The Inevitability of Chaos and Major Losses in Strategic High Tech

The technology frontier has always been a turbulent place. Solyndra's failure should be no surprise or cause for alarm.

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Without knowing the technological, financial, and political details of the Solyndra bankruptcy, I can't say what part -- supplier technology, company management, or political decisions -- failed, or whom (if anybody) we should blame. Given the FBI's recent seizure of documents, I'm sure we can look forward to thorough post-mortems.

The size of the loss was probably much greater than it had to be, but can big failures be avoided entirely in the high-tech industry? Perhaps our technological competition with China makes daunting goals and huge risks inevitable, as they were in America's hotter rivalry with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The historian of technology Philip Scranton, my friend and colleague, has written about dauntingly chaotic process of developing jet aircraft:

Viewed from a distance, the development of jet propulsion in the US may appear to have been a chronicle of progress through skillful management of technology and organization. Examined closely, it stands rather as a shining example of non-linear, irrational, uncertain, multi-lateral, and profoundly passionate technological and business practice, yielding success not through planning but through dogged determination, a certain indifference to failure (which secrecy aided), and massive expenditures of public funds. Brunsson and Olsen were right. We have here business and public 'organizations [that were] conflictual, polycentric, and loosely coupled, rather than coherent, hierarchical and tightly coupled... coalitions living with unresolved conflict'.Their activity does not conform to standard rationality-centered thinking about the history and processes of business contracting, product innovation, military procurement, and technological development...

So many Cold War failures were secret, which is one reason for the persistence of UFO speculation. (Of course that doesn't mean that there weren't, or were, real extraterrestrial sightings.) Advanced green projects also call to mind peaceful development programs as well as arms races. In a famous paper, the great development economist Albert O. Hirschman outlined the principle of the Hiding Hand (a corollary to Adam Smith's Invisible Hand), according to which we undertake many ultimately successful ventures because we don't realize how difficult they'll be, yet once committed we find ways to make them work:

Creativity always comes as a surprise to us; therefore we can never count on it and we dare not believe in it until it has happened. In other words, we would not consciously engage upon tasks whose success clearly requires that creativity be forthcoming. Hence, the only way in which we can bring our creative resources fully into play is by misjudging the nature of the task, by presenting it to ourselves as more routine, simple, undemanding of genuine creativity than it will turn out to be.

I'm not suggesting complacency about Solyndra or any other high-tech failure, only care in drawing conclusions. In principle we glorify learning from failure and emerging stronger, but in practice we still recoil, and understandably so. In the 19th century, the failure of the original Panama Canal Company in 1889 devastated the reputation and fortune of France's greatest engineer, Ferdinand de Lesseps. Yet the project's many negative lessons helped make possible the even more ambitious American Panama Canal project. (It was also an energy project, with an eye toward more secure and efficient transportation of California petroleum to the East Coast. I've written about it here.) Of course, since President Obama was ready to take credit for a successful Solyndra, he can't avoid blame. But the real point should be not partisan advantage for either side but a better understanding of the future of a still-challenging technology at a frontier that can't be managed.

Image: Reuters.