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16 September 2006

Microsoft and the sacrifice of human lifetimes in the Parallel World...

Noted science fiction author Charles Stross, himself a sometimes commentator on the world of intelligence in fiction, brings an interesting perspective to the manpower demands of upcoming operating system releases from Microsoft.

Microsoft are predicting that this ravenous new operating system will demand the sacrifice of 50,000 extra human lifetimes to keep offices across the EU running. That fifty thousand people are going to be sucked into the thankless task of software support and system administration for no functional gain — not to bring the benefits of computing to new users, this is simply to keep the wheels turning. It's money for digging holes in a field and then filling them in again: pointless make-work that should be automated out of existence rather than lauded.

Setting aside his religious criticisms, his points regarding the meaningless waste of human capital due to inefficient and cumbersome software and systems architecture is nonetheless striking. In the community, this is not simply an abstract matter for philosophy – those lifetimes wasted are in essence casualties of war from a type of informational fratricide in the Parallel World. And given the rapacious demands for talent and energy imposed by the current GWOT in all its many name space variations, we can little afford to suffer such losses of time and attention; particularly as it consumes the more technically savvy and intellectually able members of our tribe.

Any manager who wasted the time of his analytical staff in say, handwriting cables to pass around the office, to later hand courier those products from office to office and then retyping them anew; would rightfully be disciplined (not to mention considered a fool or worse). But because the virtual equivalent of such behaviors are enshrined in the common office software and the typical workflows of organizations using such software, it is considered just a part of doing business. Just consider the problem of aggregating key information from the multiple incompatible database systems every analyst faces on a daily basis; to say nothing of the search problem or the issues of recovering the context of thought streams after interruptions created by the almost deliberately distracting user interfaces of most systems, or the hellish environment of the typical cubicle farm or vault.

Again, these losses are not immediately apparent at first glance. But they occur, and corrosively sap the energy and morale of our best and brightest. This is the stuff of which intelligence failures are truly made.