Sunday, May 24, 2009

Expecting Stewardship Without Understanding

What are the consequences of building a society where we rely on technology that we don’t understand? Is lack of stewardship one of those consequences?

From Wayne Porter:
Most people no longer understand anything about the technology they use everyday and because of this ignorance many people use it without good stewardship. We drive cars we cannot fix, eat food we cannot make or produce, and many operate in an environment they do not understand with a false sense of security. We run and gun this technology with fuel that has probably reached its peak point.
Can we expect people who don’t understand a technology to be good stewards of the technology?
Should we expect application developers, who largely don’t understand relational databases, database security, firewalls or networks, to write applications that rationally utilize or properly protect those resources? Should we expect ordinary computer users, who  understand almost nothing of how their computers work, to operate their computers in a manner that protects them and us from themselves and the Internet?

For some technologies (automobiles for example) we’ve almost completely given up on users understanding the technology well enough to make rational decisions and exhibit good stewardship. Drivers will never understand tire contact patches and slip angles, so we give them speed limits, ABS brakes, stability control, crumple zones and air bags. Drivers don’t understand engines and engine maintenance, so we give them idiot lights and dashboard messages. Drivers don’t understand the consequences of fossil fuel consumption, so we legislate minimum mileage and emission standards. We force drivers to be good stewards whether they like it or not.

Home owners don’t understand strength of beams, dynamic wind loads and electricity's propensity to escape to the ground via the path of least resistance, so we have building codes and permits, building inspectors, fire inspectors, licensed contractors and tradesmen to force homeowners into reasonable stewardship of their property.

On the other hand, most computer users don’t have even a basic understanding of how their computer works, yet we give them administrative access, allow them to install random software from the Internet, and then somehow expect them to keep their computer secure and functional. We expect them to be good stewards of the technology and not allow their home computers to be malware infested botnet nodes without them having even a vague understanding of how their computer works.

That’s probably not going to work.


  1. You make some great points especially in regard to those we give the jobs of programming or doing other things with our networks and systems. Just because someone understands how a router works does not mean that they understand how it's interactions with other systems work to the degree needed to secure the environment. I wrote something similar to this not long ago.

  2. Let's turn this into some kind of new rule:

    Each technology specialist must understand enough about the adjoining technologies to design and build systems that make maximum use of the those technologies.