowledge of large socio-technical systems. Instead, we—the public—now must understand that good enough depends on one’s ingenuity. If we want anything more by way of reliability and safety, then that is left to us, not so much as consumers or citizens, but as amateurs who must now be their own reliability managers.  Because: The only thing left between you and death is, well, you.

–Under the politics of higher task volatility but fewer options with which to respond, much of the management and regulation of large systems becomes after-the-fact governance. Something happens, and then do we react and try to deal with it, if that. More, what little remains of before-the-fact management is no longer “planning and design,” as much as performing just-in-time or just-for-now.

So much for the commonplace. After-the-fact governance, of course, has had a long history. Still it is disappointing to realize that the much-vaunted checks-and-balances system of U.S. governance so favored by the Federalists now looks as Utopian in its before-the-fact prevention of abuses as did the inhuman perfectionism of an Enlightenment Helvetius or Condorcet.

–If we’re all necessarily amateurs in this after-the-fact, we are also apprentices then. Apprenticeship is when the amateur starts in the expectation that “risks” or “tradeoffs” or “costs” are out there to be identified, only to realize in the field that each has to be specified in more detail (with respect to what failure scenario? under what conditions? just what is it a case of?), such that, over the course of a career, he or she recognizes the challenges arise because what is out there depends on how “it” is defined and managed in the first place by really existing human beings in the really-existing systems in which they find themselves.

In this way, the uprush of experience renders doubt a kind of knowingness—and knowingness, up-piled, is professionalism.

–If, as I believe, apprenticeship is crucial for managing in the midst of a politics of higher task volatility but fewer options, the key implication then is to look for really-existing cases of apprenticeship and see what can be learned by way of better practices across the wide range of these cases for managing under such complexity.

And here we must search widely. In an article, “The French Insurgency: Political Economy of the Gilets Jaunes,” Stathis Kouvelakis writes of the Yellow Vests movement:

“The ongoing practice of daily assemblies [at one site], combining a search for consensus with (frequent) recourse to votes, has bodied forth [new ideas and practices] in a literal sense. This process of apprenticeship has allowed a wide range of working-class people with no previous political experience to speak out and take part in planning collective actions. The testimonies gathered suggest a process of popular politicization, unfolding at the same pace as the evolution of the Gilets Jaunes at national level—in particular, the clash with the Macron government and the forces of repression. Setting out from a protest against fuel taxes, the Gilets Jaunes’ objectives, here as elsewhere, have progressively expanded: from political-institutional questions—resignation of Macron…—to demands for fiscal and social justice.”

More broadly, I’m suggesting we reverse the research challenge said to face today’s management of policy and ask: Where are the policy and political units that actually do manage under different types of nonmeasured/nonmeasurable uncertainties? Where does apprenticeship and professional fit in, if at all? What are the power and political arrangements conducive for that kind of sensitivity to complexity and what do we learn from their politics for managing under conditions of high task volatility and fewer options? A planet of 7 billion plus people must have more to tell us about this.

–Where, though, does this leave us now?

Berthe Morisot, the painter, wrote: “On Thursday Degas said the study of nature was trivial; painting being an art of convention, it was better to learn to draw after Holbein—that Édouard himself [her brother-in-law, Édouard Manet], though he prided himself on slavishly copying nature, was the most mannered painter in the world, never executing a brushstroke without thinking of the Old Masters, not putting fingernails on hands, for instance, because F[rans] Hals didn’t draw them”.

What if our descriptions and evaluations of poverty and war (or of any so-called wicked policy problem) are mannered as Manet’s paintings were said to be? Namely: What’s missing is in an important sense systematically left out.

If systematically avoided (dismissed, ignored), then the descriptions/evaluations of complex issues are a search for “enough-to-quote,” that is: a search to redefine good enough out of what has already been written or painted, to lose one’s self by finding another better one in the already-existing words and works of others–a search, moreover, as deliberately reflective as Manet ensuring the missing fingernails.

If so, the better response to the above narrowing of good enough is to make the “style” in “stylized” your own. That is apprenticeship: It is for you to revise, redescribe, rescript, reframe.. This too is why I go to an exhibit of Manet’s “The Execution of Emperor Maximilian” for another look.

When ignorance does more than you think

Unstudied conditions are avoided as vigilantly as possible—right now, when it matters—by control room operators of large critical infrastructures mandated to operate reliably and safely systemwide. Having failed to fail because an operator was behaving ignorantly is orthogonal to high reliability management.

That said, ignorance has differentiated functions in large socio-technical systems—but in ways not captured by the happy-talk of trial-and-error learning, Experiment!, and innovation-starts-with-ignorance. Five under-recognized positives deserve highlighting:

(1) A longstanding proposition in organization theory and management has been that operators and managers cannot know everything and something like bounded rationality is required in order to decide and manage. More, a mandate for comprehensive decisionmaking would undermine reliability management at the complex system level, not enhance it. It is in these senses that the operations of other infrastructures with which a control room is interconnected are “unstudied conditions” for that control room. Either these connected services are there or, if not, this has to be worked around by that control room. Real-time management by a control room is so knowledge-intensive that its operators cannot be expected to understand just intensively how the other interconnected infrastructures and their control centers operate.

(2) The comfort zone of control room operators includes managing nonmeasured or unmeasurable uncertainties so as to stay out of unstudied conditions—unknown unknowns—about which system operators are by definition ignorant. The uncertainties are not denominated as calculable risk, but still operators may know more about consequences than likelihoods, or vice versa. Operators undertake uncertainty management because they differentiate uncertainties—albeit outsider experts often collapse uncertainties into ignorance per se.

(3) Large system control operators do innovate, and positively so, within their comfort zone. We see their improvisation in control room assembly of options just-in-time under conditions of high volatility (high unpredictability or uncontrollability in the outside environment). In fact, the evolutionary advantage of control rooms lies in the skills and expertise of its operators to operationally redesign in real time what is otherwise inadequate technology in order to meet the reliability mandates of the infrastructure.

There is a kind of learning-through-error-management going on, but the learners do so by avoiding having to test the limits of system survival.

What control operators of critical infrastructures do not do—or resist doing—is classic trial and error learning and experimentation. Why? Because professionals will not deliberately chance the first error becoming the last trial. Certainly the view—“It’s almost impossible to innovate if you’re not prepared to fail”—is orthogonal to the innovation-positive we observed in critical infrastructures.

(4) That said, some unknown-unknowns may be key to something like an infrastructure’s immune system for managing under risk and uncertainty. The complex and interconnected nature of large socio-technical systems suggests that “low-level” accidents, lapses or even sabotage may be underway that systemwide reliability professionals–like control room operators and their support staff–do not (cannot) observe, know about, or otherwise appreciate. This is less “ignorance is bliss,” than ignorance as mithridatic (immunizing through difficulty and inexperience rather than, say, homeopathically).

(5) Last but not least: When unstudied conditions and unknown-unknowns are feared because of the awful consequences associated with behaving ignorantly, the ensuing dread promotes having to manage dangerous complex technologies more reliably and safely than theories of tight coupling and complex interactivity suggest. Wide societal dread of systemwide failure takes on a positive function in these cases, without which the real-time management of dangerous technologies would not be warranted, let alone warrantable.

(It’s at this point that someone complains I’m advocating “the manufacture of dread for the purposes of social control through taken-for-granted technologies.” Which is oddly unreflexive on their part if they really believe what they say, since the very infrastructures they criticize enable them to render such judgment, here and now, and since their criticisms are presumably then a form of artificial negativity manufactured for the same social control.)

The upshot of the five features is this. There are cases where experimentation and innovation are recast in the face of unstudied conditions. The resulting differences, however, are many and vary substantially from what outsiders typically narrow down to Experiment! Adapt! Be resilient! Indeed, when you think about any valorized list of “key strategies important in the face ignorance,” you realize just how conservative are many outsider imaginaries: If such lists are said to capture almost everything really important, then maybe nothing’s all that important after all.

Eco-labelling recasted

Current position. A rapidly growing area in the U.S. and abroad revolves around what has been called “environmental governance.” Here I focus on one such model. Delmas and Young (2009, 8) present a simplified schematic for understanding environment governance in terms of multi-level interactions (local, regional, national, international) among three main “actors” (public sector, private sector, and civil society).

Delmas and Young plot some interventions into Figure 1, drawing from the case studies in their edited volume, Governance for the Environment: New Perspectives, and their literature reviews. For our purposes, note the environmental arenas where multiple spheres overlap, particularly those related to what has been called eco-labelling, placed at the center of Figure 1 (the shared area of the three intersecting sectors):

One chapter in the volume (Auld et al 2009) gives considerable attention to eco-labelling interventions in terms of third-party certification schemes that ensure goods and services are sustainably sourced. We have programs that certify the produce is organically grown, the coffee is fair-trade, and the timber comes from forests sustainably managed. Such certification programs typically work on two fronts, first by incenting consumers to buy certified products, while discouraging them from buying non-certified products or services.

Recasting the role of eco-labelling. A major, persisting problem in the northern California Delta is deep concern over the reliability and safety of the levee (dike) system protecting island agricultural activities there. Nothing could seem farther away from the Delta levee crisis than eco-labelling, right? Wrong.

Imagine a third-party program (i.e., some organization different from the US Army Corps of Engineers, California Department of Water Resources, and Delta-based reclamation districts) that certified whether or not any given Delta agricultural land (broadly writ to include livestock, aquaculture and non-traditional crops) was protected by levees that met a standard of high reliability in design and maintenance. Imagine consumers would be encouraged to buy “levee-certified” goods and services and discouraged from buying those that were not so certified. Imagine, in other words, the same infrastructure element—the levee—but now having a different function than just “keeping water out.”

For example, the wider buying public in California and beyond would be encouraged to purchase only those goods and services from adjacent country entities that had supported levee certification in and around the Delta water intake for the county (or with respect to any county in similar circumstances). In like fashion, the wider buying public would be discouraged in purchasing from those entities whose goods had been transported on the deepwater shipping channels passing through the Delta to Sacramento and Stockton, if those firms did not support levee improvements up to third-party certification standards along those shipping channels. In parallel, the wider buying public would be encouraged to buy agricultural products only from those Delta islands that had been levee certified and discouraged from buying that which was levee uncertified.

By extension and where eco-labelling falls within a shared space of private, public and civil society sectors, one can imagine a similar role for eco-labels in improving other infrastructures providing vital societal services.


Auld, G., C. Balboa, S. Bernstein, and B. Cashore (2009). The emergence of non-state market-driven (NSMD) global environmental governance: A cross-sectoral assessment. In: M. Delmas and O. Young, Eds., Governance for the Environment: New Perspectives. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, GB: 183-218.

Uncertain superlatives

Certainty has such a strong place in politics not just because it serves as the preferred foundation/platform from which to choose to act, but also because certainty supports and drives the belief that any such choice to act can be superlative, i.e., serve as the best or superior or optimal course of action.

A key part of the challenge of a politics of uncertainty is to insist superior and superlative are still achievable, and not in a diminished sense of the economist’s “second best.” The challenge is to show, with and through examples, where superlative and best are not only really-existing in the midst uncertainty, but also how uncertainty’s superlative and best are better than so many of certainty’s counterparts.

To that end, we obviously need to identify and underscore how uncertainty and its cognates, like experimentation, have led to positive–sometimes very positive–outcomes. Each of us probably has our own examples of this. Three additional pathways ahead are, I feel, under-acknowledged and deserve further consideration:

  • The first is to underscore how certainty can truly mislead, whatever your starting point, as in: Francois Jacob, Nobel Laureate, reflecting that “Our breakthrough was the result of ‘night science’: a stumbling, wandering exploration of the natural world that relies on intuition as much as it does on the cold, orderly logic of ‘day science’”. As in: Nothing quite smacks of certainty as do habits, inhibitions and defense mechanisms. As in: We all know of revered ideals that ended in irrelevance. As in: Humans are never fully in the present; we are ourselves now, but reserve other of our intermittent selves for later action. As in: When in doubt, make the puzzle bigger.
  • The second pathway is to recognize the impossible is never perforce a bar to action in the face of uncertainty. Here is Richard Falk writing on the critic and Palestinian activist, Edward Said: “To dedicate action to achieve the impossible should never be a matter of optimistic false consciousness. It is rather a recognition that there is no way for the rational mind, in light of present circumstances, to figure out a solution that accords with the postulates of a just peace. Yet at the same time there are present moral and political imperatives of carrying on the struggle to reach such a solution, because the future is unknowable and the present circumstance of occupation, oppression, dispossession, and dispersal intolerable.” The insight, I take it, is that we might well be in a position to do something but not know it until we start trying.
  • A third way ahead is to insist that uncertainty is real and unavoidable and that this “certainty of uncertainty” looks nothing like the certainties offered up by the political class and deskoid pundits. Lines from one of Norman MacCaig’s poems say it better than I can:

Who owns this landscape? –
The millionaire who bought it or
the poacher staggering downhill in the early morning
with a deer on his back?

Who possesses this landscape? –
The man who bought it or
I who am possessed by it?

False questions, for
this landscape is
and intractable in any terms
that are human.