Each Generation Repeats Previous Mistakes

by Colin Berkshire

One of the saddest things of civilization is that knowledge is lost each generation.

This is why studies have shown that road bridge reliability vacillates on about a 50 year cycle. There is a rash of bridge failures, then methods are created for preventing failures, and then the reasons for those methods are forgotten and new designs don’t account for the same problems. The cycle continues.

I see this in programming. I have done computer programming for 45 years now. I have seen the pendulum swing from heavily type checking to smart-permissive and back again. A couple of times I have seen this one swing. Each generation of up-start programmers fixes the problems with the current philosophy and from a lack of history they go back to the other philosophy without fully understanding why that was abandoned a decade earlier.

I see it in architecture, as we go between brutalist-minimalist clean looks to more ornate and back. I see it in regulation of industry vs free enterprise. I see it in pacifism oscillating with war aggression (usually under the guise of “defense”). I see it in loose vs tight money policy. The examples are endless.

When I was young I hated history. I saw no use for it. I was certain that the past had nothing to teach in the modern world. I innovated and created. And, over time I saw the full lifecycle of the products and systems I had created. And, in some cases I could see the replacement systems go full cycle. And, then the next. Time and gray hair gives the opportunity to observe things over time.

Here is what I have seen: A lot can be learned from the past. People long ago—even 5,000 years ago—were as smart as we are today. They were really, incredibly smart. They didn’t have electricity, but they had pretty much everything else.

What I see is that most new systems and all new political ideas have existed before. We get trapped up in the new current problem of the moment (“terrorism” or “communism” or “fascism” or “dumping”) without really understanding why the problem exists or what will really fix it.

Often we make things worse.

Our war on terrorism since the 9/11 events is a great example. We have spent nearly 1,000 times what the 9/11 events cost…all in the name of prevention. We have given up our freedoms, we have goaded would-be terrorists on, and we have most probably not prevented much from happening. In taking the big picture I would have gathered that money be used to install fully built-out subway systems in all of our top-50 cities. (The money would be about the same.)

I see this happening with phone regulation now. We need the FCC to come in and declare network neutrality. We need the FCC to create a level playing field, because companies abhor a level playing field. (Mergers primarily exist to eliminate a level playing field.) We need the FCC to re-create the privacy of communications policies that served us well for 60 years from 1930 to 1990.

But the way things go, we vacillate. We regulate, then we deregulate, and then we re-regulate. All in the name of progress.

If you want to understand the future, just read some history books. I say this to students when I sometimes guest lecture: “Really, you are not as clever as you think. Somebody in China is as smart, artistic, and hard working as you. Somebody in Iran knows more about something in your chosen field than you do. And, you will most likely in your career create something wonderful that fails in the same way as a previous system that solved this same problem. Study history and make fewer mistakes. A side benefit of this is that you will be less eager to go to war.”