Saturday, August 18, 2007

Skype and the vulnerability of technology

Technology can be impressive as anybody exploring a new gadget has found, and recent years have seen a revolution in technological advances from the mobile phone to GPS satellite navigation, from the personal computer to the ease of the internet. Technology makes us feel in control. However, it also provides a false sense of security.

One of the most useful and impressive items of technology is VOIP, the ability to route voice calls through the internet and communicate across the world at low cost or for free. A leading pioneer of this wonder of modern communication has been Skype which from its early beginnings as a chatting tool soon became a major means of cooperation even for serious business. The developers of Skype were so successful that ebay eventually bought them out. It came as a major shock, therefore, that the technology, which had been so reliable that it bypassed most obstacles thrown in its way by jealous fixed line telephony operators, suddenly was down for more than a day. Allegedly, software problems were to blame, so the company, but this sounds a little disingenuous since the software had not suddenly changed from one day to the other. More likely, problems developed with the network infrastructure and how messages were relayed across several computers without being actually stored permanently on any of them.

Any system can, and probably will, fail at some time, but the Skype outage has demonstrated our over-reliance on convenient technology thought to be failsafe. When and old-style mechanical car broke down, it could usually be fixed on the road side; if the electronic engine controls of modern cars play up, on the other hand, it signals the end of the journey with the car having to be relayed to a workshop for module replacements. Road users increasingly rely on GPS satellite navigation, as do aircraft, the latter often having backup systems should the primary unit pack up. However, GPS signals can be jammed or interfered with, rendering the accuracy of a few meters suddenly quite useless. The cause can be solar flares, but equally intentional attacks, which is why China's demonstrated ability to knock out a satellite caused so much stir in the United States. Without satellite guidance the US military is as impotent as its president sitting in his Oval Office. That's what star wars is all about.

Heavy reliance on sophisticated technology has made the leading nations of the world powerful, but it has also made them more vulnerable than they would like to admit or even contemplate. A complete breakdown of the internet, for example, would make the recent stock market crash (the inevitable burst of the financial bubble of artificial money creation) look like a benign ripple, since it would stifle all economic activity across the developed world probably beyond repair. Whilst regional power cuts or computer network failures could be compensated for, a global downtime could well be the death knell for Western civilisation and its market economy. The survivors and winners would be those who still know how to deal with old-fashioned nuts and bolts.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

BAE - no good, the bad, and the ugly

BAE systems, the company at the centre of the UK-Saudi arms deal bribery scandal, has announced record profits this year of 657 million pounds (before tax), up almost 70% from the previous year. The company explained the sharp rise with the "high speed" of UK and US military operations in Iraq, increasing the demand for support systems. It did not elaborate on the meaning of "high speed", maybe the company does not want to be seen as profiting from the high velocity at which UK and US troops are regularly coming under attack in this final phase of the Iraq adventure before the inevitable withdrawal.

In the profitable but ugly business of dealing in arms and military supplies it is actually good when things go bad. And whilst the news of casualties and incompetence may be embarrassing to the population at home, it is lining the pockets of greedy arms dealers who would probably like to have a new war in the pipeline before the current one is dying out as a source of revenue. For them, Iran is definitely not off the table.

When you make money out of death and misery, lying comes easy, and the justifications don't matter too much. The Iraq war was allegedly fought to save us from weapons of mass destruction and make the world a safer place. Those weapons were never found, and according to an audit report to the US Congress, a lot of other weapons since imported into Iraq have also gone missing. There are some 14,030 weapons which the Americans have lost track of, maybe by having succumbed to the weapon of mass distraction. For arms suppliers this is good news, since the missing hardware will have to be replaced.

The looming Iran war is being sold to us on the pretense of protecting the world from a future nuclear weapon in the hands of the Iranians, whereas the effective result of this spurious argument has already been a further proliferation of nuclear warheads, with America, for example, exporting the technology to India to balance the threat posed by Pakistan. Naturally, countries in the Middle East region would equally want to bring some balance into the threat posed by the large Israeli nuclear arsenal. With its double standards in the approach towards North Korea and Iran, the US is also sending the clear message that nuclear weapons are a real deterrent against American aggression.

Of course, we are all guilty by association. The US, the UK and Australia, and through association the EU are war economies. Without the revenue generated by destructive goods, which do not depend on the forever dwindling purchasing power of these countries' populations, their economies would already have collapsed, since strictly speaking they not only heavily indebted but bankrupt. Snuffing out lives elsewhere in the world creates jobs and income for people in the West to continue their unsustainable lifestyles.