Monday, August 27, 2007

Microsoft, What Have You Done?

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"The number one benefit of information technology is that it empowers people to do what they want to do. It lets people be creative. It lets people be productive. It lets people learn things they didn't think they could learn before, and so in a sense it is all about potential."
- Steve Ballmer (Microsoft CEO)

The world is always a beautiful and interesting place when we hear from the gods of Microsoft. To listen to them, you would think they made it.

Do you feel empowered to do what you want to do? In terms of learning what I could not before, I certainly benefit from the age of information technology. But do what I want to do? People, not technology, stand in the way of that because they don't make the technology do what I would like it to do.

Computers and the internet allow me to be creative in ways that were never before possible. As I have impaired fine motor skills (brain and fingers not on speaking terms) and mild dyslexia (usually involving interchanging of letters), writing with a pen or pencil would be extremely slow and discouraging. With a keyboard, Delete and the backspace key are among my favoured allies.

Those of us who use the internet frequently each day must commit devotedly to security measures. I spend approximately one-fifth of my time at the computer updating my anti-virus, anti-spyware, anti-rootkit and various anti-rogue programs, then scanning with them. My updating and scanning time often equals the time I have to be creative and productive, Ballmer's two biggies.

That 20 percent increases dramatically if I have a hardware failure, a spyware invasion (not likely, but it happens to others) or installation of bad (incompatible) software that just doesn't want to go away.

No doubt I save a lot of trees every year because I don't use a typewriter. No doubt I bear some responsibility for employees of white-out manufacturers not having jobs because I have nothing on paper to cover up.

Ballmer's statement is the party line. It's what we have been brainwashed to believe since the early days of personal computers. The truth of the statement is questionable in practice. Unless you have abundant Microsoft redundancy servers and computers to back you up so that you can switch from one keyboard to another within seconds. Unless, that is, you have redundant money.

The oldest generation among us cries that people don't write letters any more, that young people can't spell and their grammar is atrocious. All true. However, I feel certain that the percentage of adults who write something each day is many times higher than it was in grandpa's day. Anyway, wasn't it grandma who wrote most of the letters that grandpa took credit for?

We should have no doubt that the potential Ballmer spoke about is there for us. We have access to the best libraries in the world, online services that allow us to communicate with people around the world by voice or written word, forums that find us sharing ideas with others on six continents, and vacations we can take any day where we can see better photographs than most of us could take ourselves--and no lost luggage.

Like it or not, the electronic age is with us full force and likely forever.

A friend who is involved on the inside track with computers phoned today to ask if I had an account with a particular bank. He advises his clients to not use Outlook express for online bank services (such as money transfers), but even the special web services whose main purpose is online banking can be invaded.

Some accounts in the branch I deal with had been "tampered with" (other details were confidential and the bank publicly denied everything). The only way they could have been invaded (money removed improperly) was if the transaction information taking place between a user's computer and the bank, using a secure service, were captured during the transaction, just as a phone line can be tapped.

Information technology has sped up the pace of the world we live in. Grandmas's dress may be in style because that style has returned, but if she can't receive text messages on her cell phone and upload pictures from the phone to YouTube or MySpace, she only looks fashionable.

The world and most every life in it is in constant change. We need to not only be physically ready for it, we need to be emotionally prepared to cope with it. It's life today.

Privacy faded into history several years ago. Today almost everything about our life is public information. The average person who works in a city passes from 100 to 300 video cameras each day. Workplaces have hidden cameras "for security purposes." Police cars have camcorders on their dashboards.

Let's not forget little software programs that employers, parents and spouses can hide in a computer to track every web page, every keystroke, done by a computer. Maybe those six-year-old kids who are smarter than their parents with a computer can bypass kid-control software by installing a tracker program themselves to learn what daddy has been up to late at night. Whatever you do, don't tell your kids they can't do it.

Did you know that the Central Intelligence Agency and similar organizations in other countries monitor every email sent (software searching for keywords) and can pinpoint the exact computer that accessed a web site that appeals to terrorists, right down to the street, house and computer?

Being a crook simply isn't safe any more. Although, organized crime can be seen less often on the streets now and more often with email and web site scams. Even the underground economy is more organized.

Yes, Messrs. Ballmer and Gates, you have given us much to think about.

Bill Allin
Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, a book about how we can prepare our children for a future that is much different and much more complex than the world we grew up in.
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