As the first anniversary of the terrorist activities of 9/11/2001 approaches, the role of IT has never been more important to the economic well-being of the nation and, in fact, of the planet. Yet the IT recession (and the economic slowdown generally) continues to inflict conflicting demands upon organizations and the IT infrastructure. How do we now define our IT security within our organizations? How do we evaluate the threat to each business enterprise? Is this threat physical in nature--as was the attack on the World Trade Center? Or is the threat more insidious, eroding our confidence in the systems upon which we rely?
Building Networks for Good and Evil
For more than 20 years, we in IT have been building networks to enhance and facilitate transparent business and personal interaction. It's been a rollicking ride on a technological rollercoaster, pulling together the latest gadgets, circuits, and software into an international infrastructure for communication and commerce. Cell phones, PDAs, desktop applications, Internet protocols, and high-function servers have distributed the power of technology out to every corner of every neighborhood in the United States, Europe, and most of the developed world. This power has transformed nearly every business activity, united Europe into a single currency, and enabled the capital markets to move resources from one continent to the next with the click of a mouse. Never in the history of human endeavor have the inhabitants of this planet been more connected, more in touch, and more in control of their personal resources and destinies. Never have more information and knowledge been more freely accessed. Never have individuals had access to more power to do good, to make wealth, to bring justice into the world.
Yet the events of 9/11 revealed the darker side of this same technological revolution. How? The same technology that delivered the resources to build our incredible IT infrastructure also conjured up and delivered the terrorists that piloted the planes on that tragic day one year ago. And although, in the final analysis, it was box cutters and Swiss Army knifes that forced the takeovers of the airplanes, there is no doubt that the functional network of terrorism itself would have been hard pressed to act in such a concerted and devastating manner without the use of our advanced IT technologies.
The Loss of Innocence
This is the more technologically insidious implication of 9/11: We have been victimized by our own tools and networks and devices. Placed in the hands of individuals who abhorred the technology itself, it is as though the culture of technology has been turned against itself. And in the blink of an eye, millions of us used our TVs and computers to witness the structural collapse of the World Trade Center. Just as the Twin Towers took down much of New York City's IT telecommunications, I believe it wiped out many of our long-held beliefs in the innocence and the resilience in IT, too.
On that level, then, is it any wonder that a year after those terrible events, the IT industry is in its worse recessionary period in 30 years? The official excuse is that the economy is in a cyclical downturn. But emotionally, I think we're all blaming 9/11. Our sense of powerlessness and loss about 9/11 is still impacting how our organizations feel about the prospects of rebuilding IT momentum.
For instance, we outwardly blame the failure of our government's intelligence gathering mechanisms, right? But aren't we really saying that our government's information technology failed? It's interesting to note that after 9/11 many IT industry leaders were quick to line up outside the doors of the U.S. Congress to push their individual corporate remedies. Then the finger-pointing began.
Some of these leaders proclaimed that it was the nature of the government's antiquated intelligence-gathering equipment that allowed the terrorists the freedom to act and that the government needed to reinvest in the newest and latest gadgets to overcome those obstacles.
Others said that implementing new software--variations of CRM or Knowledge Management--might prevent the possibility of future attacks by better tracking terrorist activities.
Still others said that relaxing the civil liberties for personal privacy in electronic communications--or strengthening the laws that govern communications encryption--should be important parts of any future security solution.
But after all the governmental hearings, wasn't the real message "Government failed to warn us, and its failure was based upon its flawed information systems!"?
Facing the Flaw in the Armor
Each proposed remedy has a significant price tag and each individual solution--if applied on a global basis to all of our networks and devices--would be enough to fuel recovery in the IT sector well into the future. Yet very little has been accomplished to implement any real change in how we manage our information systems, how we secure them, or how we might--as an industry--protect them. This is as true within the individual IT department as it is on the governmental level.
So is it possible that this subconscious scapegoating of IT by management is holding back investment and expansion? Has our nation's confidence in technology itself been so sorely shaken that it is hesitating to move forward? I believe it has.
Government and business today seem to be balking at the idea of further investment in IT systems. It is as though we all woke up on the morning of September 12, 2001, and realized that we had just gone through a technological nightmare that revealed a devastating flaw in our armor. In that dream, it is the technology itself that seems to be the real culprit behind our fear. And 365 days after the terrible destruction of the Twin Towers, we have yet to figure out how to face it.