This is going to be a long post.
How I spent my weekend
This weekend I took a quick glance at the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks for 2014 report. The WEF is a Swiss nonprofit foundation that describes itself as an international organization that is dedicated to improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic and others in society to shape global, regional and industry agendas (I pulled that description off of their Wikipedia entry). They bring together 2500 leaders and convene to compile a report of threats as well has how to combat them. The 2014 meeting, held late January, had the theme “The Reshaping of the World: Consequences for Society, Politics and Business.”
They face criticism; anti-globalization activists claim that capitalism and globalization increase poverty and destroy the environment (they are right in some ways, not wrong in others).
Anyhow, I was reading the report about the leading risks the world faces, and they divide them up into five categories:
- Economic risks
- Environmental risks
- Geopolitical risks
- Societal risks
- Technological risks (purple in the chart below)
Within each category there are 6-8 specific problems except for technology where there are only 3. If you want more details I’d encourage you to read the report yourself (linked above).
What I want to focus are on how they rate the risks as per the below diagram:
The impact – how bad something would be if it happened – is plotted on the vertical axis and the likelihood – the probability of it occurring – is listed on the horizontal axis. The worse an event is, the further up and right it will be.
Looking at these, the acquisition (and presumably use) of weapons of mass destruction would cause a lot of damage but the odds of it occurring are small. On the other hand, mismanaged urban development is not nearly the impact of WMD’s but is much more likely to happen.
I looked at this table and I created another category – Expected Impact. To do that, I multiplied the Impact by the Likelihood to come up a third category that estimates how bad something is in objective(ish) numbers. The table above doesn’t have the number values, only the plots on the chart so I estimated their relative values by eyeballing them.
Of the 31 threats, Technology is responsible for 3 of them. Cyber attacks rate #7 and Data Fraud/Theft rate #8. The rest of the top 10:
- Extreme weather events
- Climate change
- Income disparity
- Unemployment and underemployment
- Water crises
- Fiscal crises
- Cyber attacks
- Data fraud/theft
- Biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse
- Natural catastrophes
As someone who works in computer security fighting spam (among other things), it gives me a sense of pride to know that I work in an industry that the World Economic Forum considers my industry in the top 10 most important things that are facing humanity to address.
By that, I mean that cyberattacks (#7) are a serious issue, and working to enhance things like authentication (e.g., DKIM and DMARC) strengthen the Internet and make it more difficult for attackers to take it down. Reducing spam increases trust on the web and creating products that make software secure makes the risk of a cyber attack that much less. I play a small role in this; many others reading this are as well and we should take pride in it.
I won’t go into the full details about what the WEF means by this category, but the WEF defines cyber risks as crime, hacktivists, espionage and war. The worst case has been called “Cybergeddon” where the Internet would no longer be divided between attackers and defenders but between predators and prey. Because this would cause a loss of trust between people, they would rely upon the Internet less and less. The most transformative technology since the Gutenberg press would regress, to the loss of humanity.
It is a question of trust.
How this affects me
Part of my job is to create a more secure Internet; it’s what I do. My responsibilities at work are to help drive authentication in email. It’s my small part of the world and one thing where my abilities are useful in real life.
This is important to me. A few years ago, the wife and I looked into doing some sort of charitable work. After researching Doctors Without Borders, Engineers Without Borders, and a few other organizations, I realized that I have no useful skills in the developing world. I know nothing about medicine, I can’t build radios, and any physical strength I have is easily matched by anyone else (i.e., I provide no special benefit) and surpassed by people younger and stronger than me (plus, I have bad hips).
Large companies like Google and Facebook have made it their mission to help connect the developing world by providing them with Internet access. However, Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates has scoffed at this and said basic things like access to clean water, immunization against diseases and reduction in child mortality is far more important.
“I certainly love the IT thing,” Gates said in the interview. “But when we want to improve lives, you’ve got to deal with more basic things like child survival, child nutrition.”
He said that making it a "priority" for the whole world to be connected to the Internet was, "a joke."
“Take this malaria vaccine, [this] weird thing that I’m thinking of. Hmm, which is more important, connectivity or malaria vaccine? If you think connectivity is the key thing, that’s great. I don’t.”
Those are some tough words but he’s probably right.
As I have gotten older, I feel like I have become more cynical. I have started to be come more aware of the wealth gap that exists today, and this is highlighted in the #3 risk above – income disparity.
I feel weird sometimes being in an industry that pays me as well as it does and wonder if I’m doing the right thing. Am I making the world a better place? Should I be doing something different?
Last week, the Seattle Seahawks won the Superbowl and everyone around me was cheering. I was happy for them, too. The Seahawks were clearly the best team in the NFL this year.
I have watched football for nearly 25 years. But here’s the thing – as the press was writing glowing reviews about how the Seahawks worked hard to become champions, and how the owner of the Seahawks turned the franchise around and talked about him in glowing terms, and how so many fans were cheering, the following thought crossed my mind:
Middle class people who spent a lot of their income to watch the game are cheering for a bunch of millionaires and billionaires who will each be getting bonuses for one day’s work, the total of which is more than most of those cheerers make in a year.
I know that everyone on the team worked hard to get there and deserve the money they are paid, but it seemed weird to me that we would all cheer on the success of people who make more money than anyone else in the stands. It’s like “Hooray! You have more than I do! And now I congratulate you on getting even more!”
For the first time in my life, this puzzled me.
And this comes back to the the top 10 list above. There isn’t much I can do to fight climate change (outside of reducing my energy use but let’s face it – those of us in the developed world are responsible for most of this) and extreme weather events. I can give to charitable organizations to help reduce income disparity. But am I really making the world better?
I tell myself that at least I am making it not worse.
But with this report, with cyber attacks at #7, I can finally say that I am doing something worthwhile. This does not mean that I am correct in this belief. Instead, it means I can tell myself I am doing something worthwhile and that relieves my cognitive dissonance.
Perhaps I am helping the bottom line of the betterment of humanity after all.
That’s what I keep telling myself.