I Saw It On a Screen -- So It Must Be True!

Monday Jul 30th 2007 by Rob England

In the supposedly tech-savvy 21st century, one hopes that people would be skeptical of anything a computer produces. But put something on a screen...

Telesales advertisers and other hustling snake-oilers no longer use images of “thousands of dedicated” white-coated scientists and bubbling test tubes. Science is out of favor with the general public due to the rise of post-modernism, new age, alternative this and that, and other bilge thinking. The only positive to this gradual erosion of the Western world’s intelligence is the demise of science as an image of credibility with marketers.

The same has not happened with computers. Deliver anything on a glowing panel and the public thinks it must be true or possible. PowerPoint adds authority to drivel. Software won’t sell if it isn’t sexy. Graphs, preferably three-D surface graphs, depict problems dissolving and ROI soaring. And every quack and nutter finds a willing audience on the Internet.

Part of the problem is Arthur C. Clarke’s dictum that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” What Clarke didn’t say is that people only think it is magic if suddenly exposed to it. If accustomed to it in everyday life they know it isn’t magic, but they subconsciously give it mystical properties. Most people don’t have a clue how tiny chunks of sand can make the Internet appears on a flat piece of plastic. Most of the public doesn’t grok electricity. Even some IT people don’t understand this stuff below the abstract level of what they see on GUIs and HTML pages.

The science of burning your neighbor alive

So when an e-mail promises that Bill Gates wants to give you $100 or that a little girl in Kansas won’t die of dyslexia if you forward the e-mail to 10 others, people buy this drek. When a website persuasively argues that antiperspirants give you Alzheimer’s, the truth is only a Google away, but people are not taught to think critically. They don’t know to seek the contrary view and balance the arguments to make their own judgment.

People are credulous. They always have been: by burning your neighbor alive you can test whether she is a witch; the world is flat; mice form spontaneously in old rags; perfume keeps away disease; the king is a deity; women can’t run a country; crop circles are made by aliens; Bono’s opinion matters; Iraq is about democracy…You would think it wouldn’t take an Einstein to see through these.

I went to a friend’s house one evening and the microwave was gone, replaced by one of those little grillers. I asked why and they proudly showed me the Web pages their 12-year-old son had printed out, about how microwave ovens fry your brains with leaked radiation. They sold a near-new microwave to go back to a technology from our parent’s generation. Next time I was there I slipped their son a few pages printed from Snopes.com on how this is a load of bunk. He went pale and scuttled away. I bet he never told them but maybe he learned a lesson...or not.

Ah, Snopes.com. Along with Urbanlegend.com, Snopes has done more to preserve my Internet sanity than any other Web site. Every now and then a rumor comes along that is so good I’m not sure, and I turn to these sites for a touchstone of rational information. Without them I think I would have given up on the Internet long ago.

The problem is not restricted to the Internet. Software product demonstrations play on the same weakness. This stuff must work – I saw it. Nobody would buy a car based on driving it ten yards across the dealer’s lot, but a vendor can demo one icon turning red and convince buyers they have a CMDB. Say after me: if it is running on a lone laptop in the meeting room, it isn’t reality.

Worse still is the screenshot in PowerPoint. Seemingly nobody has heard of graphics editors when vendors talk about their upcoming product as if it actually existed.

Next page: The gospel of spreadsheets...

Back to Page One

Then there is the spreadsheet. This humble tool has brought down mighty companies and misdirected governments. If I work something out on the back of a napkin everyone wants to query how I got the result, but have the number pop out of a spreadsheet and it’s gospel. The first rule of business cases is to deliver them in spreadsheet format with the dodgy assumptions buried in a cell formula on page five.

The COBOL code that calculates a single customer’s discount is subject to rigorous testing by experts. The code that calculates the company’s profitability for the year is written in Excel by a tired accountant one evening and tested by the same person the next morning...sometimes.

I know of a company that spent two billion dollars on another company based on the fact that they could conduct business with better profit margins than anyone else in the industry. After two years, an auditor (investigating on behalf of the Board to work out why it didn’t seem to be working after acquisition) discovered that the spreadsheet that reported the profit divided by the same factor in two different cell formulae. Margins weren’t 5%: they were 2.5%. Due diligence at purchase missed it.

In fact it is not just computers: it seems to be any screen. Don’t get me started on what documentaries and news media get away with that wouldn’t wash in a book or newspaper. Moving animations of medications hit the spot on curiously neutered see-through bodies. Movies tell of kids using a laptop hacking the Pentagon to remotely control missiles. News reports show smiling soldiers.

Something about illuminated information paralyses the mental faculties. Whether it is television, demo, movie, spreadsheet, Web site or presentation, be doubly on your guard for what Clive James once called “the ancient Japanese art of bullshido.”

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