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– what is it?

April 2002

disponibile anche in italiano

  Giancarlo Livraghi
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Another virus isn’t news. They’ve been around for fifteen years. Over 53 thousand of them are known and described. But in a recent case there is a detail that may be worth some comment.

This new worm is called w32.klez.e@mm. It has a particularly mischievous behavior. When someone absentmindedly allows it to install itself in a computer, like other tricksters of the same kind it grabs e-mail addresses and uses them to spread infected attachments. But with a twist – it places false addresses in the from line, thus making it appear that the messages are coming from someone who never contracted the virus and doesn’t know that those messages are being sent. That person is taken by total surprise when virus warnings, and replies to unsent mail, start pouring in.

It’s quite disturbing for healthy people to be treated as bearers of disease. An added problems is that somehow the virus uses wrong or old addresses, and people get “undeliverable” warnings for mail that they had never sent.

When I pointed out to some “experts”, specialists in these matters, that at least the virus warnings should be managed properly, they answered a bit too carelessly. «That’s unavoidable. The automatic warning system can’t tell that its a false sender.»

There’s the rut. The question isn’t if it can, but how it should. I don’t believe that the protection software can’t be taught to detect false addresses. But let’s assume, for the sake of the argument, that such a technical adjustment is difficult. Even if the automatic device is too stupid to do what it should, human intervention could easily change the text of the warning to provide correct information instead of a false alert. That would be an advantage for people receiving the message, who would be well informed instead of being confused. It would also be good for the supplier of the anti-virus software, or the system administrator, who would show that they know how to manage customer care.

None of that was done, or even considered. Why do we so rarely see intelligent and well managed solutions?  Because the dominant culture is upside down. It treats people as accessories of computers or software (or websites) while it should think and behave the other way round.

This episode, per se, isn’t much of a problem. But it’s a symptom of a widespread mentality. And so we get to the point: what do we mean by “interactivity?”  That was an important question since the beginning of networking. And now it’s as relevant as ever.

Automatic reply systems can be useful – sometimes. If they are well conceived, if they provide the right answers and if they don’t get in the way of human response. In most cases, that’s not how they work. Most things called help aren’t helpful – and often they are a nuisance. That happens because they are set up to cut staff and save money, not to help customers. And because systems are conceived to fit the minds of the programmers, not the needs of people.

It’s pretty obvious that things don’t work. It’s harder to understand why they are getting worse all the time. One of the reasons is that software designers and sellers, system planners and managers, don’t understand what “interactive” means – and they don’t want to understand it.

An automatic device isn’t more “interactive” that a switch that turns the light on and off. And id doesn’t become more “interactive” if it’s remote controlled or voice activated (with many possible malfunctions that would be funny if they weren’t dangerous.)

Technology works if and when it improves our life, liberates human energies, handles repetitive chores to leave us free to do more interesting things. The clutter of cumbersome automatic devices and invasive tools does the opposite. And that, in one word, is stupid.

There is only one interactivity that really matters. People “interacting” with each other. Machines and devices are useful only when they serve that purpose. The more effective they are, the less we notice their presence. This is a very simple concept – though it takes a great deal of care, patience and dedication to practice it well. It’s tiresome and disturbing to find that we need to repeat it, again and again. But the daily problems with information and communication technologies tell us that it is not understood, or applied, as carefully as it should.

As in the old days in the best computer rooms there was a bold sign on the wall, THINK, and sometimes in the best offices that wise acronym, KISS (keep it simple, stupid) ... now everyone working in information and communication should repeat as often as possible, and with deep belief, the basic mantra: tools working for people, not vice versa.

On lessons that we can learn from real or false virus alerts
see also Not just another hoax.

An interesting article on the mismanagement of “interactivity”
was published by Gerry McGovern on March 18, 2002:
The myth of the interactive internet.


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