Chaos Monkey

Recently I attended a talk by a IT industry guru where he discussed Netflix’ trouble-making semi-autonomous software program, Chaos Monkey.  Basically, this is a program they unleash on their production servers that randomly shuts down parts of their programming.  Outside of sounding like a distant ancestor of the Terminator robot this seems, on the face of it, to be an absolutely terrible idea.  But it has a point and a purpose.  It helps them write software that is dramatically more robust, reliable and resilient, and it prepares them to respond quickly and effectively to unexpected outages.

A lot of recent research has been done on resiliency, and how hardship and challenges can build it.  But the Chaos Monkey concept started me thinking about how a similar process might be at work in many of our own lives.  Have you ever wondered why there are so few “well-adjusted” people in the world?  Why so many people, once you get to know them well, seem to be afflicted with self-defeating behaviors at the best and a touch of mental illness at the worst?  What if that’s our own mental version of Chaos Monkey?

I’ll be honest, the thing that put it in my mind is the fact that I’ve long known I’m my own worst enemy.  But if I can stay on top of my own mood swings, tendencies to shoot myself in the foot, and occasional outbursts (and I’ve crafted, over the years, a wide variety of elaborate rituals to help me do so) I’ve found that very little else bothers me much anymore.  I don’t tend to get stressed at work.  I can deal with chaos, uncertainty and conflict with others with relative calm, and ever since reaching adulthood, I’ve managed largely to avoid making or keeping enemies.  Maybe my mental quirks are my own private Chaos Monkey, making me resilient, and prepping me to bounce back from external setbacks.  I can envision this taking place at a larger scale as well.  Why do people keep going to war?  Maybe we’re keeping our disaster-recovery skills sharp in the intervals between natural disasters.

Of course, it’s clear this kind of thing can easily go too far.  Like the gene for sickle-cell anemia, one copy of which can protect you from malaria, two copies of which can kill you, we can see on street corners and in headline news alike people whose mental Chaos Monkeys are winning.  And with self-inflicted injuries like global terrorism, civil wars, and climate change taking a steeper and steeper toll, we might find that we need to reign in our global Chaos Monkeys as well –before it’s too late.

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