Tag Archives: technology

Technology and the PEBCAC problem, as elucidated by Lee Child’s “Jack Reacher”

No system, as the adage goes, is fool-proof to a sufficiently determined and talented fool.  Computer help-desk people have an acronym for it – ‘PEBCAC’, which stands for Problem Exists Between Computer And Chair.

A serious amount of mental effort gets spent on human-computer interfaces (there are journals, conferences etc etc).  In another life, I’d have liked to study that. In this life, I am reduced to sharing an amusing clip from the latest ‘Jack Reacher’ novel….

‘What do you remember about the Soviets?’

‘Lots of things.’

I said, ‘Above all they were realistic, especially about human nature, and the quality of their own personnel. They had a very big army, which meant their average grunt was lazy, incompetent, and not blessed with any discernible talent. They understood that, and they knew there wasn’t a whole lot they could do about it. So instead of trying to train their people upward towards the standard of available modern weaponry, they designed their available modern weaponry downward towards the standard of their people. Which was a truly radical approach.’


‘Hence the AK-47. For instance, one example, what does a panicky grunt do under fire? He grabs his rifle and hits the fire selector and pulls the trigger. Our guns go from safe to single shot to full auto, which is nice and linear and logical, but they knew that would mean ninety-nine times in a hundred their guys would panic and ram the selector all the way home, and thereby fire off a whole magazine on the first hasty and unaimed shot. Which would leave them with an empty weapon right at the start of a firefight. Which is not helpful. S the AK selector goes safe, then full auto, then single shot. Not linear, not logical, but certainly practical.  Single shot is a kind of default setting, and full auto is a deliberate choice.

Page 132-3 of  Child, L. (2014) Personal. London: Transworld

“Technology versus the Leviathan”. But does it need a Leviathan? #innovation #democracy

TLDR: It’s a dilemma that has never gotten old. How do you overthrow an ossified system of control without becoming that same thing? “Met the new boss,” and all that. Or, worse and more likely, you run out of steam, lose heart, your best ideas get “borrowed” and prop up the thing you were trying to get rid of. Or – even more sinister – you do have a liberatory technology that “works” – but there are so many other inhibiting factors that you still can’t get out of the ‘ghetto’.

After posting about Shell and their awfully big ship, I have received, from its author, a stonkingly interesting paper about the history of “participatory technology” experiments in England in the 1970s and 80s (from Lucas, to the Greater London Council). It really is very very rich on a variety of topics. It’s called Technology Networks for Socially Useful Production.

Here’s a quote about how difficult it is to get tacit knowledge and skills shared. There are real cultural/class/gender/age barriers. of which we may be only dimly aware (at best).

Workshop practices, attitudes and expectations needed open reflection to overcome unintended exclusions. GLEB appointed Boards overseeing the networks were accused of having “employed high numbers of technically experienced trade-union men whose language, bureaucratic ways of working and emphasis on the product rather then the community process act to exclude even technically qualified women” (Linn 1987 121). The practicalities of bringing diverse communities together with engineers, machinists, and designers proved considerable. As Mary Moore put it, “You will not find this group coming together naturally after a CND [3] demonstration or a football match, for a quick drink or an exchange of ideas” (quoted in (Mackintosh & Wainwright 1987) (214). Democratising decisions involves the negotiation and resolution of conflicts, between different groups of workers, between producers and consumers, between professionalised expertise and grassroots knowledge, and across other divisions including class, gender and race (Blackburn et al. 1982).

I read that with great interest. Partly for its own sake, but also it so resonates with something I read just yesterday about Wikipedia, the online website that we all know, love, and cite when we want to get in trouble with our supervisors. It’s by David Auerbach, and its called “Encylcopedia Frown.”  As with the Smith paper, you should read the lot.

The encyclopedia that anyone can edit” is at risk of becoming, in computer scientist Aaron Halfaker’s words, “the encyclopedia that anyone who understands the norms, socializes him or herself, dodges the impersonal wall of semiautomated rejection and still wants to voluntarily contribute his or her time and energy can edit.” An entrenched, stubborn elite of old-timers, a high bar to entry, and a persistent 90/10 gender gap among editors all point to the possibility that Wikipedia is going adrift. Because Wikipedia is so unprecedented, I cut it a lot of slack, but precisely for that reason, it faces unanticipated dangers and no easy solution.

Auerbach was trying to get a page about him changed, since it claimed he held views which he most definitely did not. The gory details are very gory. Here’s his summation;

I am not exaggerating when I say it is the closest thing to Kafka’s The Trial I have ever witnessed, with editors and administrators giving conflicting and confusing advice, complaints getting “boomeranged” onto complainants who then face disciplinary action for complaining, and very little consistency in the standards applied. In my short time there, I repeatedly observed editors lawyering an issue with acronyms, only to turn around and declare “Ignore all rules!” when faced with the same rules used against them.

And what seems to be needed? For a Leviathan – a “visible power to keep them in awe, and tie them by fear of punishment to the performance of their covenants” – to step up  and to do some Leviathaning.

“I tried to correct the misinformation, several recalcitrant editors attacked me until Wales himself stepped in and saner editors prevailed and fixed the error. (To them, I am grateful.)”

And once you’ve invited the Leviathan in, what are the odds he (it’s usually a ‘he’) will become the new boss?

So the take homes are ;

  • you should definitely read the Smith paper
  • social change is bloody difficult. You have to get almost all of your ducks in a row. You need the “technology” duck and the “social movements” duck and the “how to hold good meetings and begin to create good relationships with busy/poor/disillusioned people” duck and a dozen other ducks you barely know the names. All of them quacking from the same hymn-sheet, flying in formation. Meanwhile, you have to dress each of your ducks in Kevlar, because, as happened in an earlier experiment in socio-technical change and cybernetics, the forces of darkness come in blast away at close range with a shotgun.

And what is to be done? I can’t say it better than Smith, so I’ll quote him

“A key lesson from this history is that radical aspirations invested in workshops, such as democratising technology, will need to connect to wider social mobilisations capable of bringing about reinforcing political, economic and institutional change. Otherwise, as … in the case of Technology Networks, diminished versions of these ideas and practices will become captured and co-opted by incumbents….. Grassroots fabrication needs to link to social movement, just as the Lucas shop stewards and Collective Resource Approach attempted when linking to workers movements. And any cultural shift needs to translate into political and economic reinforcement.”

Further Reading

Two of Cory Doctorow’s novels for young adults – Homeland and Little Brother – are both excellent page-turners, while also highly educative about the possibilities of technologies as a way of linking people, sharing knowledge and abilities.

William Golding Lord of the Flies, natch