Technology: Unreliable Servant, Dangerous Master

By | September 8, 2013 | 3 Comments


Private First Class Bradley Manning sentenced to 35 years in prison for stealing classified information and sending it to WikiLeaks.
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Edward Snowden, an employee of a private government contractor, was granted asylum in Russia after stealing classified information that he had no business seeing, much less downloading onto memory sticks and laptops.
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 Nasdaq exchange shut down for almost three hours because of “software glitch.”
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Southwest Airlines grounds 250 flights for hours because of computer failure.
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How could a 25-year-old PFC have access to highly classified material that had nothing to do with his job? How could the officials in charge of the National Security Agency and the Cyber Command not have made certain that low-ranking personnel could not access classified information that they had no business seeing, much less downloading?
How could a private firm contracting with the government allow a junior employee access to classified information not related to his job? And how could granting security clearances be farmed out to private companies? That’s where Snowden got his clearance.
How could a major stock exchange be shut down for three hours by a computer failure? How could talented businesspeople and financial gurus not have hired the best computer geeks to assure that this could not happen?
How could a major airline be so dependent on computers that 250 flights were grounded for hours? How could airline officials not have prepared backup systems, after similar outages afflicted other airlines?
These questions rank with asking how the officers of the Titanic could have ignored repeated warnings of icebergs. Back in 1912, it was understandable that people had inordinate faith in then-new technology. But what’s our excuse? In 2013, with all that has happened in recent years, what pretext can we offer for blind faith in technology?
Cars you can’t stop.
Toyota and Lexus were troubled by multiple reports of unintended acceleration. Most were attributed to driver error − stepping on the accelerator instead of the brake. But a few were clearly something else.
A 20-year veteran California Highway Patrol officer was driving his wife, daughter, and brother-in-law. The car accelerated spontaneously. An eyewitness reported smoke coming from the wheels, indicating that the brakes were applied. The officer’s did safety inspections on heavy trucks, so it is impossible to believe he couldn’t tell the brake from the accelerator. He was trained in high-speed driving and was able to control the Lexus at 120 mph. But technology prevented him from stopping it, and all four were killed in a fiery crash.
Power brakes depend on vacuum assist, and at wide-open throttle, there is very little vacuum. So after a few applications, the brakes reverted to non-assisted and were unable to stop the speeding car. Even worse, the car had an “on-off” button instead of the old reliable ignition switch. The driver may have pushed the button repeatedly, but the engine did not shut off. He did not know that if the car was moving, he had to hold the button down for three seconds, during which the car would travel over 500 feet.
Why did the driver not shift into neutral? Apparently an interlock prevented this to avoid inadvertent shifts while driving. Moreover, that model has an automatic shift pattern that tries to mimic a stick shift. The man was driving a loaner and may not have been familiar with either the on-off button or the gear shift.
The familiar ignition switch is user-friendly − turn right for on, left for off. A button used for both on and off is a user-unfriendly gadget looking for trouble. If I have to wait a few seconds for a forced shutdown of a computer, it’s no problem. If I have to wait a few seconds to shut down a runaway car, it’s a big problem.
Cars should be designed by automotive engineers, not by makers of electronic toys. Basic functions like engine start-stop and shift pattern should be standard.
Instruments you can’t see.
My car has one design flaw − illegible instruments. The heating and cooling controls are a row of identical buttons, requiring me to take my eyes off the road to adjust them. My old car had a rotary knob to control the fan and a slider to control the temperature − which I could adjust by feel.
The climate-control readout is an LCD − dark gray on light gray − which like all LCDs is illegible in dim light. Unless sunlight is coming from behind me, I often cannot read the fuel and temperature gauges, or even the speedometer.
But as the salesman was eager to point out, the instruments are a sexy deep blue at night. I don’t know what good this does with bucket seats and a center console. I’m old enough to remember bench seats on Saturday night.
E-mail you can’t get.
My wife is a clinical psychologist, so her e-mail may contain crucial, time-sensitive material. Some time ago, her e-mail became inaccessible. This was true for both of our computers, so it was a server problem.
After at least 30 minutes on the phone with someone with an almost incomprehensible accent, my wife was still unable to access her e-mail. I then spent nearly an hour on the phone with another tech support “expert.” He did not succeed in accessing the mail, but he did succeed in disabling my web browser. I then spent another hour on the phone with Microsoft tech support. They restored my web browser, and I was happy (well, willing) to pay the fee.
But no one will pay for our wasted time, of which my wife spent even more in an ultimately successful effort to get her mail. This required her to drive across town to an office of the service provider, where she was fortunate to find someone who spoke both English and computerese.
Washrooms you can’t wash in.
The food court in a local mall was upgraded to “go green.” The faucets, soap dispensers, toilets, and urinals were changed from manual to electric. How this is “green” is difficult to understand, but it is easy to understand that it puts millions of dollars into “green” companies. A few months after the mall reopened, two of the four faucets and one of the four soap dispensers in the men’s room were inoperable.
Paper towels were replaced by hot-air hand dryers. How does using 1500 watts save energy? Unlike the old hand dryers with nozzles, these have a narrow slot. It is almost impossible to insert one’s hands without touching the edges of the slot − which the previous user touched after wiping himself. That seems more brown than green.
When the Minneapolis Airport was closed by a power failure, about 500 people were stranded overnight. But the rest rooms were “green,” so neither the water faucets nor the toilets worked. Here we cross the line from useless to dangerous.
Appliances like washing machines, dryers, and dishwashers are our mechanical servants. But smart phones and computers can become our masters. What else do you call devices that demand daily attention and care? But unlike pets, they return no love or companionship − only diversion.
Instruments that are sexy but illegible, rest rooms that are electrified but unreliable, and computers that are too complex for the average “expert” to fix − what do all these suggest? They suggest technology that changes too fast to be perfected. They suggest childlike people who want constant diversion and “change.” They suggest a civilization in decline. They suggest a nation making itself needlessly vulnerable to terrorism.
And now our personal and health information will be stored in an ObamaCare data hub, which will be accessible by “navigators” – who will not have background checks – as well as by the IRS, the Justice Department, and assorted hackers. Your Social Security number and birth date? The fact that you had gonorrhea at age 19? Identity theft? Privacy? Your records confused with a sex offender on the No Fly List? What, me worry?
Ultimately − probably sooner than later − the lines will cross. The declining level of general education will cross the rising level of unnecessary complexity. We depend on “experts” in foreign countries − sometimes countries hostile to us − to build and repair our vital electronic devices. The Romans also depended on foreign workers. Like the Romans, we will be left staring at the ruins of what we do not know how to repair, much less how to build, while the barbarians take over.
We should recall the words of Commander Montgomery Scott, chief engineer of the USS Enterprise: “The more they over-think the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain.”
Some people think that if our civilization collapses, the last thing we see will be a nuclear mushroom cloud. But I believe that the last thing we see will be this:
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