Sunday, October 11, 2009

It Happens (even without the "SH")

Of all the stories in Robert Heinlein's Future History series, the one that probably influenced me the most was "Blowups Happen." On the surface this is a cautionary tale about dealing with the risks of catastrophic circumstances in nuclear power; but at a deeper level it tries to play out how we think about such risks in general, almost in the form of a Platonic dialogue. The thing about Plato's texts is that they are less concerned with coming up with simple answers to simple questions (like "What is knowledge?") and more concerned with the "journey" we have to take in order to find those answers. Since Heinlein's story first appeared in 1940 (which, as the Wikipedia entry reminds us, was before any nuclear reactors had been built), it may be viewed as a very early step in the journey that has tried to take on the many forms of risk we now face.

When we think of catastrophic risks, our thoughts have migrated from nuclear power to terrorism; but we seldom give much thought to risks associated with more mundane accidents in our day-to-day technologies. Think of the Northeast Blackout of 1965 (which I experienced as I was walking up the steps from the Boylston Street Station of the Boston rapid transit system). Who would have thought that the lights could go out for 25 million people over an area of 80,000 square miles? Who would have thought that it was the consequence of a simple accident, rather than an act of sabotage?

I offer both Heinlein's fiction and this one event from my personal history as a context for Ina Fried's CNET News report yesterday about a serious blow to the evangelists who have been extolling the virtues of hosted software services:

A week ago, though, Microsoft's Danger unit experienced a huge outage that left many T-Mobile Sidekick users without access to their calendar, address book, and other key data. That's because the Sidekick keeps nearly all its data in the cloud as opposed to keeping the primary copy on the devices themselves.

Things got even worse on Saturday, as Microsoft said in a statement that data not recovered thus far may be permanently lost. It's not immediately clear how many people lost their data. The outage earlier in the week affected a broad swath of Sidekick users, though many had data return during the week.

In terms of raw numbers, this may not have had the impact of the 1965 blackout; but it probably made a lot of the victims think twice about what they want their software to do and how they expect it to do it.

One of the "collateral" conclusions that often emerges from reading Plato is the discovery that the question that initiated the dialogue may have been the wrong question (as is the case with "What is knowledge?" in "Theaetetus"). This seems to be the case in terms of how we deal with questions about catastrophic risks. In the wake of 9/11, we were confronted with an obsession with what I have called "preventative security," giving little thought to whether or not this was a realistic goal. In December of 2007, I wrote about a book entitled The Edge of Disaster by Stephen Flynn, whose fundamental proposition was that resiliency is more important than preventative security. One might say that Flynn accepted the title of Heinlein's story as a fundamental axiom of the way things are. It cannot be changed; so let us focus, instead, on how we live with it, which means how well-equipped we are to recover when things go wrong.

We do not see much of this in the software industry, particularly in the marketing arm. Everyone is eager to tell us how great things will be when the system works. No one wants to talk about what sorts of recovery processes will kick in when things go wrong; and, unfortunately, when I say "no one," I mean not only the marketers but also the design and implementation teams. Ultimately, then, ours is the culture of the ostrich, best captured in the song lyrics of Michael Flanders:

Peek-a-Boo, I can't see you,
Everything must be grand.
Boo-ka-Pee, they can't see me,
As long as I've got me head in the sand.
Peek-a-Boo, it may be true,
There's something in what you've said,
But we've got enough troubles in everyday life,
I just bury me head.

There is no doubt that "we've got enough troubles in everyday life;" but the least we can do is keep those troubles from growing, even if we cannot prevent them!

No comments: