From the March 2011 issue of Tech Decisions •Subscribe!

Bringing Down a Government

CNN—February 11, 2011…“If you want to liberate a society, just give them the Internet,” Ghonim said Friday. Wael Ghonim was identified as a Google marketing executive.

I’m not sure I buy into the suggestion that Facebook (via the Internet) brought down the Egyptian government. Nor am I necessarily an advocate of “liberating” societies. If the Internet is truly an instrument of liberation then perhaps we should fear it. In reality it is no more a tool of liberation than the guillotine was in 18th century France. Society has always found ways to affect change throughout history. Revolutions, coups, overthrown governments, social and political upheavals are commemorated throughout human existence. Thomas Jefferson advocated regular reassessment and change: “Every generation needs a new revolution”. So I think it is a little arrogant to assume that Internet social media tools caused the downfall of a corrupt government.

What about the “revolution” in Egypt? How much can really be attributed to Facebook and other electronic social media tools? Any type of change in a social network or structure requires some sort of dialog. Societies by their very nature depend upon communication between the individuals that comprise that society. It doesn’t matter if you are a honey bee or a Homo sapien you need to communicate with other members of your society. As a race we have experienced a steady progression in the ability to communicate with an increasing number of individuals in ever quicker ways. The 20th century has seen a virtual explosion in communication technologies. We have transitioned from paper media to radio to telephone to television to the Internet. It is interesting that the technologies that drove the telephone, the radio, and television also provide the underpinnings of the Internet.

What’s Old is New

What we call social media today isn’t a new phenomenon—it’s a logical extension of what humans have been doing forever. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941 was a transforming experience. Within minutes most of the United States was made aware of the attack. And how were they made aware? By the telephone. Radios were in widespread use in 1941 and certainly everyone tuned to their set once they heard the news, but personal interaction was the primary means of notification. Same thing when President Kennedy was assassinated 22 years later. Television had become omnipresent in the western world but once again some form of personal interaction alerted everyone to the event. Jump forward another 38 years to September 11, 2001. The Internet was highly available yet most individuals were alerted to the tragedy by a phone call, word of mouth or e-mail. When humans want to communicate rapidly with one another they use some intrusive form of communication. And there have always existed intrusive forms of communication—before the 20th century. What most social media tools provide is what I would describe as an “opt in” approach to communication. What characterizes the Internet social media is the ability of members to interact and actually provide the content that is communicated. That leads us to a very strange situation.

Authoritative Source?

Traditional “old school” means of publishing have built in checks and balances. Scientific publications are peer reviewed, publishing houses are reasonably careful to print what appears to be the truth. Newspapers are careful to validate and find alternate sources for published news stories. Colleges and universities have self-governing procedures to assure that professors and instructors have the proper training and foundation of knowledge before they inflict themselves on students. The Internet has changed all that. Anyone can declare themselves an expert and disseminate whatever self serving, inaccurate information they choose to. The Internet originally held the promise of becoming a modern Library of Alexandria. Unfortunately it is rapidly evolving into a Library of Babel with the possibility, but not the expectation, of veracity.

It’s All About Information

So what about Facebook? Is it truly a tool of change? I created a Facebook account but soon disabled it. Interesting side bar—disabling your account does not delete your data from the Facebook databases. Far too many people who had become my friends were compelled to describe the daily minutia of their lives. I simply cannot imagine how anyone has the time to either publish or consume all that information. How could I possibly care that someone I went to high school with years ago had a great day at the lake? I suppose with the current unemployment rate there are many individuals who have the time to spend hours on Facebook or YouTube or whatever. Then I wonder: If everyone is on Facebook, who is watching all that reality TV? We really have become a culture of people who live vicariously. I digress.

The thing about Facebook is they really want you to think it’s all about interacting with others and having meaningful dialogs. The reality is that these tools are all about capturing your personal information. The money comes from selling all that personal information you so willingly put in your profile to people who want to sell you things. And that is the tip of the iceberg. I hate to think what a truly nefarious group or organization could do with all the private information we so willingly provide.

Recently an incident was described where a young man was able to hack personal e-mail accounts and obtain very private information about the owners of those accounts. When I say he hacked their accounts I should say that he didn’t use any sophisticated electronic tools to penetrate flaws in the system. He was able to obtain access using nothing more than information provided in user profiles. All of the “free” Internet services we use are funded by the selling of advertising targeted to our profiles and the sale of the profile information itself. I received a notice this week as I was logging onto a free e-mail service. The notice asked me to provide a current phone number just in case they needed to contact me to reset my password. Right.

No Thanks

There is a great deal of concern about Internet privacy. We tremble before the notion of a national Internet ID which the Obama administration is discussing, yet we willingly provide personal and private information to organizations that use that information to make a profit. I would prefer that my personal information remain private but I accept the fact that my banks, my employers, my physicians, and my insurance providers keep some data on me. I even understand the need for the government to maintain certain information although I would prefer they didn’t. What I don’t abide is providing Mark Zuckerberg and his cohorts with that sort of data. I cannot determine any useful value I would accrue by providing it. I am sure it’s all available elsewhere, but I am not going to compile my vital statistics and hand them over for free to an organization that is just going to resell that information.

Web SSO

Has it ever occurred to you that the same people who maintain your data also maintain your usernames and passwords that provide access to edit that data? That is scary. I would suggest that universal third-party organizations provide Web identity management. Imagine a trusted organization like the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) that would provide a claims based identity management system that could be consumed by Internet sites and services. A user would securely log on to the trusted provider using multi-factor authentication. When a user goes to their online banking they enter some credentials that trigger a redirect to the claims provider who returns the user with a ticket validating their identity. If the Obama Internet ID takes that direction I may support it. I would rather have a small finite number of trusted identity management systems controlling Web access than the goat rodeo we now have.

Play While You Work

There is another significant aspect of the Internet that is even more disturbing. Consider what the Internet has become. In those now famous words of John Gage (the 21st employee of Sun Microsystems): “The network is the computer.” My laptop, my tablet, and my smartphone are all just different devices that provide a window into the data and information that defines my life. They may have different tool sets. I don’t write code on my tablet but I could. I can actually use terminal services to access a server I need to work on from my smart phone. At any given time these devices may be using different methods to access the world but ultimately they are all commonly connected with the Internet and other networks.

That is all very interesting but is also so commonplace that we take it for granted. What I see as a real paradigm shift drive by this model is that we now have completely blurred the lines between work, pleasure, and social media. We use the same devices to accomplish all these things. And we access those devices 24 x 7. I think I understand the difference between work time and play time, but I wonder if current and future generations will know that difference. I wonder if it even matters.

North America has already made the transition from a production economy to a service economy. A nation of information workers and service workers may not require a hard demarcation between work and play. If a worker is assembling a jet engine (which we still do very well in North America) that line is critical. If a worker is writing code for a time management system the distinction may not be all that relevant.

I remember writing assembly code for an IBM 360. It was pretty much me, the code editor and the mainframe. Now programmers rarely need to really write any code. Blogs, message boards and how-to Web sites provide code samples for virtually anything they may need. That code may not be the most efficient and it may even have some built-in trap doors, but for the most part the hard work has been done. Social media has become an accepted part of the working environment, at least for complex repeatable process like software development.

Bad Neighborhood?

So as we erase those distinctions between the tools we use for work and play, what about the Internet itself? The Internet seems to be unique in that it is an enabling technology framework that is shared by social media, purveyors of pornography, online banking, and so on. It is the distribution channel for illegal distribution of cracked software, stolen movies, and music. It is also the playground for an assortment of hackers. Some hackers are quite skilled while others are nothing but script kiddies who run destructive code written by others. The common thread is that they are all destructive.

It is also host to an assortment of political activists who range from those trying to take down legitimate sites to those trying to bring down nations by leaking stolen confidential information. If you were describing a part of your town that had all these characteristics your reaction would be stay away. So why do we embrace the Internet?

SLA Anyone?

The Internet poses an incredible dilemma. Do we really want to co-exist with a porn sales organization? Do we want to share the same SLA’s with a Warez site? That pretty much describes what we are doing when we embrace cloud. Or when we use the Internet for communications between remote offices. I’m not saying all this poses a problem, but it sure sounds like one.  TD

Please address comments, complaints, and suggestions to the author at prolich@yahoo.com.

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