"Sometimes you need real people."

On Saturday, 27 August 2005, the New York Times published a story by Kirk Johnson on the quiet demise of the Denver International Airport computerized baggage-handling system (free registration req'd). A couple of points stand out as lessons about our relationships with both the fantasies and realities of technology.

(1) "Automation always looks good on paper" said a lead baggage handler and president of the union local representing United Airlines' Denver baggage handlers. "Sometimes you need real people." As a software engineer I know only too well how easy it is to overlook the details of the actual work when pursuing a system design. Simplification and generalization are required in design, but they have to fairly represent and support the actual day-to-day work. Daily life, I re-learn every day, is a bit messy and defined by a plethora of local contingencies.

(2) Richard de Neufville is quoted as saying "It wasn't the technology per se, it was a misplaced faith in it.... The main culprit was hubris." The builders had imagined that their creation would work well even at the busiest boundaries of its capacity. That left no room for the errors and inefficiencies that are inevitable in a complex enterprise. I'm not sure this is completely fair. Engineering requires a certain amount of optimism and confidence, otherwise we wouldn't really try.

But technology is all about people. It's good to keep that in mind.