It Takes a Generation

There's been a ground-swell of frustration in the industry the past couple months, and for good reason. The loyal opposition is kicking our tails in the push-me-pull-you world we live in. Moreover, it can often feel like our warnings are falling on deaf ears, and that all our efforts are in vane. After all, "the users are stupid," and businesses don't care, right? Methinks not, and that under calmer conditions many of you would agree.

Instead of feeling despair, which I think is exacerbated by stressful economic conditions and the seemingly slow arrival of Summer vacations, I think we should instead take a step back and consider a couple things. Technology is evolving, and quite rapidly. People are trying to keep up, but it's just not a winning proposition right now. Evolution is not something to beat back, but something to survive and, hopefully, ride out to a new plain of existence. However, we need to bear one crucial fact in mind: it takes at least one human generation to get through such an evolutionary change, and, to make matters worse, our generations are living longer, which lengthens that transition time. Don't believe me? Consider two recent technological evolutions: automobiles and industrialization.

Automobiles and Safety Standards

By all accounts, the automobile (i.e., a wheeled vehicle that carries it's own engine and transports passengers) was first conceived in the 17th century. They weren't readily turned into actual vehicles until some 100 years later. Take a moment to let that sink in. The automobile has existed in some format for longer than the United States!

Now consider, by comparison, how long computers have been around. We know they first came into regular use during WWII in the '40s. Let's say, for argument's sake, that the 1940s roughly correlate to the late 1700s in terms of comparable degree of development. For automobiles, then, their evolution was slow, as would be expected of early industrialized society evolved (the Industrial Revolution is general considered to have spanned the 18th and 19th centuries). It wasn't until the late 1800s that internal combustion engines took over the mainstream and automobiles really took off (this can be compared to the 70s and 80s).

The first automobile death in recorded history occurred in 1869 when a Mary Ward, of Parsonstown, Ireland, was ejected from her moving vehicle and subsequently run-over by the steel wheels (ouch!). It seems likely that there may be other incidents attributable to automobiles before this time, but nothing exists in the historical record. Nonetheless, this wasn't the first time automobile safety had been considered. UK Parliament passed "The Locomotives on Highways Act 1861," which came to be known as the "Red Flag Act," setting speed limits and mandating that a person had to walk in front of automobiles waving red flags (or a lantern) and blowing a horn so as to warn people of the approaching vehicle. Initial speed limits were very low (2-4mph!).

So, to boot, it took the automobile less than 100 years to go mainstream, and the first safety standards were enacted shortly thereafter, but only insomuch as they tried to essentially stop or slow development and use, rather than trying to secure passengers. It wasn't until the 1930s that seat belts and padded dashboards were advocated, and the Automobile Safety League of America was formed. Consumers historically have shown little real interest in safety features, outright rejecting Ford's "Lifeguard" safety package in 1956, which earned it a Motor Trend award. The 3-point shoulder+lap belt was invented in 1958 and became standard on all Volvo cars in 1959 (it didn't become standard in other vehicles until the 70s). In contrast, the US Department of Transportation (USDOT) wasn't even formed until 1966, with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) spun off as an independent organization in 1967.

In terms of regulations, the UN established a "World Forum for Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations" in 1958, which subsequently began creating international standards for vehicle safety. Ralph Nader's famous initiatives in the mid-1960s really brought vehicle safety forward in the US, which really helped roll everything up into the USDOT, NTSB, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Since that time, safety standards have increased and improved dramatically, as has overall acceptance by consumers. As we sit in 2011, few people think twice about the presence of safety features in vehicles, and many look for them when seeking to purchase a new vehicle.

All told, it took about 100 years of the automobile being mainstream before serious safety measures became desirable features, and before legislation could catch-up to technological evolution. Even if you halve that timeframe in comparing information technology, you're still looking at 50 years, which is a looooooong time.

Industrialization and Safety Standards

The Industrial Revolution is marked by significant technological evolution, which included many different areas, such as automation and automobiles. The hallmark of industrialization was the factory, which represented the development of mass production (and, some might argue, the eventual downfall of civilization). With this evolution came deplorable social conditions (hmmm, sounds a little familiar by modern standards). Child labor was the norm, housing for workers was lousy, and only the rich owners of factories really prospered. People recently put out of work by mechanization began attacking factories (the "Luddites"), which led to government protection (via militia and army) of factories (the Monty Python quote "help! help! I'm being repressed!" comes to mind). England introduced the "Factory Acts" in 1833 and 1844 to stem the tide of child labor, but even to this day we see examples of abuses tied to factories abroad.

One of the other key attributions of society during the Industrial Revolution was the advent of organized labor, which was designed to protected workers. Interestingly, and unsurprisingly, England initially passed a law in 1799 (the "Combination Act") that forbade organizing (it was repealed in 1824). Organized labor came into its own in the mid-1800s, and by the 1900s standards of living had started to recover from earlier compromises.

In terms of safety standards, there wasn't much to note until the 1900s. In part, this because there simply isn't adequate recorded history. However, what we do know is that the legislative record doesn't start to evolve until around 1910. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Bureau of Mines were both stood-up around this time. New York State introduced "worker's compensation" in 1910, with 43 other states following suit by 1943 (a 33-year period!!). It wasn't until the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Mine Safety and Health Administration were formed in 1970 that we start to see major changes in industrial safety.

Ultimately, it wasn't until the Industrial Revolution was over that safety standards really came into existence. Think about that for a minute: an entire multi-generational period of peak technological evolution passed before safety standards became mainstream. We're talking about 150-200 years of technological evolution that went largely unregulated with respect to safety measures. And, need I also point out that these regulations and changes came about because of the physical impact on people?

Applying Historical Perspective

It took about 100 years before serious safety standards were mandated for automobiles, and it similarly took 150-200 years for industrial safety standards to become reality. The simple fact is that humans do not evolve as quickly as technology. Moreover, politicians tend to be even slower to act as they do not want to hinder progress without first understanding the impact.

The computer industry has existed for somewhere in the ballpark of 75 years, give or take a few years. Computers have been mainstream for around 30-35 years, depending on how you gauge it (that roughly corresponds to the PC and Apple II). Even if you halve the time required from technology being mainstream to seeing reasonable safety standards adopted when compared to other technological evolutions, we're still looking at another 15 years until that point is reached. And, 50 years is effectively a full generation.

The bottom line is this: Our expectations for adapting to the current technological evolution are unreasonable. It will take a full generation before society as a whole will be ready for safety standards. Until then, all we can do is continue to prepare the way for those inevitable standards, educating where possible, and overall focusing on survival. Our jobs are made all the more difficult by the current economic climate (which, incidentally, seems synonymous with a major technological evolution if the Industrial Revolution is any example). We still need a champion in the public space (a la Ralph Nader) to effectively raise consumer awareness, and to help trigger meaningful changes. Until we reach that point, we will have to continue slogging through as we have been.

Adding more challenge to this situation is that the impact of the absence of these standards is economic rather than physical. People are not getting sick and dying because we don't have adequate computer safety/security standards in place. Instead, people and businesses are losing (or wasting) money. My intuition is that these types of negative incentives will only slow adoption of standards (and, subsequently, improved practices), and that our hope may actually be in industry-driven initiatives (like the National Safety Council, which may be analogous to BITS and PCI). Only time will tell.


Following are the references I used in creating this post. Sorry that I didn't build-in proper citations (too lazy pre-holiday). There's some fascinating reading in there; I highly encourage taking the time to read through them.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Ben Tomhave published on July 1, 2011 10:53 AM.

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