October 30, 2012

Talking Technology! (On Technological Entanglement)

I've confessed before to an annoying fondness for saying "I told you so." Still, I can't help but note that an article in the New York Times this morning affirms arguments that are regular themes here.

The article is a profile of computer scientist Peter G. Neumann, who has warned for decades that the complexity of the computer systems we rely on makes it "virtually impossible" (as the Times put it) to assure that they'll run reliably and safely. 

Neumann is recognized as one of the nation's leading experts on computer security. Nonetheless the hardware and software industries have consistently ignored his predictions that the products they sell, as they proliferate, will become increasingly vulnerable to breakdown and attack. His mantra is that complex systems break in complex ways, a principle that's been vindicated by legions of computer bugs and viruses, regular reports of massive data breaches and thefts, and growing fears of cyber warfare.

“His biggest contribution is to stress the ‘systems’ nature of the security and reliability problems,” said Steven M. Bellovin, chief technology officer of the Federal Trade Commission. “That is, trouble occurs not because of one failure, but because of the way many different pieces interact.”

Neumann's current project, Clean Slate, has been funded by the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). It's an effort to rethink computer design from the ground up. The goal: an entirely new race of machines that's simpler, more stable, and less easily violated. 

If that sounds idealistic, it is, and Neumann knows better than to expect eager assent from the digital establishment.

“I’ve been tilting at the same windmills for basically 40 years,” he tells the Times' John Markoff. “And I get the impression that most of the folks who are responsible don’t want to hear about complexity. They are interested in quick and dirty solutions.”

Again, forgive me for pointing out how clearly this echoes themes I harp on regularly in this space (though certainly not original to me). Recent examples include "On immovable technologies," "Recycling Ellen Ullman," and "Technological Autonomy: Greasing the rails to Armageddon."

The broader point to be emphasized is that the systemic nature of technology – and the fallibility that's an inevitable consequence of that systemic nature – is not only an issue in the world of computers. It applies to the  technological society as a whole. Peter Neumann's argument that the complexity of digital systems makes them unstable and insecure can be extended to the inconceivably complex web of technological systems that now dominate the ecosystem we inhabit.

If it's difficult to imagine starting over with a "clean slate" in the world of computers, how much more difficult is it to imagine rethinking and rebuilding the entire technological edifice on which we depend, regardless of how unstable that edifice might be? As I've said before, it's not a problem we seem prepared to contemplate.

©Doug Hill, 2012

October 21, 2012

And speaking of Moby Dick...

I came across this quote from the novel today, from Chapter 58, "Brit": 

"….though but a moment's consideration will teach, however baby man may brag of his science and skill, and however much, in a flattering future, that science and skill may augment; yet for ever and for ever, to the crack of doom, the sea will insult and murder him, and pulverize the stateliest, stiffest frigate he can make."


Illustration: Tony Millionaire

October 18, 2012

On Google and Moby Dick

Gregory Peck as Ahab
Google's home page today pays tribute to the 161st anniversary of the publication of Herman Melville's Moby Dick. Whether this tribute reflects any particular affection for the novel on the part of Google's leadership, I don't know. In any event there's considerable irony in the choice, given that Google's quests for expansion and control can be seen as contemporary manifestations of the technocratic mania that drove Captain Ahab's quest to find and kill the white whale.

Moby Dick is too expansive to pin "the meaning of Ahab" down to a single theme, but it's clear that Ahab's use of the technologies of whaling combined with his relentless nature serve in many passages as symbols of the Industrial Revolution, which was transforming Melville's times as decisively as the computer revolution is transforming our own. It's also clear that Melville saw technology as a force that tended to promote power, ego, and domination at the expense of mystery, humility, and reverence.

Ahab is described as a man who is made not of flesh and blood but of "solid bronze." At one point he compares the forward motion of his will to that of a locomotive. "The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails," he says, "whereon my soul is grooved to run." At another point, in a rare moment of reflection, he acknowledges that he is turning a commercial whaling expedition into a voyage over the edge of the abyss. "[A]ll my means are sane," he says, "my motive and my object mad."

Ahab also notes, with a mixture of triumph and surprise, that all the crew members of the Pequod (all the world, that is) have acquiesced to his methods and his goals. "I thought to find one stubborn, at the least," he says, "but my one cogged circle fits into all their various wheels, and they revolve." 

Herman Melville
One sailor on the Pequod successfully resists Ahab's mission, albeit passively, and that's Ishmael. Melville portrays Ishmael as the quintessential dreamer, and thus the antithesis of technocratic efficiency. When on duty in the crow's nest, he confesses that he's more apt to contemplate the wonders of the cosmos than to keep an eye out for whales. Ship owners risk their profit, he warns, by hiring men like him. "[Y]our whales must be seen before they can be killed," he says; "and this sunken-eyed young Platonist will tow you ten wakes round the world, and never make you one pint of [whale oil] the richer."

In the end, of course, it is Ishmael alone who survives, which may or may not be Melville's version of a happy ending. What ending is in store for all of us who have enlisted on the good ship Google remains to be seen. 

©Doug Hill, 2012

October 14, 2012

Everything is Connected

I'm inaugurating a new regular feature today, Everything is Connected, named in honor of the late Barry Commoner's four laws of ecology.
  1. Everything is connected to everything else. 
  2. Everything must go somewhere. 
  3. Nature knows best. 
  4. There is no such thing as a free lunch.  

The Los Angeles Times reports today that the effects of severe drought in the Midwest this summer are causing restaurants to cut back on the size of their servings, increase prices, and reduce staff. Customers are complaining about smaller portions, lower quality cuts of meat, and fewer specials.

Smokin' Jonny's BBQ in Gardena, California, raised the price of corn on the cob from $1.50 to $3.00 and then dropped it from the menu entirely because the quality of the corn wasn't good enough. Ribs are only on the menu on weekends because that's when people are willing to splurge for what's become a luxury meal.

"Economists say even bigger hikes are ahead as the poor U.S. harvest ripples through the food chain," the Times reports.

Chase Edmondson, an actor interviewed by the Times, said he sometimes orders kids' meals to combat menu shock. "It's kind of ridiculous when you're getting a hamburger for $12," he said.

October 12, 2012

On Immovable Technologies

There are some Big Ideas in the philosophy of technology that I find very helpful in understanding what's going on in the world of machines today. One of those ideas is a concept known as "technological momentum."

Technological momentum is a phrase coined by the historian Thomas Parke Hughes to describe the tendency of successful technological systems to become entrenched over time, growing increasingly resistant to change. This resistance is a product of both physical and psychological commitments. We invest materially in factories and emotionally in careers. Equipment and infrastructure accumulate and intertwine; dependence and force of habit build.

Professor Hughes' label has its problems, for reasons I'll explain, but before I do let me note two recent examples of technological momentum in action. Both, as they say, are ripped from the headlines.

Carol Bartz
The first example involves comments made earlier this month at a Fortune magazine forum by Carol Bartz, fired last year as president and chief executive officer of Yahoo. According to the NewYork Times, at one point Bartz was asked if she had any advice for her successor in those roles, Marissa Mayer. Bartz replied that Mayer shouldn't kid herself about quick turnarounds at a company as large as Yahoo. When informed of proposed changes in policy, she recalled, staff members there typically responded with agreement to her face and defiance in private. Bartz came away from the experience amazed by "how stuck individuals can be, much less 14,000 people." 

“It’s very, very hard to affect culture," she said. "And you can get surprised thinking you’re farther down the path of change than you really are because, frankly, most of us like the way things are.”

The second example involves an even bigger tech brand, Microsoft. In August Vanity Fair magazine ran a lengthy dissection of the company’s creative decline under the stewardship of its Chief Executive Officer, Steven Ballmer. 

Steven Ballmer
The article portrays Ballmer presiding over a “lumbering” behemoth, "pumping out" tried and true products (Windows and Office) while failing to exploit opportunities (search, music, mobile) that have turned other companies (Google, Apple) into global icons. “Every little thing you want to write has to build off of Windows or other existing products,” a software engineer told reporter Kurt Eichenwald. “It can be very confusing, because a lot of the time the problems you’re trying to solve aren’t the ones that you have with your product, but because you have to go through the mental exercise of how this framework works. It just slows you down.”

That comment suggests why Professor Hughes’ "technological momentum" label isn't ideal. Momentum implies movement, but often as not the dynamics he’s describing lead to paralysis. Computer programmers refer to the acquired intractability of older software systems as problems of "legacy" or "lock-in," terms that may more accurately convey the obstinacy involved.

The fact that a software program can be an obstacle to change underscores a point touched on earlier: technological momentum is about more than stubborn geezers stuck in their ways. Technological systems become entrenched because they’re made out of real-world stuff. Companies can replace operating systems and assembly lines, but not without a lot of energy and expense, and inevitably the replacements have to incorporate some of what came before. An entire society’s commitment to a technology becomes almost impossible to reverse. America’s highway systems won’t be dismantled any time soon; the problem is keeping them repaired. 

Technological momentum tells us that technological systems tend to be self-perpetuating. There’s irony in that because the quality we typically associate with technology is progress, not stagnation. In fact both things are true: technological systems can be both disruptive and obstructionist, sometimes both at the same time. It’s also true, as any football fan knows, that momentum – forward momentum, that is – can be lost or regained. Steve Jobs did both at Apple, and Steve Ballmer is in the process, with the introduction of a new operating system, a new music service, a new phone system, and a new tablet computer, of trying to pull off the same trick at Microsoft. 

The greatest example of technological momentum is technology itself. Technology is astonishingly creative within its own realm, but it's incapable of recognizing any realm outside itself. To the degree that we fail to recognize that fact – which these days is almost completely – we surrender ourselves to the technological paradigm. Even sane people are beginning to think that the only way we'll be able to save the planet from environmental catastrophe is by the invention of some ingenious technique. Individual ambitions aim in the same direction; everyone’s out to make a dent in the universe on the scale of Gates or Zuckerberg or Jobs. These dreamers may consider themselves consummate innovators, but their thinking is still trapped in a box labeled “Technology.”

Image credits: Bartz, Tony Avelar/Bloomberg via Getty Images; Closed Mind illustration: Harry Campbell

©Doug Hill, 2012

October 3, 2012

RIP Barry Commoner

Barry Commoner, one of the founders of the environmental movement and a great advocate for restraint in the exploitation of technological power, died Sunday.

Commoner was often portrayed as a radical for articulating views that in a sane world would be seen as common sense. Take, for example, his four laws of ecology:
  1. Everything is connected to everything else.
  2. Everything must go somewhere.
  3. Nature knows best.
  4. There is no such thing as a free lunch.
Not that hard to understand, you'd think, yet Commoner's laws are to this day, around the world, widely, fatally ignored.

An interesting aside in that regard appeared in the excellent Commoner obituary that appeared in the New York Times Monday. President Richard M. Nixon, the Times noted, responded in his 1970 State of the Union address to the environmental movement that Commoner was so instrumental in starting.

“The great question of the ’70s," Nixon said, "is, Shall we surrender to our surroundings, or shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land and to our water?” 

Later that year Nixon signed legislation establishing the Environmental Protection Agency.

Time magazine, February 2, 1970
Two things about that historical footnote stand out, in addition to its reminder of how long we've ignored the urgent call to make our peace with nature:

  1. Richard Nixon was a Republican.
  2. The Environmental Protection Agency is the federal watchdog agency Republicans today are most eager to eliminate.
In the "Last Word" video interview that accompanies the Times' obituary of Commoner, he speaks of a "red thread" that runs through "everything that's happened in this country in our lifetime." That thread is this:
The thoughtless way in which we decide what we're going to produce and how to produce it. Thoughtless in the sense that all that we're interested in is getting the thing produced without thinking about how it's done and what impact that has, not simply on getting the product, but on our lives, our health, the welfare of poor people, the environment as a whole.
There can be no greater testimony to the power of technological autonomy than our ongoing inability to heed the warnings of Barry Commoner and many others like him. For speaking out nonetheless, they're heroes.

October 1, 2012

Talking Technology! (Job search edition)

From a Wall Street Journal article, "Meet the New Boss: Big Data," on the growing use of computerized personality tests to screen job applicants:
For more and more companies, the hiring boss is an algorithm...Personality tests have a long history in hiring. What's new is the scale. Powerful computers and more sophisticated software have made it possible to evaluate more candidates, amass more data and peer more deeply into applicants' personal lives and interests.

Image credit: Brainstorms, Stanford University