Central authority or distributed systems?

From The Archives - I’m going back through the old blog and reposting some of the best articles.

What is better? An efficient central plan that takes everything into account, or distributed actors working in their own small domain? As a computer scientist trying to design complex systems, I run into this problem every day. Should I strive for a perfect system where we have everything planned, or should we just make some dumb independent components that do their own thing? It turns out in every system I've worked on for the last 20 years, dumb independent components always wins out (c.f. the Internet).

No one ever believe this, and I fight about it all the time. A business likes to have a plan and the appearance of efficiency - it's better to design efficiency rather than hope it emerges (at least that's what I always hear). But a centrally planned system always fails, and it fails because something somewhere wasn't accounted for or there was a bug somewhere or something wasn't perfectly designed. If you knew everything up front, and you did everything correctly, then yes, central planning is good. But you're not perfect, and central planning is terribly fragile.

Computer science isn't special, it's just one view into the world. Making computers work together to do something is just like making people work together to do something. This shows up at all levels of organizing (and controlling) people, with the government being the best example (oh no, not another libertarian rant...)

I've been beating the corruption-and-incompetance-in-the-government-is-killing-you drum for a long time. I love that this week a real New York Times article hit the mainstream media about how the sugar industry controlled the narrative for the last 50 years to shift the obesity, heart disease, and diabetes discussion away from sugar and onto fat.

But that's private industry, how is that a problem? We need more regulation right? Keep those evil corporations under control.

I'll quote from the article:

"...the Sugar Research Foundation, known today as the Sugar Association, paid three Harvard scientists the equivalent of about $50,000 in today’s dollars to publish a 1967 review of research on sugar, fat and heart disease. The studies used in the review were handpicked by the sugar group, and the article, which was published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, minimized the link between sugar and heart health and cast aspersions on the role of saturated fat."

Ok, just bad (fraudulent) science right?

"One of the scientists who was paid by the sugar industry was D. Mark Hegsted, who went on to become the head of nutrition at the United States Department of Agriculture, where in 1977 he helped draft the forerunner to the federal government’s dietary guidelines."

Which leads to...

"Dr. Hegsted used his research to influence the government’s dietary recommendations, which emphasized saturated fat as a driver of heart disease while largely characterizing sugar as empty calories linked to tooth decay. Today, the saturated fat warnings remain a cornerstone of the government’s dietary guidelines, though in recent years the American Heart Association, the World Health Organization and other health authorities have also begun to warn that too much added sugar may increase cardiovascular disease risk."

So we have the sugar industry pay some scientists to write some review articles in a prestigious journal and then those same folks directly influence what the Government says you should eat. Most people want to do the right thing, they want to trust the government. Doctors will get sued for not following standard of care. All of that central control has turned us into an overweight, weak, sick population.

Fine, don't listen to the government, eat what you want. Except that SNAP (food stamps), federal cafeterias (e.g., NCAR), schools (what your kids eat!), and now even corporate wellness programs have to listen to these recommendations. The sugar industry bribes 50 years ago directly affect the food available to you and your kids today!

What's the solution? Take this level of control away from the government. Don't let the government be in control of regulating and recommending what you eat. Allow distributed systems of organizations find the right answer. The easily-corrupted central control is fragile. Any time you defer authority to a smaller and smaller group people, the easier it is for cracks to form in the system, the easier it is for a bug (innocent or nefarious) to destroy the system. What is harder to bribe, thousands of small municipal governments, 50 state governments, or one large Federal government?

Michael Deskevich