% fortune -ae paul murphy

TV's subliminal tech messages

If, like me, you watch too much TV you've probably noticed that the medium is full of messages about computing and computing technology. My favorite these days is some PC reseller's formulation of what should be the official wintel industry slogan: "so easy to use, you need someone who doesn't speak English to help you with it." And the subliminal? everyone has to learn his language - you, the sales guy: everyone.

And then there's the standard TV assumption that it's both easy and perfectly all right to commit a (U.S.) federal crime in pursuit of the bad guys. On NCIS, for example, the thirty something pretending to be sixteen "hacks into" CIA and other enemy computers every time her boss needs information that he can't legally get quickly enough to deliver justice in the forty some minutes available to the program. And the subliminal there? resistance is futile - and the younger and cuter the hacker, the more futile it is. Remember Alias girl?

And then there's my all time favorite - on TV everything works, all the time. I watched some crime scene investigation thing last week in which the stars had their geeks use computers to collect and automatically correlate data from a dozen different systems ranging from a hacked FBI access to numerous public and private databases -all to auto-magically identify product names and local buyers from spectroscopic component identification. Reality, of course, is more like FEMA versus the world during the run-up to Katrina: nothing worked across agencies (and not much has changed since) - with inter-agency information access that would be invisibly automated on TV queueing up, in reality, for bureaucratic and political review under high stress conditions.

And what's the subliminal? simply that if your stuff doesn't work quite that seamlessly - well, since the technology obviously does, failures have to be your fault, don't they? It's all an emperor's new clothes fantasy: in reality this kind of highly reliable, seamlessly integrated, service doesn't exist largely because neither the dominant technologies nor the dominant management methods are set up to make it work - but as long as enough people believe it works for other people, most of us will go right acting as if it's our fault that we can't get this fraud to work in the real world.

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.