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Strassman v Microsoft (but it's all in the graph)

frontline: hackers: who's responsible?: the pernicious characteristics of monocultures:

A quote from Strassman's essay:

The "Great Potato Famine" or the "Irish Famine" occurred in 1845-49 when the potato crop failed in successive years. The crop failures were caused by blight that destroyed the potato plant. It was the worst famine to occur in Europe in the 19th century. By the early 1840s, almost one-half of the Irish population--but primarily the rural poor--had come to depend almost exclusively on the potato for their diet, and the rest of the population also consumed it in large quantities. A heavy reliance on just one or two high-yielding varieties of potato greatly reduced the genetic variety that ordinarily prevents the decimation of an entire crop by disease, and thus made the Irish vulnerable. In 1845 a fungus arrived accidentally from North America, and that same year Ireland had unusually cool, moist weather, in which the blight thrived. About 1.1 million people died from starvation or typhus and other famine-related diseases. Many emigrated, and by 1921 the population was barely half of what it had been in the early 1840s.

Strassman goes on to talk about the risks of technical monocultures, focusing on Microsoft. The notion presented in Strassman's essay, that a technolgical monoculture could help effect a system wide crash is an interesting one and worth exploring. But I strongly doubt a monoculture alone is sufficient cause. We can correlate famine with crop failure. But it takes more than crop failure to induce famine. Crop failure was never the sole cause of the Irish famine.

Microsoft's reponse takes the line that computer networks and potoato crops can't be compared since the latter is organic, and this makes them fundamentally distinct from non-organic networks. All in all, an interesting debate with both sides having flawed arguments.

Another way to approach this matter is to examine the characteristics of our internetworks as graphs. In terms of their properties as graphs, computer internetworks and organic systems are quite similar. Notably in how they carry their respective viruses there is not much distinction to be made. Random graph theory and the study of the characteristics of networks, irregardless of the domain are now fertile research areas. The point is to determine whether the graph topology of our information systems is conducive to catastrophic failure and whether in fact technological monocultures, be they in the private or public domain, can contribute to such failures.


December 1, 2002 08:33 PM