Bonum Certa Men Certa

You Are Not The Only One

posted by Roy Schestowitz on May 23, 2024

Reprinted with permission from Cyber Show (C|S).

the odd one out

Figure 1: "Spot the odd one out"

Knowing that you're not the only one is sometimes a life-saver. In so many ways people suffer in isolation, go crazy and even commit suicide thinking that they are uniquely afflicted by a problem. Indeed the force with which normalcy is imposed and difference denied has led to the 21st century phenomenon of "identity politics", at its heart a struggle for recognition, affiliation and belonging.

Strange folk

Neurologically atypical people, sufferers of rare diseases, or victims of medical malpractice like in the Oxycontin opiate scandal, are always told "Nobody else has this problem". The implication is that there is something uniquely wrong with them. Something weak. When people are different, that frightens us. Instead of saying "Oh sure, there's many people like that. Don't worry!", we deny them.

Clinging to normalcy and pushing strange things away is not a sign our society is strong, but that it's fragile. Money (capitalism) exacerbates this because what is unusual is almost always costly, unprofitable and "inefficient". Systems are tuned to serve the typical case. What lies "outside the bell-curve" is dismissed.

Thus minority groups are often marginalised groups too, whose individuals find no help from power or authority. They have had to discover and support each other against deliberately orchestrated campaigns to divide and dismiss them as special and unique freaks. They soon become victimised.

However, what is unusual is not necessarily statistically representative. It may be that you are amongst the first to discover something, or that you're struggling with an old and now forgotten technology, so 'early adopters' and 'long tail' users are commonly marginalised.

Technically incorrect

The tech world has a really very, very serious problem with this.

Again and again we hear that;

"Technical support told me that I'm the only one who has the problem"

It's not just a cliche. It's a strategy, and in some cases it's policy. For example, the UK Post Office "Horizon" scandal exposed a repeated theme for all the thousands of victims. They were each told, "You're the only one".

Everywhere you look, you'll encounter it. In tech we say "That can't be right", or "It shouldn't do that", or we claim it is a glitch, a bug, a one-off, an anomaly, a hiccup…

It's interesting that in tech we have so many words to dismiss events.

Problems are normal

Part of our twisted perception of technology is a poor intuition for its scale and statistical significance. If someone says, "It's a one-in-a-million" we take that as meaning it's rare.

But a microprocessor conservatively executes a billion instructions per second. That means a problem with a one-in-a-million chance might occur a million times per second.

So mistakes in software are very frequent. In fact random radiation from space (called Alpha particles) can just change a programs behaviour. To fix this we give computers error correction and the ability to be tolerant of faults. More commonly though the error lies in the logic of the code, about one bug for every thousand lines of code. A typical app might have a hundred thousand lines of code, and therefore a hundred bugs.

Clustering of bugs into reproducible patterns with common cause is almost guaranteed. In other words, it's certain that for any software problem there is a rational, systematically traceable explanation. Something that affects all other users. In fact we have a name for this. We call it "debugging".

Cocksure code

Mass produced corporate technology from companies like Google, Microsoft and Apple sets itself up as "normal", meaning both ubiquitous and infallible. We are pressured and presumed to accept it, simply because it is the supposed centre of the bell-curve.

But that is false and you should not accept it! There are approximately 350 million companies in the world of which about a quarter provide "digital technology" hardware, software or services. The dominance of about twenty companies in a market worth $6 trillion and comprising 90 million competitors is obscene and twisted.

The reasons for grotesque and almost unstoppable agglomeration into monopolies has nothing to do with quality or other dimensions of trade found in other industries. It's to do with human psychology and our tendency to "stick with the crowd" and eschew outsiders.

Therefore breaking tech monopolies will not occur through government regulation, no matter how much they are fined, split-up or executives are imprisoned. It is a actually a social psychology problem.

Of course it is all marketing puff and brand perception management. We do not suppose that KFC and McDonald's supply the best food simply because they are popular. And almost nobody eats it exclusively. Likewise, there is no reason to suppose that code is better simply because it comes from a big, well known company. Indeed. consumer-grade commercial code has some of the worst quality out there… as many as one bug per hundred lines!

There is no reason to suppose that any individual or organisation should exclusively consume it. Yet we see schools who proudly proclaim themselves a "Microsoft Academy" and government departments whose IT is run by a single commercial provider. This mono-culture is extremely dangerous from a cybersecurity stance.

Yet these companies remain supreme in their arrogance and inflated self-belief in their perfect and unquestionable products. The bigger the product or company the more contempt it has for outliers. The more aggressively it pumps itself up the more slavishly its acolytes follow and chant the mantras. And, in a vicious cycle, tolerance decreases for so-called 'alternative' (non-mainstream) technologies and ways of working.

Eventually most of us foolishly "believe in it" as we go about our daily lives. We don't want to make a fuss, rock the boat, or question technology which we mistakenly see as "an authority" rather than what it is - just one way of doing things. Digital technology is an ever-shifting, precarious miracle held together with spit and string - built by ordinary idiots like you and I who sometimes have bad days and forget a crucial semicolon (and let's not get started on how much worse a job "AI" makes of it!).

When things break we go meekly to IT support, saying "It's probably just me but…". And there we encounter the most subtle and pernicious abuse. The abuse of certainty. An unconscious, reactive, and contradictory abuse.

IT: "You are the only person with this problem"

CUSTOMER: "Perhaps you can give me a little help with it then?"

IT: "Sorry. I've 5000 people to service. You're not special"

For there, at the heart of it, is the real engine of the technology industry. It is not innovation but uniformity needed for a local minima of low-friction. Professional apologists wedded to their comforting myths of perfection are not there to help outliers, but to make sure most people meekly conform. They readily blame and gaslight anyone who questions their systems, springing instinctively to the defence of colourful brands with which they identify.

IT support people are not coders or computer scientists. They've no time for curiosity. For troublemakers. They are there for the 68 percent of "normal" people in the middle of the road, and there to deflect the rest with a shrug.

But you do not have to listen to that. Not any more. Because now you know. Always and for sure;

You are not the only one!

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