I wrote this as a brief introduction to a short story I am writing.
scru·ta·ble | \ ˈskrü-tə-bəl
Definition of scrutable: capable of being deciphered : COMPREHENSIBLE
On March 3rd 1878 in Menlo Park, New Jersey Thomas Edison sent William Orten, the president of the Western Union Telegraph Company, a letter describing a problem with his quadruplex telegraph system. The system was, at the time, one of the most advanced pieces of electronics in existence. It was intended to allow users to send and receive several telegraph messages, on the same wire, at the same time.
In the letter, Edison mentioned a problem with his equipment and described it as a “bug.” He did not mean an actual bug or insect was the culprit, but rather he was using the term to describe a nuisance that kept cropping up as he worked.
Much later, on September 9th 1947 the Aiken Relay Calculator (also known as the Mark II computer) in Cambridge Massachusetts began producing errors. Like Edison’s telegraph system, the Mark II was one of the earliest and most advanced systems of its time. During this particular day, the Mark II kept giving incorrect answers to the calculations it was asked to perform. The technicians did not understand the cause of the malfunction and decided to investigate. By 3:45 that afternoon they had found the source of the problem. Upon inspection of the panels of tubes and relays at the core of the Mark II it was discovered that on Panel F, Relay #70 had an actual bug in it. The bug was a moth.
The technician described it as the “First actual case of a bug being found” in the technical notes recorded that afternoon. The unfortunate moth can still be seen taped to those notes archived at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Virginia.
These stories are quaint remembrances from a time past. A simpler time. The use of the word “bug” helps us ground our understanding of complex systems in the practical realm of our daily lives. Bugs in the real world are, after all, just a nuisance to be dealt with.
Together these stories have cemented the term “bug” in our culture. “It’s a bug” or “this thing is buggy” are terms we commonly use when we are frustrated with a device that is not behaving.
A careful reading will find other similarities in these stories. When a machine malfunctioned, it was obvious something had gone wrong and fixing the problem was just a matter of investigation. It was assumed that the machines we built could be understood; that they were, in a word, scrutable. In fact, it was believed to be a fundamental property of everything we built. After all, how could we build something so complex we couldn’t understand how it worked, something so complex we couldn’t fix it?
As it turns out, being able to comprehend our inventions was a fundamental feature for centuries. These early engineers and those who followed, building ever more complex machines, were able to understand and even predict how their inventions would behave.
But we were naive to think that this state of understanding would remain. Things would eventually change and the consequences would be devastating.
Tragically these stories demonstrated a profound lack of imagination. At the time, no-one could imagine that we would build systems so complex that we would no longer understand how they worked. Yet, that is exactly what we have done.
This story is about our creation of those enormously complex systems and their catastrophic consequences on our world. . .
This leaves us with the hidden meaning behind these stories. Each uses the term “bug,” whose true and earliest form was from the Old Norse “bugge” meaning boogeyman.
The term was used to describe monsters.