Physician, Heal Thyself

"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings." Julius Caesar (1,ii140-141)

There is in some cases a terrible - and in some cases terrifying - disconnect between technology and our larger societal ability to understand it, in particular, to understand the risks it poses and the unintended consequences of those risks. The limitations of technology are not necessarily what we think they are, either. That is, we wouldn't solve all our technology problems if only we had - more technology. No, many of the limitations are ones we create ourselves, because of our inability to understand systemic risks, and by the way we think about and talk about technology as if it were something "new" and "different," instead of recognizing patterns that have repeated themselves in other disciplines.

One of the perspective slaps to the side of the head you get when you leave the nerdified air of Silicon Valley is that large swathes of the world are not technophiles, let alone technoacolytes. By that I mean that, regardless of the benefits of technology, once you drive past Los Gatos on highway 17, most of the people you meet don't think we'd achieve world peace if only we had a standards compliant API for it. Nor for that matter does most of the world think that the Eleventh Commandment is "thou shalt honor the Lord they God, by making thy code open source." As long as I have worked in technology, I continue to find the number of technological cults and cult members to be truly astonishing. If I were a social scientist, I might observe that, having extirpated God from so much of public life, we rush to find other ways to fill the void. The last time I checked, Deuteronomy said, "I am the Lord thy God, who led you out of Israel, out of slavery. You will have no other gods before me." Technology, it should be said, is not god. More like a golden calf.

If that sounds silly, think about the number of discussions we have all had with technocult members who speak in raptured, hushed tones about (insert all that apply): cloud computing, open source, object-oriented programming, agile development, and so on. (And my personal favorite, referring to any technology as "awesome." God and the North Shore of O´ahu in winter are awesome,* everything else is merely amazing, at best.) Note: I am not denigrating any of these technological constructs, merely observing that none of them have created world peace, cured cancer, raised the dead or helped anybody lose that last pesky 10 pounds. It's just technology. Even in my happiest moments curled up with my iPhone -- which is really nice technology and has made me more efficient -- I don't expect the iPhone GPS system to help me find real direction in life.

The first limitation of technology is one we impose ourselves: we make it a god, when it isn't, and IT people the high priests, when they aren't. The reason anybody cares is because technology has substantially altered our world and, if we admit it, not always for the better. Unfortunately, when technologists make an idol out of technology, we get all the overhead that comes with creating a new religion.

  • Non-believers may be ostracized or pressured to convert.

  • Statements of opinion - or ecstatic utterances - are treated as religious tenets and therefore, not open for discussion.

  • Instead of honest disagreements, we have (literal) religious arguments.

  • We may (figuratively) burn heretics at the stake.

The result is that in many cases technology is pushed merely because it is the next path to salvation, and without any rational discussion of whether we need it and, most importantly what risks it subjects us to - and whether they can even be understood let alone mitigated. Technologists become like the snake, telling Adam and Eve they will be as God is if they take a bite, and, like Adam and Eve, we only later realize the technological apple has rendered us naked.

I should have realized this when I first moved to Silicon Valley many moons ago. I went to a party given by a friend who happened to work for a chip company that was a competitor to the company I worked for. She introduced me to a colleague who, instead of the usual "Hi, how are you, nice to meet you," glared at me and said, "we're going to kill you in MOS technology." ("Not tonight, unless you are serving hemlock," was my response.) The "technology as god" cult has been reinforced a number of times over the interim years, most recently by an entrepreneur I recently talked to who had a hard time understanding that inventing a cool new technology was not, per se, enough to get him in my door or anybody else's. While I admire his entrepreneurial gifts, unless he is solving a problem people care about and can explain, in less than 25 words, he is not going to get past the "I only want twenty minutes of your time" barrier. It's just technology. It's not (a) god. It's not even a worthy golden calf wanna be.

Another limitation of technology is linguistic. I don't mean the difference between French and German: more like the difference between English and Martian. Many technologists might as well be speaking Martian, they are so far removed from the people who need to understand what the technology can do, what it can't do, and why anybody would want to use it. End users. Customers. Legislators. Those who are legitimate stakeholders in determining whether the risks of technology usage outweigh the benefits, but who cannot do that unless technologists can make themselves understood. By way of example, I might just possibly be understood in La Jolla if I were to say to someone in the surf lineup at Windansea, **"´Auwe, aia he mano nui loa! E ku´u hoa, e hele mai!" However, I'd be far more likely to get a response if I said "Alas! There is a really big shark. Get over here, buddy!" At any rate, if I cannot deliver a warning in English, I should not then excoriate a friend (on his way to the emergency room thanks to the man in the gray suit ***) that he really needs to learn Hawaiian to avoid future shark bites.

One of the main reasons technologists cannot or will not make themselves understood is the overuse of jargon. I've never met a group of people who were more jargon happy than technologists, unless it is teenagers -- who at least grow out of it if for no other reason than that they are forced to. (I don't care a hoot about "intergenerational communication styles," if a candidate for an open headcount insists on using "BFF" and "OMG" in an interview, he/she will experience "GFG"****.) If we are honest, we admit that we use jargon not only for the sake of efficiency but to make us feel smarter and superior than those who are not in the techno-know. Jargon becomes a means to exclude people from the club, and a means to hornswoggle others if we are fortunate enough to have an audience of either true believers or one that is too embarrassed to admit what they do not know. For our part, we reason, if they are too stupid to know what OCSP and HAML***** stand for, then they are not worth the time for us to offer our explanations. Jargon is also a means to cut yourself out of the herd. Everyone wants to be the first to either invent a new buzzword or be the first to use it. I'd only just learned what the acronym APT stands for -- Advanced Persistent Threat -- and already, I have had slimy sales reps emailing me asking about what Oracle does to combat APT and do I know that they have a product that can protect against it, not to mention slice, dice and make julienne fries? (What I'd really like is a product that protects against APSRs - Annoyingly Persistent Sales Reps. Nobody has offered to sell me one yet.)

I'm not immune to the temptation. I was once in a meeting with a bunch of developers talking about security issues. After listening to the discussion, I said with great solemnity, "as I see it, we need an ITP story. In fact, we need an S-ITP story. " Everyone nodded. Finally, someone had the courage to say, "what is S-ITP?" to which I replied, "the Secure Internet Toaster Protocol." ****** We get wrapped up in our own linguistic cleverness to the point we do not always know what we are saying. How then, can we expect our constituents to understand what technology is capable of, and what it is not capable of? True, there are many other organizations or cohorts that are almost as jargon happy as we are, but few of them are tasked with the level of responsibility we have. It's not just the Marine Corps and the Three Letter Agencies that do national security: technoids do. At least when I was in the Navy, you could always look up FAADCPAC******* or other cryptic acronyms in the DICNAVAB (Dictionary of Naval Abbreviations). Good luck with that in our industry (this is where the cloud cult members insist that all I have to do is look up my acronym in the acronym cloud). The point is: I shouldn't have to.

Even God - the real one - communicated in a language his followers could understand (and wrote the rules down on tablets). Technologists won't even do that. The other thing God (or His scribes) did was tell stories. It's easier for most people to get their minds around a creation story that begins "in the beginning, the world was formless and void..." than around the Big Bang and/or quantum physics. Phrases like "Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots?" speaks to the fact that some things are immutable. We get it so well that the number of people who use the phrase vastly exceed the number who know where it comes from. (Jeremiah 13:23). Analogies, stories, and using examples people understand all help make the complex more simple: God is more understandable than the average technologist. No wonder most people know that they shouldn't lie, cheat, steal but we have lots of the Clueless Faithful who think it's a good idea to allow houses to talk to power plants. (What next, wireless access to life support systems? Because it is just so expensive to send a nurse into someone's room.)

On the occasions when I have had the privilege of testifying in front of Congress, I've had 5 minutes to try to help well-intended legislators do something that will make a positive difference. How far do you think I'd get if I said, "we need to deploy IpV6 broadly to fix all our cybersecurity problems" or "insecure RNGs are the bane of network encryption?" I might actually get farther if I said, "'Auwe, eia he mano nui loa! E ku'u hoa, e hele mai!" (At least, Senators Inouye and Akaka - and the rest of the state of Hawai´i delegation - might understand.) I readily admit that I am not a technologist - I don't have the in-depth knowledge that most of my team has. What I do have is the ability to ask questions until I understand the gist of - and details of - a problem, and the ability to translate the problem into terms others can understand. Without that communication, you get people suffering from avoidable shark bites because they don't speak Hawaiian. Why is it so hard for technologists to understand that if they cannot communicate, their technological acumen is worthless, even dangerous?

Maybe the reason technologists resist the use of analogies is that it would reveal that the emperor has no clothes or, more accurately, that the emperor's clothes are the same ones everyone else is wearing. By that I mean, that if we can use analogies to explain technology and technological limits, it makes it all too obvious that we already have examples we can use to, for example, craft public policy. We might be forced to admit that technology isn't the ooh, aah, gee whiz stuff we say it is, it's just the same old problems wrapped up in shiny new bits.

For example, there are a number - no, a lot - of cybersecurity bills in draft currently. A core element of many of these bills is the degree to which the Federal government should exert "control" over private networks and what form that control should take. In my opinion, there are many reasons for thinking that the Federal government is not well suited to such a role. One of the main reasons goes to basic accountability 101. The best example I could come up with was physical security. The CEO of a company that has no door locks, no physical security of any kind, and whose company experiences massive thefts from people wandering around their buildings would not have a job for very long. The police might help investigate the break in but they would also be the first to recommend locks and a security system. They certainly would not take over building defense.

"Oh, but cyber is different." Why, precisely? Assets are increasingly stored electronically, corporate "boundaries" include electronic ones (or should). If we think there is nothing valuable to protect on corporate networks then let's skip authentication and dispense with firewalls. Clearly, we know that data is valuable and corporations do have a responsibility to protect their own resources - they owe that to shareholders. If cyber is so "complicated" that we can't possibly secure it, one has to ask why these entities knowingly continue to double down on risk they cannot mitigate. The buck stops somewhere and it is not (primarily) at the Department of Homeland Security. Business cannot realistically have it both ways - embrace the increasing use of technology ("do more with less!") and then declaim responsibility for having done so. And just as the local police department does not have keys to local businesses -- nor do they install and monitor close circuit TV in each business to detect and prevent crime -- we ought to have sensible boundaries about who secures what.

Jargon makes people feel smart and superior, but end users and key stakeholders - including, increasingly, legislators - do not speak that jargon. If we cannot learn to de-jargon ourselves and speak in languages that our audience can understand and process, technology will continue to ensnare us instead of setting us free. I'll close with an illustration that bring together several of the themes I have been talking about: responsibility, limits, and all wrapped up in a nice, de-jargoned turn of phrase:

"The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the LORD God commanded the man, "You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die." (Genesis 2:15-17)

I wish technologists were as forthright.

* Ok, I admit, I just violated the first commandment by making surfing a god. But the North Shore when it breaks is pretty awe-inspiring, at the least.

** Not that I've ever seen a shark there. But I did see a dorsal fin pop up next to me one Saturday. It was the longest three seconds of my life until I heard the exhale of - a dolphin.

*** "Man in the gray suit" is a surfing euphemism for "shark"

**** Gone for good

***** Caught you! OCSP is the Online Certificate Status Protocol, but HAML is something I made up (Hack Attack Markup Language, by which we all craft standards-compliant security vulnerabilities so it is easier for hackers to exploit them on multiple web applications, in a standards-compliant way).

****** As far as I can tell, there is no reason to put household appliances on a network and many reasons not to. Anyway, I don't really think you need special authorization to toast bagels vs. white bread.

******* Fleet Accounting and Disbursing Center, US Pacific Fleet, if you care.


Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes

It's not often I get a chance to read a book that I think will become a classic, but this is one of them. The author is a decorated Vietnam-war veteran and the "authenticity" shows. The premise is that a green 2LT is sent into the bush with his team to take and hold a territory known as "the Matterhorn." It's impossible for me to describe how gripping this book is, how real the characters are, and how invested you become in them. I would never - I hope - have the hubris to say that I understand what it was like to have been in Vietnam, but after reading this book, I feel I have been a spectator. A great, magnificent book.

A Dog for All Seasons: A Memoir
by Patti Sherlock

Personally, I am not so hot on border collies since one of them tried herding Thunder on the Nordic trail (Thunder did not want to be herded) and I had an expensive vet bill from the border collie biting him. One reason I think leash laws are critical. But I digress.

We forget that so many dogs (mine included) are working dogs. Working dogs need something to do besides sit in a dog basket and snarf dog treats. Working dogs are also indispensable to many people (you can't really herd sheep without them). The author wrote this book about a remarkable border collie named Duncan who lived with her on a sheep ranch in eastern Idaho. A dog that was more than merely a dog. Well worth the read.

Sailing in the Wake of the Ancestors: Reviving Polynesian Voyaging by Ben Finney

The resurrection of Hebrew as a popular (i.e., not merely scholarly) language is one of the great comeback stories in history. The other is the resurrection of Polynesian voyaging. This book tells the how and the why of how a dead or dying art was recreated, and the shot in the arm it gave to Polynesian peoples, who must now - largely as a result of the work of the Polynesian Voyaging Society - be acknowledged as the greatest navigators of all time. The author does not spare the infighting that almost led to the destruction of the Polynesian Voyaging Society and the means by which it was resurrected. The happy ending is the number of Polynesian peoples who are participating in wayfinding, just as their ancestors did. (It's still amazing to me that anybody can travel thousands of miles by the stars, observing ocean currents and birds.)


Surfing is a True God and it forces you to forget about the technical world or else. The art of engineering is being able to explain complex concepts in a manner most can understand. Doing a dangerous thing with style is the mark of a professional. Job security through obfuscation should not be tolerated. Using a technology for the sake of using it is mental masturbation. Great Post. tct

Posted by Ted Tanner on July 16, 2010 at 05:53 AM PDT #

Mary Ann, It is good to see you are blogging again. Is it correct to say that technology started with language? Technology became inevitable as soon as we started naming things and talking about what they do. We get into trouble when we lose chain of reasoning --- connection --- between concepts and concrete facts of reality – sense perception -- that they are abstracted from. Fred

Posted by Fred Vogt on August 22, 2010 at 11:57 PM PDT #

Its a travesty that there are very few protection engineers left today. Thank you very much for the write up. Schools should start building their power classes back up again - dont you think?

Posted by Oscar Cuti on October 25, 2010 at 06:46 AM PDT #

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