RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: Don't believe all the threats you hear about

January 8, 2007

Ah, a new year, and a new opportunity for all of us to be scared witless by some new threat. A recent article about cell phone viruses that I read in the magazine Scientific American got me thinking about terrorism, but not in the way you might imagine.

What is it about panic and fear that we love so much? We seem to treasure those moments when we're jumping at shadows. Movie producers have known this for years, and how easy it is to produce the effect. Horror movies have "jumps" built into them that the director knows will make your heart rate spike.

I teach statistics to undergraduates, and it always astonishes my students when they learn their chance of dying from terrorism in this country is infinitesimal, while their chance of dying from a car accident is far higher, and the risk of shuffling off from cardiovascular disease is truly horrifying. I'm much more worried about sharing the pavement with a 16-year-old driving his parents' SUV, with a cell phone stuck to his ear and his buddies in the back seat, than I am about terrorists.

Yet we seem to want terrorists. We create them for ourselves in movies and TV shows. We love to be aroused to fight-orflight, so much so that we'll pay to have it done to us. We eagerly read about bird flu, HIV and computer hackers. Not with an eye toward prevention, mind you; articles about computer viruses rarely cause a serious uptick in security software sales.

It would appear that our fascination with the macabre is a deeply emotional one, unrelated to realistic threat. 9/11 is not seared into our consciousness because of the huge loss of life. We lose about as many of our fellow citizens to car accidents every month as died in all the attacks on 9/11. 9/11 matters so much because of what some are coming to call the "disgust factor," the emotional perception of how personally repellent the event feels.

Nobody is immune to it. Our technology comes from the factory with lousy usability, poorly designed software, breakable plastic cases and features nobody needs, but those travesties typically produce only a momentary growl of frustration. We're not disgusted.

A woman running a local hardware store happily told me she had received a skid of product that had only two bad units out of 50, and that she considered this to be average quality. We tolerate monstrous amounts of ineptitude and failure without more than token complaint. We forgive it.

Yet a miscreant writing a virus gets worldwide attention from the media even when it infects only a tiny fraction of the world's machines. I've lost count of the number of times the boy has cried wolf over computer viruses that were supposed to take down Western civilization. But any particularly interesting virus still gets its share of ink.

Apparently indifferent design is no big deal, whereas malevolence sells because we want to wallow in it, no matter how unlikely it may be that we will suffer from it. This wouldn't matter so much if we could learn that frequency of reporting is not an indication of the degree of threat, but we never seem to understand that.

That brings me back to Scientific American. The ordinarily staid and respectable Scientific American simplifies science for a lay audience, but will only go so far. It unapologetically uses words like "ligase" and "neutrino" in its articles. It's normally a sober and straightforward explainer of science and technology, with just enough color in its pages to make the explanations rise above the level of boring. It is the very antithesis of yellow journalism.

Yet it, too, succumbed to the temptation to jazz up a story about cell phones getting infected via Bluetooth connections, the technology that gives us the little wireless earphones. It's possible for an infected, Bluetooth-enabled phone to move through a crowd of other Bluetooth phones and touchlessly infect them all.

Scientific American even created a batch of little cartoon demons to decorate the story. The text of the story did mention that, although this stuff is scary, it can be prevented. But the decoration (including a comic strip) was mostly quiver and concern, and little perspective. It is, as one friend described too much of our modern world, a "manufactured alarm."

We live in that condition now, full time, and we seem to like it that way. It doesn't pay to be oblivious to threats, but overreaction seems now to be normal. There are computer viruses about, but they're controllable. Cell phone viruses are in the air, but you can defeat them by denying the application permission to load or moving out of range of the infected phone. Life just isn't as complicated as we make it out to be, nor as dangerous.

Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at timaltom@sbcglobal.net.
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