The Northern Spy — Of Religion, Politics, and the Metalibrary

“An (abstract) metalibrary is the entire collection of a society’s data, information, and techniques, together with the means by which it is stored, accessed, and communicated. The Metalibrary of the fourth civilization is the complete, electronically linked and accessed version of its abstract metalibrary.”from “The Fourth Civilization–Technology Society and Ethics” by Rick Sutcliffe

 

“What kind of title is that?” Nellie Hacker demanded, looking over my shoulder at the beginnings of my latest Northern Spy column. “Everybody knows you can’t mix religion with politics, certainly not throwing information technology into the melange as well.”

I sighed. Even after all these years, Nellie still just drops into my office from her workplace without invitation and without knocking.

“Actually, like most things in life, they can’t be separated, but today I’m drawing analogies.”

“Oh, you mean like people get the Mac, *nix or Lose-dows religion and then do office politics to get their way.” She chuckled. Nellie isn’t the kind of person to hide her sentiments.

“Those divisions are symptoms or symbols of something deeper, Nellie. Try making only two categories.”

She thought a moment, then grinned her “I’ll get even for that” look before answering, “It would be between the big majority who only use the mainstream OS vendor and its software on the one hand, and the rugged individualists, developers, and artsy-craftsy types on the other; between those who are led and those who want to lead; between the polloi and the individualists.”

“Nice use of Greek there, Nellie.”

She shrugged. “It’s just an expression. Don’t know that language. I prefer Modula-2, and only use that other stuff when I absolutely have to.”

“Do you see the connections among the three now?”

“You mean Redmond is the opiate of the masses?”

“That comment marks a transition. Let me ask you some questions.”

“Fire away. It’s your column.” She leaned back in a chair, opened her lunch bag, bowed her head briefly to give thanks for what she found there, and put her feet up on my table. She liked to talk.

“What role do standards play?”

“In the body politic, they are the customs and laws defining what the society is. The Bible plays that role for the church. For the Metalibrary, ISO and IEEE standards define how to manufacture and program computers, and how they communicate with each other. Hey, I remember my courses from here.” She took a bite from a salami and dill pickle sandwich.

“If there were no common standards?”

“Chaos. There’d be no society to govern, everyone would design their own religion based on individual wants, and we wouldn’t have computers, much less a network. It’d be every woman for herself.”

“And ‘scabies extremum occupet‘,” I added.

“Which, being translated, is?”

“Applied post modernism.”

“Extreme ‘me-first’ individualism leading to Babel in spades. But it’s worse than that. If there’s no standards, there’s no meaning to communicate, so there’s no reason to do so either. Language itself has no purpose, let alone organizations or society. Can’t build anything.”

I steepled my hands under my chin, watching as her expression mirrored her mental gears, and waiting for her inevitable objection. It wasn’t long in coming.

“But we can’t standardize everything,” she added.

“Why not? Seems to me you were making good arguments for standards a moment ago.”

“But if everybody thought the same thoughts, believed the same doctrines, voted for the same party, and used the same software, all but one of us would be redundant. It wouldn’t be me,” she added, frowning.

“I’m not worried about you, Nellie. You’re unique. But be specific.”

“Well, we’d have rigid political dictatorship, a comprehensive church that punished the slightest deviation from doctrine, and use identical computers with exactly the same software installed. We’d all be robots marching to someone else’s tune.”

“And everybody would be writing this column at the same time, so there would be no point in anyone reading it,” I put in.

She chuckled. “That’s self-referential, and therefore either incomplete or contradictory. Besides, maybe nobody will read it anyway.”

“Maybe not. If they do, they can write in and tell us.”

“Couldn’t build anything that way, either,” she editorialized, while opening her yoghurt.

“Why not?”

“Creativity wouldn’t be allowed.”

“Hmmm. Say, you’ve taken business courses, Nellie. What’s the MIS take on this problem?”

She grimaced. “I’ll give you my take on MIS.”

“That being?”

“Conformity’s easy to control. All you have to do is stifle innovation. Any Dogbert can do that without knowing beans about management.” She looked puzzled.

“Why is that?” Best have her answer the question she was fulminating.

She nodded, deciding to agree with herself. “Because controllers think theirs is the only good way, so they make everybody do it”.

“When, actually…”

“…its all they know, and they can’t or won’t learn more.”

“And the other side of the coin?” I prompted.

“You can’t control diversity, you have to manage it.”

“And that means…”

“Managers have to know more than one way of doing things, they have to support and encourage people who want to do things differently than they do. Why,” she added, her face glowing dully with a feral grin, “real managers have to be competent.”

“And the connection to religion and politics?”

“That’s easy. Church leaders and politicians would have to serve other people’s needs rather than control or manipulate them. They’d have to place other’s interests ahead of their own.”

“Generalize. For all three contexts, how do standards fit into what you see as a well-managed environment?”

“Standards define basic organizational infrastructure and give you a reason for being, a minimal cohesiveness. Beyond that, as long as your activities don’t break the community, you ought to have freedom.”

In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus autem caritas.

The corners of her mouth turned down. “I said I don’t know Greek.”

(aside) “What do they teach them in the schools these days?”

(to her) “It’s Latin, Nellie. It means ‘In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, love’.”

The translation suited her better. Her frown vanished, along with the rest of a can of pop. “Well put, Professor.”

“I didn’t coin the saying, it was Augustine of Hippo. He lived from 354 to 430 AD. But let’s get down to cases. How does all this apply to information technology in a modern organization?”

“Well, if the organization is small, you’ve got a cohesive whole, its technology needs are simple and uniform, so chances are everybody will use the same equipment and software. Setup is easy, support is simple.”

“But as it grows?”

“It becomes more diverse. Accounting may want to use Wintel machines, advertising will surely use Macs, and someone may need Unix servers. If the support and services folk don’t grow their mental toolboxes to encourage and support diversity, but resist instead, they’ll stifle personal and institutional growth.”

“What about software developers like you?”

“Good point. I’m always battling the IT folks at our company over something. I need to change a configuration in order to test software for a client and they say ‘no, it’s a security risk, you can’t do that,’ so I get my boss to intervene and order what I need. Then IT gets all snarley on me and things are even worse the next time. They don’t understand development has to accept a higher degree of risk to ensure its products get written and they work properly.”

“Do they give you the hardware and software you want?”

“That’s a laugh. First they tried to persuade me to accept a company-issue Wintel machine, even though I was developing DTP software, which is 95% Mac. They even tried to bribe me with more frequent upgrades. Really leaned on me, even though it’s company policy to be multi-platform. They didn’t seem to know Macs don’t need replacing as often, and don’t need support, period. When they finally grudgingly installed it, they left a back door to allow them access to my machine over the company net and told me I couldn’t install any software without their permission.”

“So you…”

“…reformatted the hard drive, installed my own copy of the OS, locked down the system as best I could, installed a removable drive I put in the office safe every night, and bought a firewall between my office and the company net. Then I installed the software I needed. They look on the net, it’s like I’m not there. They come into my office and change something and it won’t matter because I’ll reboot from the removable in the morning anyway.”

I raised my eyebrows. Nellie had learned something from me after all. “Your departmental boss all right with that?”

“She suggested adding the firewall. I’d forgotten.”

“What about training?”

“Don’t talk to me about training.”

“Why not?”

“It’s even worse. How do I teach someone how to configure a network when I either have to do it on machines that aren’t connected to our net at all, or have such limited functionality for ‘security reasons’ that my instruction is meaningless?”

“I suppose IT support is afraid trainees might damage company files.”

“What do they think backups are for? If newbies are unable to make mistreaks, they can’t learn anything. They certainly can’t fix other people’s errors. They’d be lost if I put them out in the field.”

“What are you going to do about it?”

“Ask the veep for an independent subnet for training and development. We’ll accept the risk if IT won’t. Let them provide basic infrastructure to the department firewall, then we manage everything after that.”

“Sounds like a solution, Nellie. So, what kind of person are you, after all? A controller, or a free thinker?”

“Well, you gotta have law or you got no society. You gotta have the Bible or you got no church, no Christianity that means anything. You gotta have infrastructure or there’s no information age, no Metalibrary. So, you need to empower community by agreement on common standards, goals, mission, and infrastructure. But you needn’t mandate every aspect of it. I need freedom to be myself, or I’ll never have an original idea, never create anything, never do anything. So, if you don’t also empower individuals, communities and other organizations have no building blocks, no future.”

“The proper role of IT?”

“To serve, not to be served. To help other people make things happen, not to make things sufficiently uniform for them to control easily.”

“I think you’ve summed up the issues and given the outlines of a reasonable middle ground, Nellie.” (aside) “I love it when these columns write themselves.”

But she wasn’t quite finished. “Oh, by the way, Professor,” Nellie added, as she headed for the door, a sly grin on her face, “What about you?”

“Me?”

“Are you the kind of person who puts people into categories, or not?”

–The Northern Spy

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About the Author

rsutcliffe

Opinions expressed here are entirely the author’s own, and no endorsement is implied by any community or organization to which he may be attached. Rick Sutcliffe, (a. k. a. The Northern Spy) is professor of Computing Science and Mathematics at Canada’s Trinity Western University. He has been involved as a member or consultant with the boards of several community and organizations, and participated in developing industry standards at the national and international level. He is a co-author of the Modula-2 programming language R10 dialect. He is a long time technology author and has written two textbooks and nine alternate history SF novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (paper and online), and he’s a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.