Sunday, April 25, 2010

project failure

I've been reading Bruno Latour's Aramis, or the Love of Technology, a postmodernist account of the failure of a massive French project to develop a Personal Rapid Transit system. Latour's book contains chunks of fiction, interviews, historical documents, and authorial comment, broken out by the typography - the experience is more like reading a long blog post containing blockquotes from different sources and snarky comments on them than anything else.

It's a fascinating exploration of the politics of the project, the nature of projects themselves, and the sources of project failure; running from 1969 to 1987, the scheme went from conceptual paper studies to a major prototype by 1973, and eventually built a large-scale test implementation in the mid-80s, before being suddenly cancelled while an intensive test campaign intended to qualify it for deployment was under way. Latour is primarily interested in how the overall concept and much of the technology stayed the same, although its objectives, planned deployment, and resources changed constantly throughout the project.

He argues that, eventually, the crucial issue was that a project is a fundamentally political concept - it has to recruit the support of people and of interest groups in order to progress, and Aramis was a side-project for nearly everyone involved except for two groups - the engineers working on it, and the French Communist Party. Unfortunately for the first group, the contract for large-scale tests was signed as the last act in office of the Communist transport minister before the party pulled out of the Mitterrand government.

This is of course true; a project needs to create its own tribe and its own culture. However, I'm quite ambivalent about the whole concept; not really about its technical or economic aspects, but rather about the idea of urbanness that was built into its core assumptions. PRT emerged in the 1960s as a technological fix to what its American proponents thought was the steady decline of cities - the big idea was a form of high-capacity public transport that would provide point-to-point service without intermediate stops, in a private environment, rather like a car, but without traffic jams or exhaust fumes or road accidents.

The flip side of this comes up again and again in Latour's interviews with Matra and RATP executives, regarding their assumptions about the passengers and the user-experience studies that were carried out later in the project. Passengers, apparently, wanted more than anything else to be transported from point to point, "without transfers, without thinking", without other people. Not that any passengers had actually been asked what they thought at this point. Clearly, the political assumptions built into Aramis from the beginning were that moving around a city was basically unpleasant, and specifically because of the presence of other people. Huge amounts of effort were expended on the contradictory task of building a vehicle and a broader networked system that was both user-controlled and designed to keep the user from engaging with it in any way.

Very significantly, when user studies were actually carried out, the public was notably cool on the idea and found the cabins (patterned, on the inside, on the Renault Espace) unnerving and uncanny - rather than being protected from a sinister and menacing urban jungle, they felt isolated in sealed capsules controlled by automated systems, in which they could still be confronted with strangers. The paranoia and declinism that originally motivated the PRT concept was accurately preserved in its architecture and communicated to its potential passengers.

Of course, if you were to ask me about this on the Northern Line or the 271 bus tomorrow evening, I'd probably be significantly more sympathetic to the idea; it's much easier to enjoy public transport when it isn't operating at overload-plus. This was also a criticism of Aramis - the RATP managers found it hard to imagine a system working that didn't use standing passengers as a buffer for peak demand, which is telling in itself. And the PCF's interest was presumably in the idea of a communal and high-modernist rival to the car that would also be a major technical boost for French industry.

Another interesting but under-discussed angle is that of failed consilience.

While the most active phase of Aramis development was on, other groups of engineers were solving the problems of routing discrete packets around a dense scalefree network, preventing them from colliding, and providing congestion control, load-balancing, and controllable routing metrics. They were, of course, the IEEE-802 and IETF work groups building the Internet. The engineers down the road at Alcatel working on GSM could probably have told them a thing or two, as well. The analogies between the longest prefix match/shortest path wins logic of BGP and the problems of routing Aramis cars are very close, although one problem that doesn't come up in internetworking is how to return the empties and make sure there is a sufficient free float of vehicles to maintain the service. (You regularly see small vans redistributing the Velib bikes around Paris in order to deal with just this problem.)

Part of the explanation, and another interesting angle, is that there was clearly a massive culture clash between the Matra defence-electronics managers, the RATP railwaymen, and the software developers subcontracted in to eventually write the routing and speed-control systems. Matra representatives repeatedly mention that there was a need for a revolution in microprocessors, although that is precisely what happened every 18 months throughout the project.

Apparently, a related system is under test around Heathrow Terminal 5, due to go live in "spring 2010". Anyone taking bets?


celestialweasel said...

Has there ever been a more French book on technology? Part of the problem with the book, I felt, is that it is rather kicking at an open door, i.e. a book that expends great effort to explain why something that at first glance seems an absurd idea really IS an absurd idea.

John Hughes said...

One minor difference between PRT and BGP routing is the consequences of a dropped packet.

Alex said...

True, although that's arguably more a question of collision-detection...

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