When a pencil “crashed” it was off to the pencil sharpener

Welcome to the world of computerized productivity

I love computers. I really do. Whether it’s the phone in my pocket (a very powerful computer), my iPad or desktop computer, I love the infernal things.

However, I really wonder to what degree the promise of computers as a tool to increase productivity has actually come to pass. The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis asked this exact question way back in 1998. They said the question was pretty much unanswerable then, and I suspect it remains the same today.

The New York Times had an article on May 25 about a bit of computer code called EternalBlue. The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) developed it to aid their cyber warfare enterprises. They spent a year finding an “oops-that-was-a-mistake” vulnerability in Microsoft’s Windows computer code that became a handy way of delivering a cyber weapon – a digital nuclear bomb if you will.

When you think about it, the big agents in the state-run cyber warfare world: Russia, China, Israel, Iran, North Korea and of course, the good old U.S. of A are all doing the same thing, but the problem child, in this case, is our neighbour to the South.

It seems that in 2017 a nefarious and so far hidden group called Shadow Dancers began dumping the NSA’s handy little cyber-bombs onto the internet, including EternalBlue. Well, “Holy, knit one pearl two, Batman,” was that ever a pattern grabbed up by every evil villain in the world.

Oh, sure, as soon as the NSA got round to telling Microsoft about the vulnerability, Microsoft issued a patch, but the damage was done now, wasn’t it? The weapon was out and every unpatched or old impossible-to-patch computer or network is left standing naked in the middle of a war zone.

Indeed, according to The Times piece, whole cities like Baltimore, Allentown and San Antonio have been held hostage because their computers have been locked by hackers using EternalBlue.

Hotels, hospitals, banks, airlines, railroads, universities, and businesses worldwide have been attacked.

All the while we, the public, have been left woefully ignorant about this whole mess. The amount of money lost is impossible to calculate, because most of the victims remain quiet for a variety of business and PR reasons, but I suspect it isn’t chicken feed!

It apparently cost the small city of Allentown about $1.5 million to secure their computers and there was no mention about data they may have lost in the interim. Regardless, you can rest assured the whole fiasco will cost taxpayers a healthy bit of hard-earned cash.

Hmmm, dear readers, how does all that EternalBlue stuff impact the slope of the old productivity graph? I wonder? Whatever the impact, it is just one part of the cost of computers.

Of course, we also have the direct cost of our phones, tablets, laptops and watches. Add to that the phone company internet plan, cell plan, tablet plan and watch plan, and the costs mount.

The Network Alliance estimates that small to medium-sized businesses spend 6.4 per cent of their annual revenue on computers.

Computers, routers, servers, printers, scanners, cables, monitors, internet services, and all the other bits and pieces, are expensive to manage.

Given that we constantly have to update, upgrade and replace, we end up on a treadmill of expenditures.

So, you have to wonder now, don’t you? The phone service used to be very inexpensive – you paid for long distance calling, but you kept it short and long conversations were done on paper, with pen and ink, and were sent via stamp and envelope.

Those “letters” were often cherished and can frequently be found hidden in a drawer or closet a century later. Yellowed, faded, but nevertheless valued. What are the odds for that happening with email?

No matter that we are told they never go away, good luck finding them among the estimated 269 million sent every day during 2017 (annual total about 98,187,000,000 emails). It has to be higher this year.

Even then, to get your hands on your great grandfather’s email you’d need his will in quadruplicate, a staff of seventeen lawyers and six pieces of supportive legislation passed by three consecutive governments. You sure won’t find it hidden in a drawer.

But surely all the commerce that is done by computers is – you know – efficient and productive? Well, once upon my lifetime, balance sheets were done on an adding machine or for some, brain power, using pens and paper in a ledger. I know, I spent a summer as a teenager doing just that for the Canadian National Railway.

Nobody had to sit over the inkwell trying to figure out how it worked. When a pencil “crashed” it was off to the pencil sharpener. The software and hardware were always compatible and you really could talk to the operating system.

We didn’t need a cell phone, a tablet, a laptop or a desktop. The pen was in one’s pocket – it took a little longer, maybe, but really, what’s the rush?

We now have trillions of dollars devoted to computer infrastructure, businesses have traded an accounting department for the same accounting department plus a legion of expensive computers, ongoing training, massive software costs and an IT department much larger and more expensive than the original accounting group.

We also have blessings like the Phoenix Payroll System that will have cost the Canadian taxpayers about $1.5 billion by 2022 and still doesn’t work. Maybe Henry or Alice in accounting, a dude and dudette with adding machines, pens and ledgers might prove to be a whole lot more productive.

To bring us round to where we began, EternalBlue reminds us that all those trillions of dollars we have spent on all our computers in all their forms have given us a system that is exactly as secure as the skill of one or a group of computer hackers.

Whether they be state or criminally sponsored, the hackers can hold to ransom or perhaps destroy everything that supports our oh-so-modern world.

All it takes is the patience and skill to discover the inevitable errors in the millions of lines of code that comprise modern operating systems and the software we use daily.

So, the upside (kidding) is we can text each other ad nauseam; be so addicted to the phone we have to have a wireless bug stuck in our ear to make sure we never miss a single call; kill ourselves, or more importantly others, when we have to get or make that oh-so-important call when driving, walking, cycling or running; never find ourselves outside the reach of the boss and can awake to discover our bank accounts sucked dry by some evil hacker in North Korea or Iran or China or Israel or Russia or the U.S., or maybe even Canada.

Welcome to the world of computerized productivity.

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