Deep Thought: It Isn't About Technology

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Deep Thought: It Isn't About Technology

A locked gate in front of a computer room. A speech bubble says, 'Let us in, HAL. I can't do that, Dave.
Friend at Facebook confirmed they ended up bringing in a guy with an angle grinder to get access to the server cage.

Somebody on Twitter

I have no idea whether they had to get an angle grinder in or not, but it sounds about right. Apparently, the key cards were all keyed to the system that they were locked out of. Nobody could get into the building, or locked rooms, or the servers. I privately sympathised. You would, too, if you'd ever worked for the kind of online company where major mayhem could be created by a typo in some bit of code.

I don't use Facebook. I don't think their model is particularly good for the public. I enjoyed all the jokes at their expense. Especially the ones suggesting that Douglas Adams could have written that scenario. And the Twitter joke I've turned into a cartoon up there. But I feel for the nerds and geeks involved in that chaos. Been there, have the shirt somewhere.

A lot of people are shaking their heads and muttering about 'technology' right now. And that, I would argue, is not the lesson to be drawn from the fact that a social media giant depended so heavily on its own platform that it put all its backup systems ON that platform. And didn't have any quick way to deal with the problem when that platform went down.

It isn't that we depend too heavily on our technology. It's that we develop tunnel vision about things we succeed at too easily.

Let me tell you about little Andy Carnegie. Forget for a moment that you want to argue about whether he was a good guy or a bad guy. We can take that up at another time. Let's just talk about how he did what he did. I've read his autobiography, so I'll explain.

When Andy was a kid, his parents moved the family from Scotland, where there was no work, to Pittsburgh, which was full of Scots people and offered work, albeit poorly paid. Andy had to stop school at 13 and go to work to help the family. He wasn't a privileged teenager whose main worry was whether he had the latest tunes on his iPod. He was a telegraph delivery boy who got an extra 10 cents if he had to take the telegram a mile out of town in the direction of Oakland. On foot.

The boys took turns taking the 'dime deliveries'. The other boys used their dimes to buy sweets, which they shared. They thought Andy was cheap because he hoarded his dimes. He let them: he was embarrassed to tell them that his parents owed $200 for boat tickets to a widow lady in Dumfries, and he couldn't rest until he'd paid off the debt for them. That's a lot of worry for a 13-year-old kid. He did it, though: saved the $200. Then he started on his next project: getting together a grubstake for a business so that his mother wouldn't have to work.

Andy and his friends (who were later called 'financiers' and 'captains of industry') went to night school to learn bookkeeping. They invested in new businesses on tips they got from adults in the know. They rode a wagon in the pouring rain up to Venango County to buy some land, and cashed in on western Pennsylvania's short-lived oil boom. Now they had some real money.

'We need a steel works,' they decided. 'That new Bessemer process is the wave of the future. Anybody know how to make steel?'

'We need a German chemist,' said Andy. So they headed across the river to Allegheny City, where they asked around until they found one. (It didn't take long.) With their capital and the German's know-how, they started the company that eventually became US Steel.

My late dad was an engineer with this company. He rose in the organisation because they promoted from within and didn't let outside consultants tell engineers what to do. For one thing, have you ever tried to tell an engineer what to do? It doesn't work. They only listen to other engineers. If you don't know what that T-square is for, go peddle your wares. This also allowed the engineers to ride herd on the salesmen. You absolutely, positively cannot 'seal the deal' by promising the customer something the steel company can't deliver. Not when you're talking about a bridge or highrise.

Now what does this have to do with dot-coms? Well, for one thing, the dot-com business of the late 20th/early 21st centuries was a lot like the industrial boom of the late 19th. Something that wasn't there before. And then suddenly was. An opportunity for the entrepreneurial people to engage in make-or-break manoeuvres. A chance for big successes, spectacular failures, and really interesting mistakes.

For another thing, the success of dot-coms depends on a combination of canny insight into human nature coupled with the ability to understand how information technology works – and to keep up with it. Unfortunately, wild success in those two areas does not rule out serious tunnel vision. You can fall so in love with the all-pervasive beauty of your elegant software that you forget basic realities.

Such as that a wise person always has a back-up system.

One person on Twitter – I have no idea whether this is true, I'm just repeating hearsay at this point – claimed to have been in the Facebook building and noticed that there were no keyholes anywhere. They said they'd asked about the back-up contingency in case of failure. And they claim an executive replied that they paid 'people' to think about those things.

I do not claim this to be true. I have no idea. I don't know these people. But it's a good 'bad example', so good in fact that if I were writing a science fiction story involving massive tech failure, I'd start with that quote.

Part of our problem as a society is that we try to pay 'people' to do our thinking for us.

New technologies, whether they be made of gleaming steel or shiny pixels, always have emergent properties. Some will be fun and others less fun. But the best way to weather transitions like this is to keep in mind that as intoxicating as the latest trend is, it's always a good idea to look up and around and get your bearings once in a while. Or you're going to get tunnel vision. And you might wake up in a cul-de-sac.

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