The Value of Dissension

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"The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing." Albert Einstein

There seems to be a fallacy in American politics and corporate life these days that conformity and blind acceptance of the prevailing BS perspective is the apex of social evolution. Nothing could (or should) be farther from the truth. The fact of the matter is that conformity and the oppression of dissent is a fundamental threat to the very foundations of this society. It undermines creativity and innovation, causing an erosion not only in social values but also in the ability to solve problems.

"Weakness of attitude becomes weakness of character." Albert Einstein

The prevailing problem, as I see it today, is that the powers that be believe their way is the only way, and that anybody who dares question that way is in fact threatening the basis of their existence. One need only look at the examples of oppression at the RNC in St. Paul earlier this month, or to the classrooms that are oppressed by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. Taking NCLB as a prime example, we find that students and teachers are now almost solely focused on preparing for a single high-stakes test, to the degree that all "education" is rote memorization, with little or no time spent on extension.

Extension of learned concepts and facts is a vital component to being educated. It's not enough to know that 1+1=2, but to then be able to extend this to knowing that 1+2=3 and beyond. It's also the ability to see that 1+x=2 means that x=1, and then to be able to expand that to other topics, like multiplication, such that when you go shopping you can look at a package of 100, 250, and 500 napkins and calculate out the per-napkin cost to see which package is in fact the better deal (yes, I know, many grocery stores put this on the label now).

From the standpoint of security, there is an inherent danger in maintaining the status quo, railing against dissenting opinions. The enemy has not stopped evolving their attacks, but many corporations have grown tired of the upgrade games. Unfortunately, they've missed the boat, listening to vendors far too much and not to independent, vendor agnostic consultants. Moreover, too many people are being allowed to call themselves "security consultants" these days, flogging their CISSP, CISA, and CISM credentials as if a single test ever demonstrated true competency and experience.

"Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods." Albert Einstein

In many organizations, there seems to be an interesting problem of passive resistance, which oftentimes has the effect of quashing dissent, or at least prohibiting innovation and creativity. Take, for instance, a case where an organization brings in a consultant to identify opportunities for improving management of a key technology area. The consultant makes recommendations and begins to guide the client through the process of choosing a new technology solution that can bring meaningful improvements in operational efficiency, compliance, and overall risk resiliency. But then the consultant runs into a brick wall. Stakeholders start skipping meetings, data captures are suddenly unavailable, and people are suddenly too busy.

The irony is of course palpable here. Many of these stakeholders are indirectly (if not directly) threatened by the introduction of new technology. It minimally means learning new technology, and may ultimately lead to an increase in responsibilities, or the realization that a person is no longer needed in their current capacity. Most people chafe at this thought, when they should instead embrace it. They then begin passively resisting the changes, the innovations, the creativity.

This suppression, repression, oppression of progress is a subversive manner of attacking dissenting opinions. Innovation should introduce creative solutions to complex problems that ultimately frees us to focus on other problems. The only way to evolve is to build on previous evolutionary steps. This goal cannot be achieved when we are actively struggling to back-slide. What was a truly great idea 30 years ago should, at most, be a best practice today (aka "mediocrity"), and may even be considered obsoleted and bad. For example, I have a friend who works for Blade Logic (now owned by BMC). Their products can evolve systems administration practices to a new level of maturity where a pair of admins could effectively manage the majority of an environment from a single console. This innovation, however, threatens the livelihood of many sysadmins, and thus they're disincentivized to favor adoption of such an improvement. This failure to grow and mature technology capabilities undermines the value proposition of IT within the business and effectively suppresses dissension.

"Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius -- and a lot of courage -- to move in the opposite direction." Albert Einstein

Within information security we're often faced with these types of challenges. Certainly, as a security consultant, I see this resistance in almost every engagement. It's ironic that businesses hire people like me to come in and present a dissenting viewpoint from the status quo, only to actively work against us in the end. Whether it be policies and enforcement or compliance or introducing new technologies for improved efficiencies and reduced risk, it doesn't matter, as the outcome is almost universally the same.

I, for one, enjoy the creativity of consulting, but I find the stuttering conclusion of most projects to be frustrating and disheartening. What's worse, I see these attitudes translated into the public face in many different sectors. Politics, to me, is the best stage for seeing these trends paralleled. Take the presidential election, for example. McCain truly represents the status quo, completely sold-out to the far-right fundamentalists, big oil, and large corporations, and yet he's purporting to be a candidate for change. This misrepresentation is merely designed to resist change - it's the effective equivalent of the "oh, I'm too busy" gripe from IT professionals when it's time to actually implement change. "Why do we need change? Things are fine as they are!" (sounds like McCain's take on the economy as major financial services orgs tank left and right)

"Yes, we have to divide up our time like that, between our politics and our equations. But to me our equations are far more important, for politics are only a matter of present concern. A mathematical equation stands forever." Albert Einstein

The problem with all of this, of course, is that it lacks eloquence and grace. Where is the beauty of the simple solution? In the case of politics, it's very easy: throw the bums out, bring in different bums who hopefully have different allegiances or are at least not as sold-out as the last bums. However, we need to be wary of the violent resistance that the status quo may throw in our face. Never before do I recall seeing such violent opposition from the establishment - usually it's the other way around! It's a sad state of affairs when the threat of social evolution is viewed as so great that the establishment will violently work to oppress the next state of being. Perhaps this belies the importance of the underlying corruption and the false belief that power is everything. Perhaps the solution to such oppression is to find a way to remove the power without having to directly confront the status quo.

In consulting, when faced with passive resistance to deploying a new technology, my focus is usually on finding a way to either get people onboard with the changes, or to reduce their fears around the innovation. In education, there's always a natural resistance from the brain before new concepts are well-understood. The breakthrough "ah ha" moment should be what we all live for - that moment when we realize that the innovation and creativity we're resisting is in fact infusing new life into a tired art, revitalizing our lives, our careers, our society for the foreseeable future.

"Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light."
Dylan Thomas

1 Comment

It never ceases to amaze me how much the simple fear of change, of upsetting what people know, can halt the best of projects or at least make them so convoluted as to be worthless in the long run. Or, on the opposite scale, you see change for change's sake, which results in needless flailings because they are grasping for something, anything, and aren't arriving at anything truly useful.

I think the resistance to change is a built-in feature to our pattern-recognizing neural nets -- they operate entirely upon familiar patterns being perceived and, therefore, new patterns are tough to establish and violate the known ones. The brain tries to pidgeonhole every idea given pre-established categories, so out-of-the-box ideas are hard to accept and harder to implement.

That doesn't mean, of course, that we shouldn't be encouraged to expand beyond our limitations. :)

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