The British media, ever ready for any drama has a track record of photographers taking pictures of politicians carrying documents to and from meetings that can be clearly read when the images are enlarged. The obvious question arises is “Just how dumb are our politicians and their staff that this keeps happening ?”
This latest instance involves some assistant carrying hand written notes that ‘may’ indicate the UK Government’s desired objectives with regard to EU negotiations or ‘may well not’ but either way, their exposure should not have happened, folders are available and should be used. However this post is not so much about that specifically but more about what happens when people and ‘systems’ meet.
With a background in IT before I ‘retired’, I was well aware that when it came to securing your computer networks, whilst external threats always exist, the greatest threat by a very big percentage came from your own employees and users because of their laziness, bad habits or just plain ignorance concerning what they were doing.
The interesting thing was that when you caught them out, the worst offenders especially among senior staff always had big excuses such as “being very busy” but in reality their real problem was their ignorance coupled with a fear of owning up to that and asking for help. However there is also another aspect to all technology which is worth taking into account and forms the main thrust of this post.
Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the main operating system was still DOS, with the graphical Windows interface sitting on top of it. In order to get things to work properly on start up, you had to write a batch file (.BAT) which was a text script to load all the drivers for the devices attached to the PC, it could be a right royal pain ! Then along came Windows 95 which included the ability to recognise and load these things automatically via a system called “Plug and Play” which IT support people rapidly rechristened “Plug and Pray” because until third party vendors got onboard fully, it was rather hit and miss. However it progressed over the next few years so that when Windows 2000 came along, it was quite sophisticated.
I can recall working on a project and we had rolled out Windows 2000 about 6 months previously when I had an interesting conversation with one of the user support technicians. He made the point that since we had installed Win 2000, he felt he was becoming increasingly ‘de-skilled’ because he didn’t have to deal with all the crud that was inherent in the previous versions of Windows. I could empathise with him because whilst I was in a managerial role, I too had hit the odd problem here and there which had taken too long for me to resolve until I had stopped myself, rethought the issue and gone back to “the way we used to do this…” and in doing so, solved the problem. This kind of experience is inherent when any product becomes an ‘enclosed black box’ solution.
The Black Box Problem
Things becoming “black boxes” was always an obvious path for manufacturers to follow because it offers reliable, repeatable and cheaper products but also means that any maintenance becomes pretty foolproof, replacing a whole unit as opposed to replacing a component within that unit, eliminates human error in making a botched repair but at the cost of increasing the component price. In previous times the materials for a repair might be £5 with a labour charge of £40, today the component is probably £40 because it is bundled up with other components in a ‘black box’ and the labour charge is only £10 for switching it in or out.
However there is also a downside to consider which is that whilst such an approach eliminates or substantially reduces the potential for human error it also eliminates the spreading of the knowledge and skills relevant to whatever is inside the “box”. The one time car mechanic has now become little better than a “module replacement technician” and what they replace is determined by plug in diagnostics machines that is programmed by computers in a factory on the other side of the world. In other words, both skill and knowledge have become centralised and therefore both the design, application and market control are too and this may become very undesirable for society as a whole.
In a particular sense this is very much the problem of our times because knowledge centralization also brings with it, the centralization of wealth and capital in ever fewer hands and therefore, a massive devaluation in the value of ‘human capital’ within society with the majority being frozen out and relegated to financial ‘canon fodder’. The problem then becomes that for the mass of the population, both they and their children and their children’s children will become permanently excluded from both the ‘knowledge’ side of the equation plus the wealth and power that goes with it. Now it is perfectly possible to argue that this is the historical pattern of things, during the Dark Ages and the Medieval Periods, literacy was largely confined to the monastery and the wealthy, knowledge is power clearly, but does that make sense today ? The answer is probably not and we need to take a different approach.
The Question of Aptitude
Though not just of recent times, remember the BBC computer of yesteryear ? It has become the fashion to imagine that all children should be exposed to and have the opportunity to play with simple computers and learn to code to some degree and this is not a terrible idea in principle but not really the ‘answer’. It is a mistake to equate coding with being fluent in one’s mother tongue, it really is not the same thing at all and if intended to enhance the future economic performance of the UK, probably irrelevant in terms of being the ‘solution’.
The problem is that not every child will be competent enough in this one thing, in fact as in most single subjects, the majority will have no real aptitude for programming in any form just like some children are not interested in drawing, sports and any other range of subjects that are thrown at them. The two essential skills that should be taught properly are reading and basic mathematics because literacy and numeracy are fundamental requirements, regular physical activity is also a must but all else is optional in terms of specific subjects. What is really required is a structure to develop the ‘person’ with the single aim of getting them to think critically and allowing them to follow their interests to the level that satisfies them rather than just following a rigid structure that demands x school periods on y range of subjects.
Now whilst on the surface this may seem a little “Hippy” compared to the educational ‘norms’ there is in fact a real underlying reason that we should consider a different model to the current one. What we need are people who can think and are equipped if they make the effort to grasp any topic they face in the future, what we don’t need is the mass of our population being excluded from making any personal progress they can through their own ambition and talent.
There is a Big Problem
Although it shows up in big defence projects and especially in the United States where defence spending forms an important element in the redistribution of Federal funding, we are seeing the problems of increased complexity and very often to the point where effectively “no one is in charge”. As complexity increases so inevitably do the associated costs, this is not a happy recipe for the taxpayers and one suspects, not that ideal for the manufacturers or designers either.
At this juncture another factor comes into play and that is ‘The Institution’ along with the inevitable institutional thinking that plagues them all. If the contract concerns defence procurement, between the military, the contractors and the politicians, they will inevitably combine to produce the worst possible outcome that blanks out any chance of radical alternatives or creative thinking of any kind. Add into this any project that relies on obscure electronics, metallurgy or anything else and the whole thing is completely outside the technical competence of any general/admiral, corporate manager or politician and therefore their ability to manage a good outcome.
Now I’m not therefore advocating that all people involved in projects should be technically competent in each technology they have to oversee but and coming back to my earlier comments on education, they should have been schooled in critical thinking so that they are able to evaluate the options that they face. There will always be people with technical expertise in specialist subjects but that is not the element that is lacking most, we need the mass of the population to be able to grasp concepts and evaluate their relevance to the case in hand. In other words whether at a technical level or taking a view of the needs of society as a whole, we both want and need to encourage citizen participation.
I learned very early on in my career in engineering, dealing with design and development often, once a project started to near completion, in many cases if you started it again, you would do it differently. True you wouldn’t be starting from scratch, you would build on the learning curve to produce a far better product but the “commercial situation” meant you had to press ahead as you were with what you have. Eventually I evolved a simple technique to try and eradicate this and try to ensure we started on the right path, all it amounted to was to keep asking one question “Why ?” as in: Why are we doing this ? Why do you the customer say that you need this ? Why are we producing this using these processes ?
The list goes on but and however annoying this may have been to others at times, the interesting thing was how many times and just by getting someone to answer a particular ‘Why’, we found that something put forward as essential turned out to be nothing of the sort. Often you could trace the ‘convention’ back to a time when it was important but now was in all truth included as a requirement out of habit rather than functional need.
If we want to build a better tomorrow, what we shouldn’t be doing is allowing modern day ‘high priests’ and ‘gate keepers’ to hoard knowledge. We need to see knowledge spread as widely as possible and in order to do that, we may well have to totally change the way we educate people both as children and adults.