“The Software Industry Is Still the Problem”
Communications of the ACM, June 2022, Vol. 65 No. 6, Pages 42-43
By Poul-Henning Kamp
“The time is way overdue for IT engineers to be subject to professional liability, like almost every other engineering profession. … As with software product liability, the astute reader is apt to exclaim, “This will be the end of IT as we know it!” Again, my considered response is, “Yes, please, that is precisely my point!””
Around the time computers were old enough to drink, software engineering guru Gerald Weinberg said: “If builders built buildings the way programmers wrote programs, then the first woodpecker that came along would destroy civilization.”
This is not a plotline science fiction authors have ever neglected.
Actually, some titles are still worth a trip to the library: for example, Poul Anderson’s Sam Hall from 1953, which shows how too much reliance on “infallible” computer surveillance can turn into an autoimmune collapse for a nation-state, or, for that matter, any large organization.
At the more obscure end of the spectrum, there is Swedish Nobel Laureate Hannes Alfvén, publishing in Swedish under the pseudonym Oluf Johannesson, with Sagan om den stora Datamaskinen [Tale of the Big Computer] from 1966.
As with almost all science fiction pieces, however, they miss the future by a wide margin. Not because they are bad at it, but because science fiction authors tend to focus on interesting and chaotic second-order effects with lots of crinkly bits around the fjords, because, let’s be honest, they sell more books that way.
If any science fiction author, famous or obscure, had submitted a story where the plot was “modern IT is a bunch of crap that organized crime exploits for extortion,” it would have gotten nowhere, because (A) that is just not credible, and (B) yawn!
And yet, here we are.
The good news is the ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline in May 2021 probably marks the beginning of the end. Comforting as that might sound, it tells us very little about how that ending will turn out.
About the Author:
Poul-Henning Kamp spent more than a decade as one of the primary developers of the FreeBSD operating system before creating the Varnish HTTP Cache software, which approximately one-fifth of all Web traffic goes through. He is an independent contractor; one of his recent projects was a supercomputer cluster to stop the stars twinkling in the mirrors of European Southern Observatory’s new Extremely Large Telescope (ELT).
- “The Software Industry is the Problem” by Poul-Henning Kamp, Communications of the ACM, November 2011.
- “Why Should I Care What Color the Bikeshed Is?” by Poul-Henning Kamp.
- The Bikeshed at ACMqueue, blog by Poul-Henning Kamp.