Sunday, 24 September 2017

Stuck or Locked into an Ecosystem

This blog is prompted by the failure of my six year old work MacBook Pro. I love the machine and the Mac interface, and I like the way that I can step down to a BSD Unix command line when I need to but what do you do when your faithful computer system fails? I was fortunate because I had used Beyond Compare to update my backup on my home network drive (NAS – Network Accessible Storage) and I had also used the Apple Time Machine backup to place a copy of the critical files on the NAS drive. Just for security, I have two of NAS drives and one backs up to the other on a weekly basis. They also use a four disk RAID disk arrays so that if one drive fails, I can replace it and the system will recover with no lose of data. That makes it sound like I am fairly safe against equipment failure. Right???
But before I describe some of the issues that arose, let me make sure you understand what is meant by an ecosystem. The meaning according to the Oxford dictionary is “Community of interacting organisms and their physical environment.” That meaning is based around the natural environment but a more general use of the term again according to the Oxford dictionary is “a complex network or interconnected system.” So in the context of this blog, I am going to talk about the Apple Ecosystem or the Android Ecosystem or the Windows Ecosystem or the Microsoft Office Ecosystem or your favourite browser ecosystem but I might stray into the economic ecosystem as well. Why? Well the failure of my MacBook Pro taught me a lot about my dependency on the features of these systems and on my assumptions about how economic systems work.
Let me explain: We become used to using the features of our chosen system to manage our work environment. In my case, this wasn’t simply the files and data that I worked with but things like remembering user ids, passwords and URLs. I don’t trust to memory many of the everyday tasks because I like to use my brain for the more challenging thinking so why clutter memory with things that my tool set can remember for me. I wish security experts understood this trait because they might then understand why all their efforts at strengthening the security of systems fail but that is a side issue maybe for a later blog.
I quickly restored my files from the backup that I do with Beyond Compare because this is simply a copy of the files to my backup drives. Accessing the Apple Time Machine backup was a little more difficult. At work, I had access to an iMac except I could not log in because it was no longer recognised by the work network and anyway it couldn’t access my home based NAS drive (I deliberately have not made this accessible via the internet. Attaching to the internet is like making it a public resource so ensuring it can’t be reached is key to security). Option one gone. Option two was to use computers in the university labs but these are dual boot of either Windows or Linux and again don’t have access to my home NAS drive. I was provided with a temporary desktop machine that runs Ubuntu. That is reasonably close to Linux and the BSD core of the Mac operating system so few difficulties with using the machine but what about the software combinations?
I was conscious that my Beyond Compare backup was completed at the weekend and I had two days work that was only captured on the Apple Time Machine backup so how do you access that. I found a piece of software that would give me access from our home Windows computer so latest backed up copies were restored but did I have everything I needed?
The MacBook had Microsoft Office on it and I used Outlook to manage my emails (the Mac Outlook file format isn’t compatible with the Windows version although you can export and import between them provided you have a Mac). Still web access was there for emails that I hadn’t downloaded but the history of emails was gone (and still is). A lot of my lecture materials are based on PowerPoint or Word documents. LibreOffice will solve that (right?). Well not quite. Subtle differences in the way formatting is handled makes even simple documents a potential problem and I have animations in my lecture slides and the lecture theatres all have Windows based lecture machines so compatibility is key.
But it was all those website URLs and passwords that were the real issue. They were locked away in the Keychain on the Mac although shared with Safari and somewhere out there on the cloud. The solution was to install Safari (No longer supported by Apple for Windows nor Ubuntu). At least I have the iPhone and iPad so I can look them up there but you need internet access, right! Fortunately, I do have that but what I am really getting at is our dependence on the ecosystem that includes our chosen operating system, software tool set, and the internet with all its security risks.
Whether we are using the Apple, Microsoft, or some brand of Linux/Unix, we are locked into that ecosystem especially if we use its features for saving critical information such as user ids, passwords and URLs. However, the same applies for browsers. I have already highlighted the Safari issue but it also happens with Firefox, Chrome, … Each use their own file formats for saving critical data. Any tool we use potentially has that problem.
Some of my computer science colleagues would say the solution is easy use what I will call the lowest common denominator (i.e. text files) or files that contain the equivalent of text (i.e. Latex or XML). All you need is a text editor to access them. I explore this some years ago toward the end of WordPerfect. One reason why I was using WordPerfect was that it allowed me to use SGML, the forerunner of XML to produce documents. For a while, this gave me a combination of WYSIWIG (What You See Is What You Get) and a file format that I could access and maintain separate to the WordPefect. The idea never really gained popularity and many of my colleagues in computer science would suggest Latex as a preferred option that gave better typesetting. The thing is using text based files does man that you are not having to find specialist tool sets (software) to access your data when things fail. (I am going to ignore encryption in this discussion because that adds another level of issues and for the average user is possibly beyond their ability to resolve).
However, this whole episode has made me think of other dependencies on the ecosystem. Having just leased an electric car, I am conscious of the dependency on an infrastructure that doesn’t actually have a consistent access. We have to sign up to a number of different schemes to gain access to electricity pumps. Some are RFID card access and others are app on smart phone access. Are we leaving ourselves open to running out of charge in the middle of no where with no electricity pump we can use? Fortunately, we can use a standard power outlet but that is a slower charging process but may give us enough charge to get to a faster charging pump.
All of these are symptoms of our growing dependency on technologies many of which are not standardised but we also have also accepted an economic ecosystem. One that involves credit checks, debts, digital currencies, cash cards, … Few stop to ask where this race is actually heading or whether this economic ecosystem is actually fit for purpose. Theoretically as the UK works toward separation from the EU, it has the opportunity to rethink some of these economic issues but I doubt whether they will be rethought or whether the questions will really be asked about inequality. Why?
We are locked into a growth economic mindset and a belief that as long as the economy keeps growing, there will be access to everything that people need. This is despite the signs that in something like a 200 year period, we have gone from surplus of many natural resources to scarcity. It is tempting to argue that poverty has increased but my family history research tells me that over 500 years or maybe more, society has never dealt with poverty well. We have condemned people to the poor house because they were locked into an old ecosystem that was no longer relevant in technological advance. Employment agent continue to do this when people are made redundant. Our mindset is shuttered by the economic environment in which we work.
What could have been an obligation to meet the needs of others with our skill set has been replaced by an obligation to pay for the goods and services we receive. How many of us received from our parents the resources that we needed to gain an education and to get our first employment. Mine didn’t do it because they were expecting a return on investment and we didn’t do it for our children because we expected them to pay us back. Yet, the basis on which we run our economies is maximising for self and arguing for return on investment. That economic perspective locks us in as much as the technologies we use to write this blog or do many of the other things in life.

Let us stop and think what is really important and what it would take to survive if and when our economic ecosystem collapses. Historical evidence suggests that we have the intuition to survive without these ecosystems but are we losing these intuitive skills just as we are losing the fertile ground to grow our crops in the local community? It is time for a rethink and to ask what type of ecosystem do we want to be locked into.