Seven years ago, Elinor Ostrom — a winner of the 2009 Nobel prize for economics — cited an article on computer unreliability in a paper on knowledge-sharing that she wrote with Charlotte Hess. The angry essay they mentioned ran in late 2000 in an e-zine, the online magazine Salon. Their thirty-nine citations included only one other in a general-interest publication, a decades-old New Yorker piece by E. B. White.
More on that in a moment …
Long before print journalists shrank from crediting or citing blogs as sources of good ideas and information, they refused to acknowledge debts to e-zines and other online-only publications. If they gave them any credit at all, it was for being brave enough to dip their toes in the digital future – in which, from print’s Olympian perch, it seemed as if these pioneers were bound to fail. Their cold-shouldering will soon have to end, thanks to the example set by unprejudiced, fair-minded thinkers.
In post-Gutenberg’s experience, intellectual greatness is in direct proportion to the trouble a powerful brain worker takes over acknowledging useful information or inspiration found absolutely anywhere – whether or not the source meets old-fashioned, conventional criteria for respectability. Only shallow snobs care about labels.
With a quotation of just three words about a growing ‘culture of carelessness,’ Ostrom and Hess directed readers of their paper about obstacles to sharing research findings to the Salon article — ‘High tech’s missionaries of sloppiness’ (‘HTMOS’) — whose subject has been making front-page headlines, lately.
For instance, yesterday’s ‘Chinese Hackers Resume Attacks on U.S. Targets’ followed by only a few weeks a long profile in the same newspaper about the über-Cassandra on this topic, an octogenarian computer scientist called Peter Neumann who is leading a team of researchers trying to make computers less vulnerable to security breaches. His interviewer noted that
… the increasing complexity of modern hardware and software has made it virtually impossible to identify the flaws and vulnerabilities in computer systems and ensure that they are secure and trustworthy. The consequence has come to pass in the form of an epidemic of computer malware and rising concerns about cyberwarfare as a threat to global security …
We would name the newspaper we have quoted in linking to it, as we usually do, except that we are trying to make a point about the churlishness of print journalists’ tendency to – shall we say, forget to credit e-zines and blogs as sources. In April, the same daily ran an opinion piece by a hacker-turned-security-consultant, Marc Maiffret, who made our eyes pop in one paragraph (our italics):
The unspoken truth is that for the most part, large software companies are not motivated to make software secure. It’s a question of investment priorities: they care more about … developing the latest features and functions that consumers and businesses are looking to buy.
‘High tech’s missionaries of sloppiness’ certainly spoke, twelve years ago:
A culture of carelessness seems to have taken over in high-tech America. The personal computer is a shining model of unreliability because the high-tech industry today actually exalts sloppiness as a modus operandi.
American companies accept “good enough” quality for the sake of speed. Being first to market with new products is exalted as the highest goal here, and companies fall back on huge technical support and customer service staffs to cope with their many errors of commission and omission.
“Don’t worry, be crappy,” was how Silicon Valley veteran and pundit Guy Kawasaki expressed the same idea two years ago, in a speech that won him a standing ovation.
Programmers, hackers, and technologists of every stripe were incensed by the Salon essay. After a link to it was posted in the week of its publication on Slashdot.org — then the most popular computerists’ chat-forum – they swarmed aboard, so furious that at least a third of the posts denounced the author of ‘HTMOS’ as ‘he,’ in spite of her unambiguously female name. The explosion was partly owed to the genius of Andrew Leonard, the Salon editor on the job, who barely scratched the piece’s text but wrote its headline and dreamt up a standfirst borrowing none of its actual words, which read,
Computer companies specialize in giving consumers lousy products — it’s the American way of techno-capitalism.
Maiffret and his editors might simply have failed to check the antecedents for his condemnation of Silicon Valley’s lack of interest in safe computing. A lone editor from the print world, Simon Caulkin – renowned in British journalism not just for his talent but peerless integrity (and a former colleaugue of the Salon contributor) – did cite ‘HTMOS’ in one of his Observer columns on management, titled, ‘Software must stop bugging us’.
For the most part, it is in books and university curricula that the essay has been marked for attention. Even if the world is still a long way from curing computers of their flaws, the citations that come up on the first page of Google results for the essay’s title are in, for instance:
Adapting Buildings and Cities for Climate Change, Sue Roaf, David Crichton and Fergus Nicol, Routledge, 2012
Why Programs Fail – A Guide to Systematic Debugging, Andreas Zeller, Elsevier, 2009 [also a Google e-book]
Geekonomics: The Real Cost of Insecure Software, David Rice, Pearson Education, 2007
Quality software project management, Robert T. Futrell, Donald F. Shafer and Linda Isabell Shafer, Prentice Hall Professional, 2002
‘HTMOS’ also continues to find its way into arguments between technophiles, as in 2007, on the site of the ‘Central West End Linux Users Group’ – where it was used to slap down a debater who declared airily, ‘Every OS [operating system] has its faults. Pick your poison.’
That Ostrom-Hess paper with which this post began was, as it happens, about tribalism getting in the way of sharing information critical to human life – in microbiology research. The authors noted, in their abstract, that ‘there are many, diverse participants in producing and consuming information who often have conflicting interests …’.
Conflicting interests indeed. It is obvious from the rarity with which print journalism acknowledges good work published online in e-zines and blogs that its workers are afraid of their new competitors. And then, of course, programmers are not particularly fond of that article. We at post-Gutenberg are not much interested in conspiracy theories, but could not help smiling when we noticed that someone at both The Observer and Salon appeared to have gone to pains to make it harder to find ‘HTMOS’ and the Caulkin column on flawed software. The London newspaper misclassifies his eloquent jeremiad with the work of a political writer, Madeleine Bunting. And for years, the Salon essay has been indexed not with its collections of pieces on computers, software or Silicon Valley but under ‘AUTO INDUSTRY, ENTERTAINMENT NEWS’.
Of course we imply no conspiracy… the culprit could only be a dear little sloppiness gremlin piling up overtime hours.