Friday, April 20, 2007

Dancing on the Head of a Pin

Earlier in the week, Blackberry was down for the better part of a day and it was national news. The outage was said to affect over 80% of large companies in the U.S. Eight million subscribers had to actually talk to someone during the outage. It is reported, but not substantiated, that several people actually paid attention during company staff meetings.

Blackberry Does anyone even remember handwriting? Cursive? That flowing style we struggled with in school, before everyone took to what I guess I would call speed printing? Who writes anymore? We type with our thumbs, Blackberrying back and forth, text-message on cell-phones and maybe whip off an actual e-mail from our computer. But write a letter? Not a chance.
Earlier in the week, Blackberry was down for the better part of a day and it was national news. The outage was said to affect over 80% of large companies in the U.S. Eight million subscribers had to actually talk to someone during the outage. It is reported, but not substantiated, that several people actually paid attention during company staff meetings.
Cybersecurity This same week, a headline warned that the government was 'straining to secure computer systems.' Last year some 24,000 ‘incident reports’ were recorded and the guys keeping track for the fed say we’re on track this year for twice that number.
Those are reported problems.
No one has the foggiest notion of what’s actually happening. What this has to do with handwriting is more than casually connected.
We are not so much forgetting how to survive in a simpler environment as we are having the basic tools removed from our hands. We’re cyber-hunters and cell-phone gatherers. We have un-invented the wheel.
Not all that long ago, if your car conked out by the side of the road, there was half a chance you could open the hood, pop the distributor cap, wipe things off and see that the wires were actually connected to spark plugs.
Carbreakdown Spark plugs? Sorry ‘bout that, they still exist, but not where you can get at them. Distributor? Surely you jest. All that stuff that was once owner-mess-around-able has now been digitalized, compartmentalized and computerized beyond all hope on a dark road at night. Cell-phones were invented for this (and only this) reason.
And it’s not just the old Buick. Along with hackers midnight-snacking on government computers, count at risk your access to cash, as well as nearly everything you rely on from your morning coffee to watching Leno or Letterman.  Anything attached to the electric grid. Our lives, dancing on the head of a pin, computer-chipped from cradle to grave and no allowance made for when the chips go out.
Which they will.
Empmechanism The effects of something called EMP has been discussed in the media. Electromagnetic pulse amounts to an intense energy field. You know how ‘sun spots’ are blamed when the TV goes schizoid. Think of EMP as sort of a man-made sun spot. A small nuclear device would do, set off a couple hundred miles above America. No fatalities, just everything gone blank.
No car, no toast, no elevator. No Blackberry. Oh, and no PaceMaker. Sorry ‘bout that.
Inconvenience, impatience and initial anger would quickly turn to anarchy in a basic struggle for food and water to survive. The nation would quickly become democratized. Wealth wouldn’t mean a damn with no way to leave even if leaving were possible. The personal jet becomes as useless as the old, broken-down beater.
Cellphonegulliver Apocalyptic? You bet. Massive government malfeasance? Not really. The government didn’t get us where we are anymore than they are responsible for global warming. We became chip-dependent on our own. The 2nd half of the 20th century was pretty nice for those of us who survived it. Carry-out pizza and a telephone to carry around in our hand. Replaceable hips and no-fault divorce.
Even so, we are six and a half billion of us are dancing on the head of a pin and that pin is no longer metaphor. It exists. Take a peek into the darkest reaches of the essence of survival and you find a blue and gray sticker that says ‘intel inside.’
Trafficbackedup I don’t pretend to know what will happen when the lights go out and we are bumper-to-bumper, standing outside our cars and scratching our heads. Whoof! Everything stops. Not even a ‘whoof’ you are likely to see, just everything we depend upon to run not running.
Is it all re-startable? You got me. Can life as we know it be re-booted? Damned if I know.
But we are vulnerable in ways we never were before and maybe that’s something worth talking about. Car-bombs in Baghdad and that ghastly shooting at Virginia Tech may be the least of what we might endure.
Intelinside Donald Rumsfeld and his Star Wars missile shield are a joke. That’s not where the threat lies. The threat lies in our having chosen to attach all life support (be it government agencies or the electric grid) to computer chips.
MicroSoft’s seemingly endless ability to hand Swiss cheese down through the generations of its ubiquitous software, doesn’t help either. Maybe our hooking ourselves to a single vulnerable chip technology in a single compromised software isn’t the smartest thing in the world.
There was a time when computers promised unlimited choice. Google searches sixty billion random pieces of information in seconds. The promise has largely been fulfilled, but the price is defenselessness and that’s a pretty big price.
Hacker Each week brings another story of hacked personal information, a John Dillinger moment that proves all banks suffer the hinges falling off their safes. Whether they safekeep our money or personal information, our government secrets or the ‘keys’ to the elevator, no one can tell what has been compromised because no one knows.
A thousand break-ins a week. The departments of State and Commerce head the lists of failed security. Mike Chertoff’s Homeland Security rates a D minus and Mike is charged with the job of national watchdog.
Do you suppose Chertoff even knows?
_______________________________________________________
Media comment;