Technology Is Too Complex for Absolute Consistency

Sometimes--but not always--it makes sense to let go of 'foolish consistency.'

Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." If you read my column regularly—especially when it deals with the intersection of technology and politics—then youve probably decided that I dont have to worry about hobgoblins too much. Or maybe you just think Im a hypocrite.

Its a good thing I dont have to run a presidential-style campaign to keep my job. I can see the potential ads from my opponent now: "Jim says that government should stay out of policies and legislation that deal with technology—that government tends not to solve problems and can often make things worse. But then he flip-flops and says, Hey, contact your government representatives; we need them to do something about patents or poor corporate security or protecting Internet data for posterity. This man clearly isnt a straight shooter."

If I did have to respond to such a criticism, I guess I could say that my positions are nuanced. But I think Ill just go all Emersonian and embrace my inconsistencies. We live in a complex world with complex issues. Sure, theres a certain comfort in hearing someone promise that hell say what he does and do what he says, but you rarely see it in practice. And when you do see someone trying to maintain consistency, well, thats where the hobgoblins come in.

Case in point: Many companies have CIOs or IT management that dogmatically stick to the same products from the same vendor, refusing to consider alternatives even when the current solutions are sorely lacking and competitors are gaining advantage through superior alternatives.

Im not saying that a wholesale best-of-breed approach is the best way to go. This can lead to a confusing hodgepodge of products that dont integrate easily. Indeed, there are definite efficiencies that can be gained in a predominantly one-vendor shop, but management needs to have the guts to step out of that mode when a superior and alternate solution makes the most sense.

And, honestly, I dont think Im that inconsistent when it comes to my views on government and technology. Most of the time, Im against the noxious brew of legislation and technology. It either results in outright damaging laws, such as the DMCA, or in completely ineffective laws, such as CAN-SPAM. (Im pretty sure that the amount of spam I get has gone up since that "protective" measure was passed.)

Similarly, I dont have much faith in some of the currently proposed fixes to technology problems. The proposed anti-spyware laws look like they will mainly give legal protections to some of the more annoying forms of adware while probably not doing too much to stop illegal and dangerous spyware. Im even skeptical of legislation in areas such as ID theft, where some kind of additional legal protections seem highly necessary. Id be willing to bet that any potential ID theft bill would mainly serve to make it even easier for corporations to acquire and profit from our personal information.

/zimages/6/28571.gifClick here to see how the government did on its security report card.

However, sometimes the only solution can come from legislative efforts, especially in situations where existing bad government policies need to be undone. This is clearly the case in areas such as patent reform and in rolling back the restrictions that the DMCA places on fair use. Probably my least typical support of government interference is in my desire to see some form of regulation to enforce corporate security base lines, and thats mainly out of my well-founded fear that many companies will never take security seriously.

So whether it means being a hypocrite or a non-little mind free of hobgoblins, there will continue to be complexity (or nuances, if you prefer) in the positions I take on many issues, from technology and legislation to the best way to build a secure network infrastructure.

What, you say thats not good enough? You want me to stop flip-flopping and give it to the people straight? Let them know exactly where I stand on this issue?

OK, here goes.

I am against the efforts of governments and legislative bodies to try to limit, control or fix issues that deal with technology (except in the cases where Im in favor of it).

Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at

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