Waving or drowning?

26Nov09

Earlier this year I gave a talk on cloud security at the e-Crime congress. One of the other speakers was John Suffolk, who when he wasn’t struggling with some very badly formatted PowerPoint [1] asked the audience ‘who in this room thinks they are keeping up with technology?’. I think I ruined his script a little by sticking my hand up, as apparently the normal response by an entire audience at a technology conference is to passively accept that they’re not keeping up.

This raises a fascinating question for me – why is it that people in the technology industry feel that they are constantly slipping behind? I could perhaps blame it on traditional British reserve, but there were plenty of US and other visitors in the audience. It might also be ‘head above the parapet’ syndrome, where others feel that they are competent in keeping up, but don’t feel like putting that to the test in public (and for what it’s worth John didn’t give me a hard time over it, though he also didn’t catch up afterwards to get the story behind the action).

What really scares me is the prospect that we have hundreds of people in senior positions within the IT industry who basically accept that they are to some degree clueless about what’s going on. People who’ve given up on keeping up, somehow overwhelmed by the consequences of Moore’s law and all that it brings down upon us.

Has it always been like this, or are things getting worse over time? If we’d asked a conference full of microcomputer enthusiasts in the early 80s the same question would their answer have been the same (there was after all a bewildering array of new machines, languages, applications and accessories emerging on the scene at the time)?

I put my hand up because I consider that it’s my job to keep up with this stuff. I may not know everything about anything, but I try hard to have a broad (and necessarily superficial) knowledge of as much as possible. I know that plenty of others will say that they’re too busy with their ‘day job’ to spend the necessary time, but what does it actually take? I probably spend an hour or so a day in my RSS aggregator (and Twitter) catching up on what people who’ve passed some kind of arbitrary interest threshold have to say (and reading the stories that they have to tell, or following the links they’ve exposed for me). I get through a lot more stuff in that hour than I used to in the days before RSS and Twitter – just as Moore brings us an exponentially growing problem Classen brings us logarithmic utility to deal with it.

The broader point here is that as a civilisation we must be keeping up with this stuff. Unless there’s some secret warehouse in the Bay area that’s shipping in alien technology then we’re dealing with a closed loop. People create all of this new stuff, and so the knowledge about what it does and how it can be useful is simply distributed; and the web (2.0) and all of the collaboration tools that sit on it not only give us the means to create new stuff (and introduce new complexity) but they also give us the means to harness and understand it.

My prediction – individuals will continue to feel left behind, whilst society as a whole continues to plough forward.

[1] almost certainly not his fault. I bet that he (or more likely an assistant or somebody else that does slide mongering for him) has to contend with some ancient version of MS Office running on an obsolete build of Windows on top of crumbling neutered hardware. If my impressions of public sector IT (even amongst its highest operatives), formed by my own somewhat dated experience, are wrong then please correct me with a comment below.



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