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Monthly Archives: February 2011

Sony’s Poor Behavior: What does this say about learning in America?

Ask any technical recruiter, or any quickly-growing technology business, what the number one challenge in the external environment is to growth, and the answer might surprise you.  In a resurgence reminiscent of the late 90’s in Silicon Valley in social media and associated technologies that connect people, ideas, and cash, there’s no lack of innovation, imagination, or good business ideas out there.  With investment tax credits and freely-flowing capital fueled by low interest rates and desperate federal, state, and local attempts to ignite the engines of industry and the economy, lack of funding or tightness of credit isn’t the challenge it was two years ago.  Rather, the lack of sufficiently knowledgeable and adequately trained professionals in highly technical fields is the biggest roadblock to the economic expansion of the services industry.

The cost of labor of highly skilled software engineers is increasingly well above the rate of inflation, having increased over 25% in the past 8 years.  (Just check out the term “computer systems software engineers median annual salary” on WolframAlpha.)  Simply supply and demand sets the price points for wages in local markets, and this trend broadly realized over the entire world has to make one wonder:  Where is the supply of new talent, and why is it not keeping pace with the growth demands of various technology-dependent industry sectors?  I postulate there is a widening knowledge gap analogous to the wealth gap in America, driven by the policy, legal, education and cultural environments.

Specifically, legislation built to protect corporate innovations, including software algorithm patents, anti-copyright mechanisms, and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act are two-edged swords that stifle learning by today’s technically-inclined youth by positioning technologies in untouchable black boxes.  Consider for a moment a future electrical engineer in the 1950’s and what his potential contributions to his field would be if he couldn’t dismantle a radio and learn how its components work.  What if programming languages were restricted from college classes to only corporations who could afford extortionate fees to access and learn technologies; would the networking revolution of the 1980’s and 1990’s have ever occurred?  If young men couldn’t open the hoods of their cars without going to jail, would have have any more automotive innovation, even mechanics?  While corporations must be able to earn protected profits to cover their costs of research and development, those same innovations must be allowed to be embraced and extended not only in the broader macro-economy, but also understood, adopted, and applied by the upcoming generation in higher education.

The higher education system itself, however, has been unable to keep pace with the imparting of technical knowledge specifically in business applications, leading to B-schools churning out freshly minted grads that understand some of the ideas behind requirements analysis and abstract system design, but who lack technical depth that cannot be dismissed by specialization difference, but is required in today’s world where technology permeates every level of business, industry, and life.  These b-school graduates then go out into the world, often with a deficient understanding of the application of technology required to manage technical resources or properly apply them to real-world processes.  I believe this falls squarely in the fault of the lack of cross-disciplinary study plans that integrate related topics within a college, but fails to address the widening rift between engineers who are able to understand the inner workings of the technology, and the business majors who receive only a brush of experience with key concepts.

As one university dean explained to me when I inquired why MIS majors were only required to take a single, general-purpose programming class without any exposure to reporting or datawarehousing concepts, upon which degreed candidates will be expended to understand in their first professional job, the answer was startling.  That PhD replied, “We teach people to build businesses and manage technical talent.  They don’t need to understand how the technical work is done.”  Wrong.  Dead wrong.  Long past are the days when engineers can be enlisted for one-off projects and dismissed when their work is done.  In today’s world, businesses that don’t integrate automation, networking, communication, and social media technologies are being quickly replaced by more savvy, and often foreign entities, that understand the importance of every corporate level, from the board room to the mail room, embracing a cross-functional understanding of technology application.

Restricting knowledge transfer is a sure-fire way to ensure you’ll never be able to procure enough of it.  A great case in point of such ignorance and short-sightedness can be found in the Sony vs. George Hotz drama currently unfolding in technical circles.  A young man, Hotz, dared to open his PS3 and learn how it works.  Pages and pages of TOS’s, AUP’s, and EULA’s explicitly forbid him from doing so, and now in retribution for sharing what he learned about what’s inside the $600 black box he purchased, one of the largest companies in the world is actively suing him, and those he spoke to, to keep what they learned to themselves by applying the DMCA against them.

The mass media has long abused and contorted the term “hacking” to apply to virtually any illegal, unethical, or criminal element that remotely involves technology.  First and foremost, hacking in its true sense, is learning what’s not obvious.  If we have effectively criminalized this learning process both legally and culturally, we can sit back and watch our economic output dwindle as other cultures and nations which either through their abandonment of intellectual property protections or permissive discovery and learning culture prepare a more capable generation of tinkerers, whom individually and in greater numbers will show us up.  Sony’s behavior in attempting to sue young men attempting to learn how they do what they do is driven by the assumption that knowledge can be owned, controlled, and metered.  While Sony may be able to apply punitive measures against a handful of the curious, the attempt to do so is not only futile (anyone remember what Napster did to the music recording industry?), but it creates a climate of fear and draconian policies that trickle down to further squelch off those who want to learn from being able to do so, both systematically by instilling a fear to do so will incur corporate wrath, or by discouraging institutions capable of imparting that knowledge from doing so as they attempt to shape ethical norms.

A society that fundamentally believes that some knowledge should not be learned nor shared is doomed to pay its dues to societies that value knowledge creation, knowledge transfer, and raising future generations with the desire and ability to become as competent as their forbearers and extend the reaches of their contributions.