NORMAN — Computers are useless. They only give you answers,” so said acclaimed artist Pablo Picasso in the late 1960s. Fifty years later, computers have evolved into useful tools capable of performing an amazing array of tasks, even though they are still incapable of formulating even the most fundamental questions.
I heard the “computers are useless” quote for the first time at a lecture given by Dr. Ian Angell, Professor of Information Systems at the London School of Economics. Held at the annual Defcon computer security conference in Las Vegas, Dr. Angell’s lecture, titled “Digital Security — A Risky Business,” was so full of notable quotes of his own that I couldn’t write them down fast enough, no matter how furiously I scribbled. The man is, quite simply, a fountain of brilliant observations.
Professor Angell has long been a controversial and outspoken critic of governmental attempts to categorize everything under the sun, compile statistics relating to those categories and then use technological systems to turn the resulting information into political and economic policies. As Dr. Angell points out, “Technology always gets more and more complex and ultimately fails.” To my mind, this statement illuminates the troubling fact that our society is becoming more and more dependent on technology to solve human problems, with few people ever questioning the wisdom of the situation.
“A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic;” this quote from communist dictator Joseph Stalin points out the inherent danger of using statistics as a means of determining policy. “These words of monster Joseph Stalin show his clear understanding of the monstrosity that is statistics,” says Dr. Angell. “He knew that statistics deliver the clear conscience of a numerical justification that avoids responsibility for man’s inhumanity to man.”
“They tell us the big lie that ‘the figures don’t lie,’ as they treat us as categories and not as individuals. However, category is not truth, but merely an act of choice driven by hidden agendas and prejudged priorities. Categories are intrinsically ambiguous. They can be distorted so that most of the data is ‘on message,’ while awkward numbers are ignored.” “Instead of continually re-evaluating every uncertain situation and depending on the talent of individuals, political decision-making becomes a matter of controlling the future by labeling it with numbers. However, the approach of searching for the right numerical label to represent the future is no different to numerology, astrology, or the personality tests found in women’s magazines.”
Regarding the use of DNA databases as an infallible crime-solving tool, Dr. Angell is equally outspoken on how easy it is to circumvent such “infallible” systems. We’ve all been taught the merits of such technology: you put a hair or body fluid sample into the great crime-solving machine and out comes a criminal’s name.
“Absolute nonsense,” states Dr. Angell, “because what’s going to happen is that the criminals will go to the local club where the criminals congregate. They will pick up the ashtrays and then, when they go out to do their dirty deeds, they will scatter samples everywhere, so when the CSI comes in, they will have a huge amount of work, masses of false trails. Of course you’re going to leave body samples when you commit a crime, but there are 100,000 other body samples, as well. The system gets overloaded, and fails.” As a result, we are left no better off than we were before the use of DNA databases: the innocent go to jail, and the guilty go free. This brings to mind what were, according to President Ronald Reagan, the nine most terrifying words in the English language: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”
Some people, especially computer security and database administrators, like to fault Dr. Angell for offering more questions than answers, calling him “The Angell of Doom and Gloom.” I rather like his approach, though, as my personal life is full of unanswered questions, as are the lives of most people with at least half a brain. The moment that a person stops asking questions is the moment a person has decided that they know all of the answers.
Dave Moore has been performing computer consulting, repairs, security and networking in Oklahoma since 1984. He also teaches computer safety workshops for public and private organizations. Contact him at 919-9901 or davemoorecomputers.com.