Economists often refer to "opportunity costs." What are opportunity costs? If you expend finite resources on project A, you will not be able use them to undertake other projects. The opportunity cost of project A is the value that you forgo by not being able to pursue the next best use of those resources.
The business section of my morning newspaper, The Globe and Mail, includes a page of news from The Wall Street Journal. I recently spotted a small blurb on that page that mentioned that a private company had just received $108 million in venture capital to help expand its anti-spyware software business.
How are these two things--opportunity costs and anti-spyware venture capital--related? Well, I got to thinking. Thinking was such a strain that I had to take a nap, but when I awoke I still had the same thought. If it weren't for the existence of spyware, anti-spyware software would provide absolutely no value whatsoever. In short, the existence of spyware forces us (society as a whole, not just you and me) to incur tremendous opportunity costs for something that would be utterly useless were it not for a bunch of people (and I use the term "people" loosely) determined to make exceptional pests of themselves.
Think about it. True, being investment dollars, that money likely would not have gone to a purely altruistic cause had the anti-spyware opportunity not existed, but that doesn't mean that it couldn't have been invested in something that might have produced significantly more value for society and, if the venture was successful, possibly also for the investors. That $108 million invested in anti-spyware software is $108 million not invested in a company searching for a cure for cancer or AIDS. It's $108 million that's not invested in a company creating better educational material for children. It's $108 million that's not invested in developing more safety devices for our cars. And, what really upsets me, not one penny of that $108 million is invested in my services. Then again, it's $108 million that's not invested in developing yet another extremely graphic and realistic video game that glorifies violence and desensitizes players to some of the most horrid carnage imaginable, so maybe it's not all that bad.
Of course, that $108 million is only the tip of the iceberg. That's just one company in a burgeoning sector, a sector that the software industry's 900-pound guerrilla, Microsoft, recently invested in. And it was just one round of venture capital funding. Who knows how much more capital the company already had and will get in the future. What's more, that's just anti-spyware software. Enormous investments have been made and will continue to be made in a whole host of other hardware and software solutions with the sole purpose of defending against the malfeasance or nuisance of others. Anti-spam software, anti-virus software, and firewalls come to mind.
I tried, in vain, to find an estimate of the total amount of money invested in R&D, marketing, distribution, and maintenance of these technologies. I couldn't find a number, but if that one little company got $108 million in just one round of financing for just anti-spyware software, then the total across the whole industry has to be in the billions. That's billions spent just to combat stuff that other people are foisting on us against our wishes. It sounds almost like an enormous protection racket, doesn't it?
It doesn't stop there. Your employer has to spend time and money to buy the countermeasures and install them on your work computer. Money spent on that software is money that your employer can't spend on one of the universe's most noble purposes, your salary. What's more, unless you really don't care what happens to it, you also have to buy this stuff for your home computer. Money spent on that is money that you can't spend on food, clothing, entertainment, travel, your children's education, or an ultra-cool radio-controlled model racing car with a 10-function remote control, multiple gears, neon underbody lighting, top speeds of up to 2,000 feet per minute.... But I'm getting a little carried away.
Then there are the hidden opportunity costs. Your computer and/or maybe a few upstream servers probably have firewall, anti-virus, anti-spam, and anti-spyware software running continuously in the background. The cycles that they chew up are cycles that you cannot assign to other purposes. Even if you don't have any other productive applications that you want to run for your own purposes, you could contribute those cycles to noble projects such as the World Community Grid and SETI@home. These worthwhile endeavors send data out over the Internet to individuals' and businesses' computers, which then use excess cycles to process the data via a background program and/or a screensaver. The results are then sent back to the projects' central servers.
The current World Community Grid project is identifying the proteins that make up the Human Proteome, thereby helping scientists to build the understanding that they need to develop novel and effective treatments for diseases like cancer, HIV/AIDS, SARS, and malaria. SETI@home (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), run out of the University of California, Berkeley, analyzes data from the Arecibo radio telescope to search for patterns that might indicate a signal sent by intelligent extraterrestrial life. If you know of any other similar projects, please feel free to post information about them in the forum attached to this article.
We probably all have relatives, friends, business associates, or neighbors who have suffered horribly and possibly died from some of the diseases that the World Community Grid is trying to address, so you can easily see why I classify that as a noble cause. However, you might wonder why I put SETI@home in the same class. Well, when I get to thinking about the absolutely incredible waste involved in the battles of anti-virus software versus viruses, anti-spam versus spam, anti-spyware versus spyware, and firewalls versus intrusions, I can't help thinking of a line from a song in the old Monty Python movie The Meaning of Life:
"So remember, when you're feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth,
And pray that there's intelligent life somewhere out in space,
'cause there's bugger all down here on Earth!"