Scale Breaks Things

Photo by Jonathan Petersson on

Anyone with a driver’s license has had the experience of driving around a large, empty parking lot. It’s one of the first places new drivers get their start. It’s easy to drive in circles and cross the lines used to mark off parking spaces to learn the feel of the vehicle. The lanes used to drive in are more suggestions when the lot is empty.

As other vehicles start to park, more constraints need to be considered. Now there is someone and something to avoid hitting. A little more care needs to be taken. Slowly, as more and more vehicles show up, the constraints get tighter.

Speed needs to be reduced; wouldn’t want to hit someone walking between two cars. Crossing over the parking space lines requires more consideration than previously. When choosing a space, there are fewer options on the table. The parking lot stop signs enter into play as more cars are mobile at the same time.

Last week we saw Coinbase go down as millions of people tried to log in to trade crypto currencies. Robinhood has gone down a number of times on hot trading days. Even Amazon has suffered issues causing Roombas to stop working. The same as the parking lot scenario above, scale breaks things. The more people trying to use something simultaneously, the harder is gets for everyone.

We instinctively get that in certain domains. When it comes to regulating the US economy, though, we tend to lose sight of that. The Obamacare website crashed when it was unveiled due to high volume. Voter’s miss their chance to cast a ballot when lines hold more people than can be handled. San Francisco and New York City need to consider different constraints than Sheridan and Pocatello. They need to play by different rules.

We can have insightful and meaningful discussions about who should be able to regulate what and what happens if a regulation is broken. Before those conversations happen, though, it needs to be remembered that part of the issue is scale. Scale breaks things.

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