Friday, August 16, 2013

Ready Player One

In days gone past I used to love to travel.  However, that was a million miles, six continents, and three children ago.  Today I approach travel with a much more jaundiced eye, usually only committing to go somewhere if it's an absolute necessity for business or a pleasure trip that involves the family.

That being said, traveling isn't all bad for me.  I usually get a chance, due to all the waiting at various locations, to catch up on my personal reading.  The book I was able to delve into during my latest excursion was a title called "Ready Player One" by an author named Ernest Cline.  I found it to be a rare treat for many reasons.  It touched on deep sociological and political issues from a perspective heavily based in 1980s pop culture.  Although Cline's view of the future is much bleaker than I believe it to be, it has a lot of relevance to certain topics we (as USA citizens) are dealing with today.  Probably the most poignant takeaway that I gained was that the power of the individual to overcome seemingly impossible challenges is what has and will continue to make us, as humans, transcendent.

If you're not interested in deep philosophy, buy the book anyway.  From the point of pure adventure it's truly a non-stop thrill.  And don't take my word for it - Warner Bros is going to make it into a film at some point.

So why tell you about the book?  If you read it, what I'm about to say next will make a lot more sense. 

Since the scandal broke about the copious amount of snooping that the NSA has been conducting on U.S. citizens, and the world in general, I've thought about one thing.  Is the NSA "evil" or are they a giant shield that holds the world's bad guys at bay while we all continue to live the American dream? I have mixed feelings that we will not explore here in much detail.  Since we already know the "what" in relation to the NSA, let's explore the "why".  Why did the management and staff of the NSA go the extents they did to basically record every call, email, and other communication in the world?  Why did they share the information with other governmental agencies?  Did it qualify as benevolent protectionism of citizens or an abuse of power?

The answer to the "why" I believe is quite simple.  It's a matter of human nature.  All throughout history, humankind has ever striven to do more and more.  That's how we have evolved, by pushing the boundaries of what is possible.  "Because we can (or could)" is the motto that fits almost all of human behavior and advances since the beginning of time.  Whether it is the NSA conducting surveillance operations or a single programmer working in a basement on a new paradigm of digital reality, people will always, irresistibly be drawn to push the envelope because that's how we are made.

Whatever your opinion of the NSA, they are a perfect example of how predictable humans are when presented with a challenge.  In order to protect the United States, people within the NSA developed a vision of how that could be done.  The vision included being able to intercept and analyze all communications throughout the world in real time.  Given that goal, the NSA was able to use the power of the human mind to harness technology to make that dream a reality.  Today they use servers, software, and storage on a scale never seen in human history.  Ever heard of a zettabyte?

Given all that said about the NSA, they have been brought to heel (at least partially) by the actions of a single person.  Going back to the book Ready Player One, it's easy to see that the power of the individual will always be a major factor even in the face of a near-omnipotent government or authority.

When as CIOs and technologists you look at your staff and customers, realize the power and nature of the human condition.  Whether you know it or not, various people are always hard at work finding ways to expand their horizons and challenge their constraints.  Embrace it, harness it, and believe in the power of the endless capabilities of humankind to shape and control the reality in which we live.

P.S. Readers, look forward to my next posting called "The Joys of Quantum Physics".  In there I will describe how situations like the one involving the NSA are actually bringing the theoretical into reality.  "For every action there is always someone standing in front of you pushing back."  -Anorak's Almanac, c46, p3, ch7

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