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A technology blog for The Economist Group IT team

Monday, July 11, 2005

Chartreuse 11 July 2005

Last week, another publication day was marked by very significant events, but not those we knew about. It was not the G8 Summit at Gleneagles that drew the attention, it was the eerie silence that followed reports of a power surge in the underground. As the information kept coming, in dribs and drabs, a lot of calm and business as usual prevailed. Our BCP plan was set in motion, just in case, all through landlines as mobiles were jammed with the load of calls.

In all this, it was communications that played the most part, from friends and colleagues around the globe who not only asked after our well being but also provided us with information that was more revealing and more quickly available than what was shown on the BBC. Witness accounts talking on CNN and European channels, tourists in the street who called home, foreign journalists who were mere passers by and got caught up in the whole thing were those that gave the first account, unedited, yet in a sober and very responsible manner. Outside the offices people had already started walking home as the transport system was paralysed, many buying a pair of trainers as high heels were not ideal for the long trek home. In all this, the things that worked well was the technology put in place to help the people cope with the situation. Mobile phone networks set aside, it was the pictures and videos of the mobile phones that showed us what it was like on those tube carriages. Faster than the news wires could respond it was live satlinks that beamed the news around the world.

The heroes of it all, the doctors and paramedics and passers by who went to help relied on modern communications to co-ordinate their efforts. It was a prime example, albeit in terrible circumstances of the correct use of technology to save lives. On the other hand, it was perhaps the same technology that may have been deployed to create the carnage. As with all the things man made, it was the user who made the difference.

It was the openness of systems which was exploited to co-ordinate an appalling attack on innocent people. It was the same openness that kept the information flowing so that we were not kept in the dark. Whatever security measures we employ in the future in order to make terrorism impossible, we have to allow the same technology which will restrict and annul such actions to also function as a cohesive device between cultures. The old fashioned and many times quoted slogan, “no one knows you are a dog on the internet”, should remind us all that no division should be made between different cultures, religions and modi vivendi because a group of sick people hijack our hard earned freedoms which allow them to express themselves as much as anyone else.

On Sunday, a few hundred yards from the Tower, the day of tribute for those who gave everything to keep Britain free during the last world war was under way. Some of the people honoured were disposing bombs that were designed to explode while being disarmed. They are a wonderful example of how much the persons using a technology are those that make the difference, and when technology fails, it is up to the human wit and courage to tackle the most dangerous of situations. Today, it is up to us, the servants of technology to help make redundant mindless fanaticism and prove that technology and all its applications should be according to the Wikipedia model of respect and collaboration indiscriminately, rather than destruction. It is up to the masters of technology, those who shape its future, those who make decisions about it, to make sure that freedom is its foundation and primary constituent.

NB: This was originally intended for "To Computing Heroes" but I had to substitute it with what you read there yesterday instead.

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