In Geeks We Trust   (2015Jul19)

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Sunday, July 19, 2015                                              6:06 PM

Some people get whiny when their cell-phone service isn’t perfect. It’s a mistake to take instantaneous light-speed communication with anyone else on the face of the Earth for granted. For thousands of years of civilization, no one could speak to anyone who wasn’t within shouting distance. And that’s still true whenever there’s a power outage, a natural disaster, or if you travel too far from where people make money.

The electromagnetic umbrella of cell-phone coverage does not blanket the Earth. It doesn’t even blanket where all the people are. It only covers where there are people making and spending money. Some people purposely vacation where there is no cell-phone coverage, to hide from people who abuse the privilege—but those people are usually involved in over-intruding on others, when they’re not on vacation, so most of us aren’t driven to such an extreme.

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When we lose cell-phone service because of a storm, we don’t think of it as a deadly threat—we wait for someone to fix it. But if it didn’t get fixed, we’d be in a bit of a mess. The further we travel down the road to wireless everything, the more resounding the thud when Mother Nature or some other cause brings down the network. When we began using computers in our office, back in the seventies, we kept paper back-up records of everything. The computers broke down sometimes, and we had to be able to go back to the old paper records to continue doing business.

After a while, we stopped doing that. Not only were the records a huge storage problem, but the volume of transactions we were doing on a daily basis had grown far beyond what could be done by hand in the same amount of time. We were doing business faster using computers than we could have physically done by hand on paper. Suddenly, our digital back-ups became important—even vital. Hard drives can die—and without a digital back-up to restore from, an entire business can disappear—all the records of sales, bills, and payments gone—poof.

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Now we’ve invested in digital to the point where even an individual can find themselves in big trouble through the sudden loss of a cell-phone. To a large degree, they’ve replaced wallets, address books, calendars—they’re even starting to replace credit cards recently. We don’t just talk on them, we exchange memos, agenda, travel info, we have meetings with small groups, we get directions, we store passwords and account info. Pretty much anything that used to involve a piece of paper or the use of a reference book or map or required memorization—it’s all been digitized down into that one little gadget.

Back-ups became as important a part of our personal lives as our businesses—enter the ‘cloud’. A cloud is a place where you rely on someone else to make reliable back-ups of your stuff. If you lose your phone, you can get a new phone and replace everything from your cloud. Clouds are billed as ‘conveniences’, but this belies the enormous trust and reliability implicit in (1) trusting someone with all your personal info and (2) relying on them to do a better job of keeping your data safe than you could do yourself.

For most people this is natural—they don’t know from back-ups and would have, in the past, simply accepted the fact that they lost all their data whenever they lost their phone. But my background goes back far enough that I still talk about ‘computers’—I’m old school. I spent most of those old days worrying over my own back-ups, in the office and at home. My home PC is fully backed up, in duplicate, on CDs (for the older files) and external hard drives (a more recent, easier and cheaper alternative due to the plummeting cost of digital media storage).

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But even for me, the cloud offers something important. One rule of safe back-ups is to always have one copy off-site. A cloud allows me to have another copy of all my personal data files in a place other than my house—in case it burns down or something. For now, I’m not doing this—clouds are expensive and new, which makes them unreliable. And this idea that new technology guarantees trust is ridiculous—I’m never getting behind the wheel of a vehicle that can be hacked—that’s insane. And I’m never going to trust my data to a cloud until clouds have some kind of industry oversight or government regulation. If information is the new currency, then where’s the Federal Reserve Board for my personal data?

I don’t want to get all survivalist about it—but those people are correct when they point out the fragility of our existing infrastructure. The more complex the system, the more vulnerable it becomes. Our digital technology gives us great speed and convenience, but our trust and reliance on its uninterrupted, secure continuance is based on wishful thinking rather than any proof that the digital industry has the gravitas of a life-supporting industry. They are more like kittens, easily distracted with a laser-pointer.

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Hacking can come from friend and foe alike. Parents can hack their kids. Kids can hack their schools. Government can hack us all. And black hats can hack the government. Businesses, without any actual hacking, can take your life story and sell it as demographic research to marketers and retailers. Online services can take tacit ownership of your intellectual property through draconian EULAs that users never even read before clicking ‘I Accept’. Banks and phone companies and credit cards can stick little charges in your bills, hoping that you won’t look close enough, or care enough, to complain. Insurance companies routinely refuse claims, or make you jump through an exhausting number of hoops, knowing that a certain percentage of people will just throw up their hands and walk away. We’ve been ‘hacking’ each other for long before computers got involved—they’ve just added another layer to the conundrum.

Yet we willingly place our trust in anything that’s got silicon chips inside. I can see where it got started. People used to have to trust nerds—we were the only ones who could tell you how to work a computer. But it’s not like that anymore—except in the basement of development labs working on new tech. Everywhere else in business and consumer electronics, the nerds are no longer in charge—or they own the company, which amounts to the same thing—a billionaire becomes a businessperson, nerd or not. Just ask Bill. And there is one thing we know for sure about business—it can’t be trusted with the public welfare.

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As digital becomes more important in our lives, we see many bad side-effects. We see poor driving—make that dangerous driving. We see a lack of social interaction and a rise in online addiction. We see misuse of mega-data collected for one purpose and used for a hundred others. We see online stalking, online bullying, and online terrorism. We see ubiquitous surveillance. We see the markets being manipulated by micro-traders. Drones and hackers range from the harmless to the bloodthirsty. What we don’t see is regulation and oversight.

I want to keep the Internet free and open to equal access—but that’s the only thing I want to see remain in its wild state. Everything else should be managed and regulated with the same stringent requirements as money or medical records. I know that such an initiative would just draw all the lobbyists out of the woodwork, trying to tie us all into a tighter-still knot of commercial peonage, rather than acting as the civil service I’m suggesting. But there’s little enough accountability in business and government today—the digital industry should have at least a taste of it. After all, we aren’t that far from a day when we’ll all die without it—shouldn’t we take it a little seriously?

We can’t take a bottle of water onto a commercial airplane—but we can take a laptop, cell-phone, i-whatever—and we’re not all agreed yet on whether those things can crash the flight electronics of certain planes. Does that make any sense? Electromagnetism is invisible—we’re always tempted to think of it as harmless. We’re lucky there’s thunder—or we wouldn’t have the sense to fear the lightning.

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Blossoming

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

1:36 PM

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Blossoming

The 1960s were an era of blooming. Flower Power was the order of the day. When those first protestors stuck daisies into the barrels of the National Guard’s rifles—rifles that were pointed straight at the protestors and close enough for them to jam a flower stem into it—they began the revolt that was later assimilated into our culture. This was the dawning of the concept ‘think outside the box’, though no one would see the shift clearly enough to put into those words for another two decades. The 1950s had been a high-water mark for stultification in America. But that homogeneity was so pervasive that it became a weakness—a stiffness that almost dared you to deviate by so much as an inch.

In the 1960s, clever young college students (and even high school students) were taking that dare. The adult legions in their housing developments, automobiles, telephones, air conditioners and refrigerators, were enjoying a luxurious lifestyle compared to the three previous decades—a ‘middle class’—all of whom came from a prior poverty where such opulence as their present had been considered great wealth. They liked it—especially after getting back alive from a world war—and nothing their kids could say was gonna change that.

Blanket conformity like ours of the 1950s can be made to look ridiculous by something as simple as pretending to be unaware of the restrictions. If you have ever seen episodes of an old TV show, “Laugh-In”, you will note that the humor is pretty moronic. That such antics were enough to ‘scandalize’ audiences into ‘aren’t we naughty?’-tittering is both an example of how strait-laced our diversions had become, and an indication of how such boldness has gone from bravery, then –to commonplace, now.

Some young people saw ‘flower power’ primarily as a political statement insofar as forcing the issue into the basic ‘peace vs. war’, ‘hawks vs. doves’ arena—this made the geopolitical implications of the war in Viet Nam a moot point. Much was made of the great distance between our two nations, the lack of any immediate threat to US soil, and the youth of the soldiers being led to the slaughter. This damaged the premises which our government used to defend its policies, i.e. the ‘domino effect’ (the idea that, if Nam fell to the Commies, the Reds would just press on to the next victim-nation, and the next, ad infinitum.) This ‘controversy judo’, if you will, left Hippies free to brand themselves as “peace protestors” and the Establishment as “war-hawks. This was very powerful PR.

But others, including myself, saw ‘flower power’ as a philosophical quantum-leap—the idea that everything can be made light of (or, conversely, be made a looming tragedy) by ones approach, or point-of-view. This gives us the powerfully robust intellects of the digital age. Today’s budding scientists are not made de facto ‘monks in a cloister’ by those old assumptions (i.e. ‘geeks’ are inconsequential, space-flight is nonsensical, and racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism are all perfectly acceptable in our society.) Science is king (in business, finance and the military, anyway) even if the new, ‘indoctrinated from birth in closed communities’ Evangelicals (and other cultists) are making a brave stand against Reason.

We today are much more aware of the duality of things, the plurality of the open-mind, and the origins of the observable universe. We more easily accept the concept of 11-dimensional space (the other seven of which can only be inferred by theoretical physics), our new map of the Human Genome (the blueprints for making a healthy baby), the practicality of a permanent space outpost such as the International Space Station, and an understanding of the human brain that allows us to legislate against ‘cellphones while driving’ because we can clearly state that those two brain functions interfere with each other to a dangerous, often catastrophic, extent.

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Such open-minded-ness is not without its costs. We see bullying and exclusion of students leading, next semester, to armed murder sprees. We see people spouting the most self-serving nonsense become popular, respected Christians in our communities. We see finely honed pro athletes accidentally shooting themselves in the tuchas in nightclubs (cause they gotta be carryin’ if they want any street cred, yo!)—and celebrities exiting limousines pausing to flash their privates for the paparazzi. We see a lot of ‘crazy’ along with pluralism—it is more a balancing act than a philosophy. But in our technology-driven culture, most of us need a lot of knowledge—and those of us who can’t absorb enough become walking examples of the adage: ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’.

Ending of Saturday, June 09, 2012           1:26 AM

[Wednesday, June 13, 2012         7:50 PM    New additions: ]

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Where does that leave us? O, right, cyber-space! We have launched our civilization into cyber-space. Banks, Stock Exchanges, Military, Industry, Factories, record keeping of every kind, each and every transaction’s paperwork or contracts—and let’s not forget the fairly new ‘e-book’ push. The Times today announced that Thomas Pynchon, considered by most our greatest living novelist, has given his publisher permission to offer his works in ‘e-book’-form.

So, we are on the verge of replacing our school books, texts, references, and encyclopedias with electronic ‘books’. We’ve already (mostly) replaced paper checks, paper invoices & bills, paper receipts, typewriters…. Heck, we’ve even switched from ballpoints to felt-tips (felt-tips were unacceptable, pre-digital, because they didn’t leave an impression for the carbon copies on the sales receipts) because a data-file of a .doc ‘don’t need no steenkin’ carbons’ (if I may paraphrase Generalissimo Zapata).

Gone are the days of the gruff ol’grampaw who ‘just isn’t interested in those newfangled laptop-thingies’. If you want to talk to your friends, withdraw money from a bank, keep your photographs where you can share them with the rest of the family, or use the navigational system in the car to get anyplace at all—you’ve got to get in the pool and get wet. You must accept that you will have a life-time of hunting and pecking before you—a mouse is very useful, but there’s always gonna be some text input, i.e. typing. You must accept that every little blip on the screen display, even the different colors of the text-words (when it’s also a hyperlink) all of these tiny details are important. You must accept help from your grandchildren when you get stuck.

But mostly we just have to accept that we are now the most ignorant segment of society. All of our hard-earned knowledge is now garbage, all of our hard-won experience is more likely to mislead us, than guide us, through cyber-space. We must remember that the ethics of our youth are considered quite naïve—weaknesses that others will only exploit, never share.

Still, this discomfort, coming so late in life, is very exciting—and we know we won’t be here long enough to see even today’s perspective become quaint and dated—as it must, as every age has. The real victims are the low-IQ folks—even if they get full-on support at home, at school, for medical or therapy requirements—even the best case scenario—will still leave the learning-disabled unarmed in a world of speed and complexity and competition.

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Speaking of IQ—it wouldn’t surprise me if the test has to be recalibrated in future to account for the rise in over-all IQ-strength needed to hold even a minimum-wage service-industry job. If legislation hadn’t passed so promptly, the texting-while-driving error would have swiftly winnowed out, in hyper-Darwinian fashion, the less sensible drivers among us. Then again, they may have taken out plenty of smarter, innocent car-full’s in the process!

Yes, perhaps I will have to reconsider this issue of increasing complexity in everyday life, and the bad position duller-minded people may find themselves in—it’s equally likely that their lack of comprehension will result in more oppressive government. If we can’t trust citizens to understand what they’re doing—well, of course, we’re gonna need to put some slight restraints on peoples’ activities, right? Yes, the intelligentsia will chafe at the bridle—but who listens to a bunch of eggheads anyway….

Ah, Flower-Power, where are you now? Have we gone beyond our blossoming, into the mulch of history?