Feedback: Turning on Directions

This is the first post in a mini-series on Sci on the Fly that will explore questions about feedback. This post asks: How can real-time feedback fail us and what makes it potent?

The hit television show, The Office, has a laughable scene that reveals a potential limitation of real-time feedback. In it, Michael is driving Dwight across the state to drum up business. He comes to an intersection, and his Global Positioning System (GPS) unit instructs him in real-time to make a right turn. Michael then proceeds, and the following dialogue ensues:

Can you spare the time?

For centuries, we’ve survived with wristwatches that kept time accurate to within a few minutes per year. Yet early in 2016, a timing signal broadcast an error of only 13 microseconds, which in turn disrupted telecommunications and other networked computers around the globe. How could such a small error, an amount of time equivalent to 1/25,000 of an eye blink, cause such problems?

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