Pandora's Technology Box

Posted 26 Jun 2007 at 12:56 UTC (updated 26 Jun 2007 at 12:58 UTC) by lkcl Share This

Technology rules our first-world lives. The fears of a return to dark-ages that was predicted and worried about in the nineties has only become more of a risk, as ever more dependence on technology expands. First-world economies and societies, run by consumerism and led by corporations, are simply not aware of - let alone taking into account - just how much damage Information Technology does to people, nor are they considering the consequences of that damage, or their reliance on the people who are being made so ill.

So this article's purpose is to draw attention to the enormous responsibility being placed at the feet of IT specialists - both programmers and maintainers - whilst at the same time pointing out that those very same IT specialists are under absolutely crippling psychological and physical pressure, as a direct result of working with IT systems. The question has now been asked: what do we do about this?

(article first published as TechnoHealth by lkcl)

A Familiar Story

late nights. caffeine. poor food. unbelievably bad communication skills. flickering light sources. high electro-magnetic fields ranging from 50Hz Mains all the way up to 5Ghz Wi-Max. irregular sleeping and eating patterns. obsessive compulsive disorders. physical incapacitation due to bad posture and ignorance of the effects of strain on the physiology.

You know the drill: this is your average geek.

Worst of all - there are social and economic pressures, work ethics and frightened and ignorant management that drive the individual to ignore the very things that they know they should be doing to remain healthy, thus causing even worse psychological and physical long-term damage in some cases than if the individual was ignorant of their situation!

These geeks are the people that we rely on to free the world and provide what Western Society would call a standard of living - to help avoid what Western Society thinks that poverty is (such as not having minimum wage, not having pensions, not having enforced education, not having a National Health Service in the case of some countries). We rely on these IT specialists to guide those with less skill and knowledge in computing, to make our lives somehow better.

Technology: here to stay, but at what cost?

Here's the kicker: I question whether we in the Western first-world are actually better off without technology! The 90s Sci-fi film, in which Kurt Russell zaps the world, to rid it entirely of electricity, is a concept I would never have thought I would like to see happen - until recently. And the reason for that is because I have seen people living in India and China who were quite happy with their "poverty-stricken" lives, that those in Western Europe feel such pity for.

This may not seem relevant things to highlight, in this article, however it is a general malaise endemic in First World Western society that people consider themselves to be living in poverty, when in fact that poverty is an idea imposed on them by the very society that they cling to as a life-raft! So this article highlights just one aspect of the consequences that First World Western society faces: the malaise caused by Information Technology and the reliance on Technology.

And yet it must be recognised that there isn't any way back: we cannot return the world to the Dark Ages. The Internet Information Age has so much enormous potential to improve humanity: therefore, logically and without a doubt, it must be done properly and responsibly.

Challenging First World Ideals

Computers and Information Technology are supposed to make our lives better. All of the adverts say so. "Where do you want to go, today?". "The PC is Personal, again". Do more. Achieve more. Connect more. Love more. Buy more. I challenge anyone to tell me that being at risk of constant virus attack and living in fear of using your computer, but telling yourself that you have to do so because everyone else does, is a good thing.

Let me tell you all a little secret: everyone else is in exactly the same situation as you.

Everyone is running around, desperately unhappy and afraid of using Information Technology, pretending that they have to use it because everyone else is. The key point that you're missing is: you control your life, not "everyone else".

In the meantime, we have a serious problem. We're propagating this general malaise across the rest of the world, who are copying us because our Televisions show them a better way of life. For example, the One Laptop Per Child project is bringing the first light source ever, for countless generations, into homes that in most cases don't even have a window, let alone a water supply.

The people that live in this kind of quote poverty unquote are actually extremely healthy, physically, psychologically and spiritually. I've seen it. In two different countries, both of which have a tradition of Yoga and Meditation as part of people's daily lives. Both those countries - India and China - have a way of life that doesn't involve minimum wages, pensions, forced innoculation and vaccination, forced education, "classless society" propaganda (John Major's idea), and doesn't consider teaching children to work incredibly hard and to be a useful contribution to society to be "child slave labour". All of these things, which shock First World Society when considered in this light, are all challenges that make an individual stronger: they teach an individual to fight for a better life or in most cases to fight for their lives. First World Society considers such challenges to be too painful for individuals to face, and so removes them. Without regard for the consequences on the individual or the society, and it's in light of survival and the overall strength and health of a society that many people simply cannot think about. Mostly because the kinds of decisions that need to be made for the benefit of a community tend to conflict with things like "The Rights Of The Individual", and individuals typically think only in terms of, and can typically only relate to, "The Individual".

The thing that's particularly sad to observe is when the developing countries - especially India - observe the wealth that Western Society promises, and the individuals believe that the way to obtain such wealth is to copy Western ideology and methods. However, in the case of I.T., the way of life that comes with such ideals isn't publicised as widely, but has to be copied anyway. As a result, many young programmers in India are dead by the time they are 35, as a direct result of quite obvious physiological and psychological stress, such as continuous eleven hours per day work ethics, alcohol and other kinds of well-known self-abuse. The bottom line is that the Indian heritage and culture is simply completely unable to cope with such an enormous amount of stress - and they are not the only culture to be suffering as a direct consequence of the Western way of life.

why is it so important?

if all the computers in the world stopped working, our society would collapse. no phones. no television. no electricity. no water because the filtration and pump stations are all computer-controlled nowadays. no trains (and no signal stations) no cars, because most cars have modules (that are entirely controlled by the manufacturers). no satellites, and so no inter-continental communication.

i write these things for emphasis: it is well-known that without technology, western society would degenerate into far worse than what third-world societies face, simply because there is no knowledge any more, in the "great and glorious world-leading first world" societies of how to live even a basic subsistence existence!

it goes without saying that god help us all if there is any kind of natural disaster such as global warming raising sea levels by five to fifteen metres or plunging large areas into ice-age level temperatures. but: that is a discussion that is beyond the scope of this article, mentioned only to punch home quite how important it is that we - and by we I of course refer to western society - take individual, collective, national and global responsibility for our (western society) way of life, spreading around like the disease that it is, absolutely 100% seriously.

so - to reiterate: IT gives us so much in the way of access to Information, Global Communication and Knowledge that we cannot possibly do without it. So we are entirely reliant for our very existence on IT infrastructure, and therefore entirely reliant on the individuals who program and maintain IT.

we should therefore look after them.

i therefore urge the World Health Organisation - and others, including yourselves the readers - to begin immediate investigation into these matters. urgent research is needed in order to assess the scale of the sickness that is pervasive in IT (including in the free software community and especially in developing countries that are just embarking on the introduction of IT systems).

even just beginning such research would ask the questions that must surely be on people's minds and would get people to realise that they need to get help or to help out. surely people have had the feeling that there's something terribly wrong with western society, but nobody can quite work out what it is.

but the bottom line is this: if it were a single physical disease, rather than a collection and mixture of seriously debilitating psychological diseases and syndromes; physical disease and aggravations causing physical disabilities; social disorders, social and peer pressures and social dysfunctions, my guess is that "IT sickness" would be classified as pandemic.

pandemics need to be investigated and contained.

pandora's box must be closed.

A disturbing article, but worthwhile to read, posted 26 Jun 2007 at 14:07 UTC by mentifex » (Master)

Take for instance Mentifex here (depicted below on the right), traipsing daily through the jungles of Panama and living healthily in a low-tech environment, slim, fleet of foot, not yet crazy and distempered.

Mentifex (on the right) as a child at Fort Gulick in the Panama Canal Zone

Then we see Mentifex on Sat.26.May.2007 in Seattle, protesting against Cheney (caught on the DC Madam prostitution list) and the Iraq war, but bloated with geek malnutrition and barely able to function in society:

Mentifex at Seattle Folklife on May 26, 2007

Luke Kenneth Casson Leighton (LKCL) is telling us the truths that are painful to experience. One especially hearkens to his closing message that it is not a single disease, but rather a "collection and mixture of seriously debilitating" problems. Maybe the more we try to fix these problems, the worse they get. But one keeps on trying.
-Arthur (the Mentifex you love to hate)

Wow., posted 26 Jun 2007 at 18:23 UTC by joolean » (Journeyer)

I don't quite know what to say. -2 Extreme Crankitude?

TechnoHealth, posted 26 Jun 2007 at 20:16 UTC by badvogato » (Master)

coolio luke. Where's your brand of get-laid button?

focussing on the problem..., posted 27 Jun 2007 at 08:40 UTC by lkcl » (Master)

dear mad and quite wonderful mentifex,

focussing on the problem never got anyone anywhere but closer to the problem.

focussing on the past never got anyone beyond talking about how good "the old days were".

i've come back from debconf7, which i attended with some trepidation (completely unnecessarily as it turned out) but with a specific goal to double-check the "health" so-to-speak of the people there.

and i was absolutely delighted to find that, by and large, the people who make up debian actually "Get It". there's someone who is doing a sociology study, who was looking for metrics to measure (so i gave him lots! :) ) there were people who had actually read the debian charter and i spoke to ian jackson who is extremely knowledgeable about many things, and gave me an insight into the political nature of debian, for which i was very grateful.

and much more.

all in all it was fascinating, and i am very much more hopeful for the future, if the debian developers have anything to do with it - which they will, because they are self-motivated and motivated to make things better.

the tide *is* turning - and it's not by focussing on "problems" or "attacking", it's by ignoring or being just plain ignorant of the fight and just single-mindedly getting on with what you want to achieve (focussing on the future you want to see happen).

and my goodness do we have some people who are seriously obsessed with seeing free software happen! :)

in short: my article is written specifically to shock people - to get people's attention, and to get them to think. however, actually, the future is, if debian is anything to go by, looking pretty good. but it isn't "over" - and it's never going to *be* "over": there's always going to be room for improvement, because the goal *is* improvement.

coolio, posted 27 Jun 2007 at 08:41 UTC by lkcl » (Master)

badvo, when i find it, you'll be the first to know, ha ha :)

focus, posted 27 Jun 2007 at 13:26 UTC by lkcl » (Master)

focus on what you want to achieve.

if you want to, you can focus on problems: that will help keep them around.

if you want to, you can focus on achieving a goal: that will mean that when "coincidences" start happening, you are ready to pounce on them.

the key is focus. if you have a goal that you don't reaaally believe in, then you will only succeed in messing up, because you're lying to yourself and don't *actually* want to succeed: your focus is "fail and especially don't accept that you are lying to yourself".

this is far more common a situation than you might think. as a veery general rule, people don't *actually* want to succeed: what they want to do is punish themselves, and everyone else who *does* want to succeed, on the basis that if they are punishing themselves, nobody else should be allowed to go unpunished, either. (religious books are full of horrendous examples where such egoistic people try to make successful people fail...)


the key is focus, and there are two ways to identify whether someone (or something) is useful or not:

1) "does this person (or thing) CONTRIBUTE TO my goal"?

2) "does this person (or thing) AGGRAVATE my goal"?

some very very simple predicates. "contributes to" is the most unbelievably powerful predicate i've ever yet encountered. mostly for its simplicity and genericity. it doesn't "judge"; it just says "you help me in some way to make my goal happen".

the question is, therefore, what things help CONTRIBUTE to technology being useful to humans, and what AGGRAVATES?

and the list is quite long! i've identified a number of things certainly that AGGRAVATE the relationship between humans and IT; if i am honest i haven't necessarily gone to great lengths to identify things that CONTRIBUTE to the goal of technology being useful to humans.

mostly, i suppose, because i am expecting the readers of the article to do that, for themselves, rather than me doing it for them.

contributes or aggravates, joolean?, posted 27 Jun 2007 at 13:33 UTC by lkcl » (Master)

joolean, do your comments help, or do they hinder? please next time think in advance before hitting "post". and - again - especially before before answering *this* post, if you in fact believe that an answer is necessary: do you want to "help" the goal of this article, or do you want to "hinder" it? i will mention this once and only once, and then i will ignore any other replies or comments that can be considered "hindrance" or "AGGRAVATES", and i recommend that any other readers bear in mind that this forum is made up of many people who don't necessarily think before acting (myself included!) and so we don't *always* get things right, first time. fortunately, these being words, rather than actions, they can always be ignored...

unpaid overtime, posted 27 Jun 2007 at 20:03 UTC by lkcl » (Master)

apparently, in Alberta, employers have to pay overtime to anyone doing over 44 hours per week...

*except* IT staff.

does anyone know of any other instances where this kind of discrimination is the case, against people working with technology?

"discrimination", posted 28 Jun 2007 at 12:22 UTC by redi » (Master)

Some employers claim ownership (copyright etc.) of all creative works done during a programmer's period of employment, including software unrelated to the employer's business that is done using the employee's own time and resources.

Contrast it with a newspaper, which would not claim to own the rights to a poem written by a journalist in their spare time, even though it is a creative piece of writing, which is what the journalist is employed to do.

I don't think such contractual terms are unique to IT, but they seem more prevalent. Such terms are almost unenforceable in the EU, but fighting them in court can be so expensive and time-consuming that simply putting them in the contract has the desired effect of preventing the employee programming outside work.

not specific to free software but..., posted 28 Jun 2007 at 14:49 UTC by lkcl » (Master)

redi, thank you for pointing that out.

as free software developers, many of whom own the intellectual property on our work, we tend to grate badly against the ethos you describe.

i just discovered recently that there is a likely reason - at least in the united states - as to why this might be the case.

in the united states, the accounting rules were changed by law to allow "intellectual property" to be added - and valued - on the books of companies.

in the united kingdom, you can put "IP" on the books, but the value assigned must be zero (and therefore is pretty much ignored).

pretty much overnight, the "value" of american companies "went up" 1000% as every single company put a completely unrealistic and unverifiable value on as much intellectual property that they could nail down.

as might be expected, this came to the attention of the people who had made the silly law in the first place. rather than fix the problem by removing the silly law, they decided instead to set some guidelines by which IP should be valued - guidelines which of course are just as worthless as the IP itself, but at least it curtailed the funny-money values down enough so that the problem could be ignored.

naturally, no american company can be floated on the London Stock Exchange without being valued properly, by a UK accountant. Lloyds won't go near U.S. companies without a trusted (i.e. UK or at least non-US) accountant going near them.

by the way, if anyone's curious as to why i know of these things, it's because a friend of mine has to deal with investors, and the U.S. anti-terror laws put such an enormous burden on U.S. companies ($4m per year in paperwork that states "we will not allow technology into the hands of terrorists") that investment in the U.S. has completely stopped, dead.

which, of course, neatly solves the problem: no U.S. technology is falling into the hands of terrorists, because there isn't any being developed!

... but i digress...

the point!, posted 28 Jun 2007 at 19:39 UTC by lkcl » (Master)

the point is: :)

free software developers have a history (and toolset) of *not* letting employers get away with ownership; other programmers do not.

but, one part of the problem - at least in america - comes from accounting rules enshrined in law: intellectual property, which cannot be properly valued, *is* valued, and is therefore (wrongly) considered valuable.

therefore, any intellectual property *must* be owned - by the corporation, not by the individuals - because to the corporation it has value.

so, ultimately, you, american employees, are being stolen from.

especially IT staff, because the intellectual property that you bring to the table, when you sign your rights away to it without being told what's being done with it, is actually being used to artificially inflate the value of the company - and you're getting very little in return.

if you double-check this one, and raise it at an interview, you are likely to be told "ha ha of course it's onnlyy on paper, it doesn't reaalllyy have value" to which of course the sensible reply is, "well shares don't reaaallly have value do they, so let's do a trade: if the intellectual property i bring, which you claim is being valued at an artificial price which i needn't worry about, then equally you won't worry about giving me some shares which equally don't have any value either".

hmmm... :)

Luke is batshit insane, posted 29 Jun 2007 at 07:07 UTC by Zaitcev » (Master)

I like how mentifex fell victim to BDS too. It's so fitting.

The nice thing about free software..., posted 29 Jun 2007 at 08:53 UTC by lkcl » (Master) that it shows a better way - more specifically, it demonstrates an old way that used to be the accepted way (until corporate insanity destroyed it).

in the past, guilds were very common. people with skills were respected; apprentices could learn those skills, usually over their entire lifetime; if a guildsman became too ill to work or they died, the guild would look after them and their family. the guild would also be responsible for ensuring that the knowledge and skills were never lost.

this practice is still in place, in the form of the masonic lodges.

however, in computing, there isn't anything like this, to protect the knowledge, to set standards, guidelines, rates, train people and set best practices and ethics. we need a Royal Chartered Institute for Software Architecture, and a Guild of Software Engineering, and an associated Masonic Lodge, and the IT industry needs all these things very much.

Software has exploded onto the scene, rules our lives, and is out of control. there have been some accidental success stories (such as X-Ray photos now being stored on an image bank which doctors can access on demand, and perform image enhancement and magnification on) and there have also been some absolutely horrendous failures (GBP 12 billion - so far - wasted in IT on the UK National Health Service in *not* achieving anything useful other than to make confidential health records available to pretty much anyone who wants to get at them)

the point i am making here is that free software principles, which we live by, show people a much better and a much more honest way of developing software. the GPL has, in that regard, been an absolute unmitigated 100% success - but it wouldn't be such a success if we, as free software users and developers, didn't believe in it.

(btw i will write this up as another article, soon).

Off Topic?, posted 3 Jul 2007 at 23:45 UTC by mako » (Master)

Your article may have been on-topic for TechnoHealth but it was not here.

thank you mako, posted 4 Jul 2007 at 09:27 UTC by lkcl » (Master)

thank you for your opinion, mako. fortunately, it is just an opinion, to which you are entitled, and entitled to state.

if you would care to elaborate on your conclusion, that would give people a way to assess whether your opinion is valid or not.

if you have any evidence or information which can demonstrate that the article is "off-topic", please do present a logical series of simple statements which show that.

otherwise, your statement serves absolutely no purpose other than to reinforce the beliefs of people who implicitly trust you without actually checking first as to whether your opinions are valid.

i have shown a series of logical and connected opinions, with some insights thrown in, as to why i believe that this article is relevant to free software developers.

you, who have stated that it is not relevant, have not.

i invite you therefore to elaborate on your desire to take the opposing stance on the debate.

otherwise, i have no alternative but to invite others to completely disregard your opinion.

appointment as top-level seed, posted 4 Jul 2007 at 09:39 UTC by lkcl » (Master)

mako, hi,

i understand that you've just been appointed as a top-level seed, replacing federico.

that means that you have had an enormous responsibility placed into your hands.

it means that trust in you is implicit.

you therefore have to be UNBELIEVABLY careful not to abuse or otherwise betray that trust.

you, who has not been around this site prominently (and i have since nearly its very beginning, for six years), with whom i have never interacted before now (quite literally!), therefore have to be EXTREMELY careful before making "blanket one-line" statements such as the one that you have just made.

i don't have any control over you; i cannot in any way stop you from making one-line blanket statements; you are entitled to make one-line opinion statements as much as anyone else is.

but as a top-level seed in whom so much trust is now implicitly and absolutely imbibed, you REALLY have to think very differently from that which you may be used to, as just a developer or as just a project leader or as just a representative of the debian community (no matter how prominent).

no matter how prominent you were before, it is NOTHING as compared to the responsibility you are now entrusted with, as a top-level seed.

guilds, posted 5 Jul 2007 at 09:21 UTC by redi » (Master)

Masonic lodges have nothing to do with training in a craft (despite the term "craft masonry") and have had nothing to do with practical stonemasonry for centuries. It could be mention of masonic lodges (a popular crank topic if ever I saw one) that led to mako saying this is OT.

There are bodies, such as the ACCU in the UK, which aim to share knowledge and best practices and encourage professionalism. They won't provide for you if you are unable to work, but then that's rare even for large employers to do so these days. The bazaar model used by some open-source projects can also serve as a training ground for new developers (although with wildly varying results.) Neither of these is anywhere close to being a chartered institute, or being able to certify engineers. I know engineers who take offence at the term "software engineering" so I think we have a long way to go before we get a chartered institute.

jokes - off topic or not, posted 5 Jul 2007 at 15:26 UTC by badvogato » (Master)

So a string theorist is having an affair...and his wife catches him. He runs after her, yelling,, 'wait, I can explain everything!"

Buddha goes up to a hot dog vendor and says:
"Make me one with everything."
He gives the man a $20 bill and waits. Finally he says: ' Where's my change?'
The man replies:' All change comes from within.'

ignorance and denial of existence of knowledge, posted 9 Jul 2007 at 12:50 UTC by lkcl » (Master)

what is not known (to one individual) has no bearing or relation to what is known (by another individual). in fact, there is a particular branch of knowledge (known in modern times as reverse-engineering and known in ayurvedic terms for thousands of years as Arthāpatti and known in mathematical terms as Dempster-Shafer theory) which is exactly that: deriving knowledge from discrepancies, by comparing what is known with what is not.

mako chooses not to do this, and would like you to do the same.

so, mako chooses to remain ignorant, and chooses to categorically state so (and unfortunately that makes him totally unsuitable to be a free software "seed" - not that is ignorant, but that he chose to state that, publicly!)

fortunately, there are other readers who can choose to ignore mako. or, like him, remain ignorant as well.

i choose to write to those who wish to listen.

(also, i did specifically state: it will become a separate article)

accu, posted 9 Jul 2007 at 12:52 UTC by lkcl » (Master)

redi - thank you! the mention of accu was very helpful. it would not surprise me if a significant number of the people who are attracted to accu are also members of various masonic lodges - but that is inference/hypothesis on my part.

very funny, posted 9 Jul 2007 at 12:55 UTC by lkcl » (Master)

i gave the 500 buddhas, in the most prominent temple in china, one menthos mint between them. i told them they could either make 499 more or share it between them.

gods love a joke as much as anyone else ;)

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