I'm posting this via a computer I haven't used for a few months. My current machine, a 2.0 GHz MacBook, began this morning to exhibit the "random shutdown syndrome" that apparently afflicts most of the units made prior to July or August. I've now sent it off to the mothership for a brain transplant.
I had a current backup, so this is at worst a serious annoyance, not a infocalypse. Still, it got me thinking about typical futurist discourse around technology. It's not impossible to find discussions of (for example) nanofactories or everyware sensor networks that assume that the systems will be buggy and prone to surprising and sometimes baffling failures, but they're not at all common. Admittedly, it's awfully hard to talk about failure states of vaporware. Paradigm shifts in technologies of material fabrication, communication and awareness will undoubtedly be accompanied by significant shifts in what broken or buggy systems look like. All too often, while in the middle of a technological revolution, we'll find ourselves forced to go backwards, forced into technological devolution, simply because the new stuff is broken.
It is entirely possible that the technologies underlying nanofabrication (again, for example) simply will not, cannot break in the ways we're accustomed to with our current high tech gear. This doesn't mean that they won't manifest their own quirks and failures. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that if the technologies offer such a radical leap that they cannot fail in familiar ways, unexpected and potentially significant new failure modes are inevitable, simply because of an imperfect understanding of the complex interaction of these new systems with each other, and (more importantly) with the remaining, and likely abundant, old-style systems.
Proponents of paradigm-shift technologies are so accustomed to having to demonstrate why the new invention will be utterly transformative that they often (in my experience, at least) neglect to consider how the system will behave in the midst of existing technical, legal and social systems. This leads to technologies that work perfectly well in the lab, but fail spectacularly when in the dirty, crowded environment of the real world.
The biggest danger with this sort of thinking is that it leads designers to neglect fail-safe and graceful degradation modes. When we have convinced ourselves that there's no possibility of failure, any failure that does (almost inevitably) occur presents a far, far greater problem than it would have had we considered that a problem might emerge. Instead, technologies should, in Adam Greenfield's words, "default to harmlessness:" Systems fail; when they do, they can fail gracefully or they can fail catastrophically. When a system fails, it should do so in a way which does not itself make problems worse.
The belief that successful outcomes are possible does not require us to ignore or wish away failure. Basing plans on perfection adds a great deal of risk with little added reward. Instead, success demands that we address failures directly: preventing them when possible, mitigating them when necessary, adapting to them if we must.