Have we created a monster?

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The Russian Kremlin

The Russian Kremlin

Recent reports that one part of the Russian security service has been driven to return to typewriters through fear of data leaks is a comic case of the world coming full circle for IT industry watchers of a certain age.

Back in the day when the IBM PC was first launched and we all started on the path to consumerisation, the newness of personal computers meant that many PC magazine journalists were asked to write their stories on manual typewriters, a huge irony that was not lost on those involved.

Within months, these red-faced scribes were bought PC compatibles and started to feel better about themselves – but then the nadir was reached when one publishing house decided to launch an Apple Mac magazine, and hired a team of Apple specialists who were then asked to write their copy on the newly bought PCs.

This was about as tactful as asking a Catholic to wave a flag at an Orange March and duly received ‘short shrift’ from the Mac fanatics involved. They rebelled and the publishing house was forced to go out and buy them Macs.

Fast forward to today’s Kremlin, and you can picture a similarly farcical scene when the purchasing manager used to spending roomfuls of roubles on the latest security software was suddenly asked to fork out £10,000 on a bunch of electric typewriters.

Frankenstein view

So is this story more than just funny? There are two ways of looking at this.

There is the ‘Frankenstein’ view that makes this another case of technology sowing the seeds of its own destruction. In this scenario, our dumb infatuation with IT has brought us to the point where we store all our data on it, and leave ourselves utterly vulnerable to having our information ‘crown jewels’ stolen using the self-same technology.

It’s the same mindset that says nuclear weapons will bring mutually assured destruction and genetically modified food won’t feed the world but will poison us all. In this scenario, the moral of the story is like the Emperor’s new clothes, with the Russian secret service triumphantly turning its back on blind devotion to technology.

The other scenario says that you can’t stop progress. It may not always work out but when man creates a problem, man solves a problem. Invented cars that drain the planet of oil? Well, then we just use our ingenuity to build cars that run on electricity, or maybe fresh air – problem solved.

Stupidly started global warming that will bring drought and hunger? Then we use our ingenuity to develop GM crops that means better food production – problem solved.

In this scenario, the moral of the story is that, back in the world of security, the geeks who got us into this mess will sooner or later get us out of it. Hang in there Russkies, watertight security is just around the corner.

Middle ground

Of course there is a middle ground in all this. You can question everything without a knee-jerk assumption that all new technology will bring harm; and you can be all for progress without assuming that every innovation is ‘a good thing’.

Fracking? GM foods? Petrol engines? The Spinning Jenny? Clearly, there are luddites out there who assume everything new is bad.

Twitter trolls? Mobiles on the train? Clearly there are people out there who bow down to technology and use it without thought or discrimination.

We certainly have the capability to be hooked on technology without really benefitting. For evidence, look no further than the latest Harris Mobile Consumer Habits study which finds nearly one in ten American smartphone owners admit to having used their phone during sex. There is definitely a screw loose there, to pardon the pun.

So good on the Russians for calling time on the blind acceptance of new technology. But that doesn’t mean we won’t progress beyond the current state where (to quote MI5’s joke) there are only three certainties – death, taxes and a foreign intelligence service on your network.

Just ask those tech journalists who once had to bash away on second-hand typewriters in over-heated city centre offices. Now a fair few of them are tapping away on tablets at home, sometimes within sight or sound of the sea and countryside – and all the better for it, thanks very much.

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