Why more is not better: the caves of Lascaux

| July 23, 2006

One of my key principles in applying technology is that “more is not better.” Time Magazine has an excellent example of that, discussing the problems introduced by a change in climate control technology at the world-famous caves of Lascaux:

Art restorer Rosalie Godin was overwhelmed for a very different reason when she was urgently called to Lascaux in August 2001 by France’s Research Laboratory for Historical Monuments (LRMH). “It was as if it had snowed in the cave. Everything was covered in white,” she says. Two of the cave’s caretakers, Bruno Desplat and Sandrine van Solinge, had raised the alarm when they discovered that white filaments, first spotted in isolated parts of the cave months before, had spread over much of the interior in a matter of days. Desplat, who lives next to Lascaux and has devoted more than 15 years to its care, says that when he saw the luxuriant bloom, he became physically ill.

That’s not to say that he or the cave’s curator, the prehistorian Jean-Michel Geneste, could have been entirely surprised. The previous spring, workers had finished installing a $28,000 air-conditioning system beneath the stairs leading down to the cave. The new machine represented a major change in the way Lascaux’s delicate balance of temperature and humidity had been regulated for more than three decades. The old system, installed in 1968 after years of minute studies of the cave’s climate, relied on Lascaux’s natural currents to pass air over a cold point and ensure that water condensed there, like it does on a beer can, rather than on the walls of the cave. This passive system was necessary only during the wettest periods of the year, when it worked as a functional replacement for the earth that for millenniums had absorbed excess water from the saturated air of the cave but was removed after the cave’s discovery in 1940.

The new system was designed to automate the process and improve on it, using two massive fans to pull air toward the cold point. The intrusive approach scandalized those who had worked so hard to figure out a more modest solution to earlier problems in the cave. “Our idea was always to be as parsimonious as possible,” says Pierre Vidal, a retired researcher who worked in Lascaux for decades. “This thing seemed more like a central air-conditioning system.”

In most organizations, an individual or board has the last word on decisions, especially one this controversial. Yet nobody claims authorship of the decision to install the new machine–neither the curator nor the project’s main architect. Technical advice was provided by Ingéni, an air-systems consultancy firm based near Paris, which had designed systems for supermarkets and museums but had no experience with caves. “We proposed a system, and that’s what they chose,” says the firm’s managing director, Michel de la Giraudière. “I don’t know why they favored an active system over a passive one, but I do know not everyone was of the same opinion. They wanted a certain efficacy, and the discussion was somewhat political.”

I am not surprised that “nobody claims authorship” for this decision, but it is the last sentence in the extract above that is most telling: “They wanted a certain efficacy, and the discussion was somewhat political.” That sums up the forces behind any number of major technology projects, which at times are launched into for no other motivation or analysis than a desire for “a certain efficacy.”

The entire article is worth reading (if Time tries to charge you $1.99 for it, keep trying the link) and appears to be well-balanced in suggesting various explanations for the problems at Lascaux. But it is also a reminder that the medical dictum Primum non nocare (“First, do no harm”) applies to fields well outside of health care. ..bruce..

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Category: Information Technology, Main

About the Author ()

Webster is Principal and Founder at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Brigham Young University. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at bwebster@bfwa.com, or you can follow him on Twitter as @bfwebster.

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