http://www.siliconvalley.com/mld/siliconvalley/4275256.htm By Dan Gillmor Mercury News Technology Columnist Oct. 13, 2002 What do major seaports, gas pipelines, the Windows operating system and your local phone company have in common? They are just a few of the choke points of the modern world. Choke points are risky, to society and the economy. They'd be less of a threat if we worked harder at preventing their formation in the first place, and if we spent more time planning for their inevitable disruption. Some choke points are natural, or at least difficult to avoid in the normal course of affairs. Others are manufactured. All are dangerous when we ignore their existence and risks until things go wrong. The West Coast dock lockout, suspended under political pressure from Washington, was the latest warning. In an increasingly global economy, it showed the potential for chaos if one of the few major shipping corridors were closed. This is a just-in-time world. The container ships carrying an endless flow in and out of our ports each year are part of a massive, moving warehouse for manufacturers, supermarkets, toy stores and just about every physical good. Close the doors of the warehouse, and the economy shudders, as we saw when the lockout led New United Motor Manufacturing Inc., the Toyota-General Motors joint venture, to shut down auto and truck production at its Fremont manufacturing plant. The world's oil moves in supertankers, and there aren't that many of these mega-ships. Suspicions are growing that last Sunday's explosion on a French oil tanker, which crippled the vessel, was sabotage or terrorism. The oil markets were already nervous about the potential for a Middle Eastern war that could shut down some of the world's most important oil fields. A crippled oil-transport industry would, at least temporarily, make the dock lockout look like a picnic. California learned the hard way about energy choke points in late 2000 and early 2001. Among the abuses of a poorly designed system of semi-regulation, which invited unethical businesses to game a flawed marketplace, was a natural-gas company's move to use its control of vital natural-gas pipelines to starve supplies in order to hike prices. The state is trying to undo the damage, but too many of the conditions that led to the trouble remain in place. The more virtual world of computing and communications is becoming more burdened by choke points all the time. Everyone is aware of Microsoft's monopoly in operating systems and, increasingly, other top software for desktop computers. Most people aren't aware of the risk we run by using a standard that has again and again been shown to be insecure and controlled by a company that views ethics in the context of tactics, not basic behavior. Virus writers cause damage to the monocultural Windows ecosystem when they send their anti-social code into the ether. Microsoft uses its control to prevent innovation. The regional phone companies, too, have been among the more anti-competitive entities in recent years. These government-granted monopolies have had a lock on local phone service for decades, and then took advantage of flawed deregulation (sound familiar?) to stifle budding competition for data services. Barring some changes in policy, they and another major local monopoly -- cable-TV systems -- will be pretty much the only game in town for high-speed data. Why do governments, which should know better, tend to allow choke points to emerge rather than do everything possible to eliminate them or at least encourage bypasses? Incompetence is too simplistic an explanation, though all organizations have their share of fools. Governments actually like choke points, at least until they really squeeze the economy, because they're easier to keep tabs on and control if necessary. Government doesn't always do the wrong thing, of course. On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission, which has largely been a lapdog recently for the companies it regulates, turned down the ill-considered merger of the two dominant satellite-television services, Echostar's Dish Network and Hughes' DirecTV. We could use more actions of this sort. In a world where rationality prevailed, we'd launch a new kind of Manhattan Project to remove the energy and communications choke points. We'd actively discourage a software monoculture that leaves us so open to cyber-vandalism and corporate power hunger. We'd work harder to establish more competition for telecommunications, not let the industry consolidate to a tiny number of players. We don't live in such a world. Sometimes there's value in learning the hard way. Humans respond to crisis, though the higher the risks, the more danger in assuming we'll muddle our way through our higher-stakes woes. And we emphatically don't want a centrally planned economy. But why do we allow ourselves to indulge in short-term indifference, poor planning and lack of action when an obvious problem is taking shape? When we do, we invite trouble, and we inevitably get it. - ISN is currently hosted by Attrition.org To unsubscribe email majordomoat_private with 'unsubscribe isn' in the BODY of the mail.
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