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Things Haven't Really Changed (Much)

The fundamental needs of the world—growing, building, trading, traveling, learning, healing, protecting—remain surprisingly constant. Lloyds of London has been selling insurance for a long time, since it started out of a coffee house in 1713, well before the advent of automated computation. Insurance is by nature a data-intensive business based on many different types of contractual agreements. Since their inception, insurance companies have been managing documents and keeping financial records. The halls and rooms in the old buildings of the major insurance companies are enormous not so much as a testimony to the grandeur of the enterprise, but because the rooms had to be large enough to house hundreds of clerks, and the halls had to be big enough to allow those clerks easy passage through the building to their desks. Each policy application, each premium payment, each insurance claim, each death benefit was processed one step at a time, moving from desk to desk—through hundreds or even thousands of hands. Today these processes are automated using computer software, and the number of human hands required to move work along has greatly diminished. Yet the business processes remain basically the same. And if a process needs to be tweaked, the work is usually done by a coder somewhere on the planet.

Just about everything we make or deliver requires the use or intervention of some piece of software somewhere. Software—code—makes the world go 'round. It's our core planetary technology. The ability to create, understand, and modify code is still a skill particular to a special segment of mankind, just as literacy was special to the church-affiliated scribes of Charlemagne's time. Just as the scribe-coders of Charlemagne's time controlled his world, software developers control our world. The only thing that has changed over time is the type of code. In Charlemagne's time it was the written word. In today's world it's Java, VB, C++, Pascal, TCL, SmallTalk, Eiffel, Perl, PHP, SQL...the list goes on and on.

So is our experience really as the French writer Alphonse Karr (1808–1890) describes? "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose." (The more things change, the more they remain the same.)

Yes and no. For most of history the control of information systems has been a guarded affair. Charlemagne's scribes were priests and monks, subject to the favor and benefits of the church. An insurance clerk needed physical access to the building to interact effectively with the information systems. Telecommuting was not an option. Today, working with information systems doesn't require real-time proximity to the information. Anybody with a computer, a connection to the Internet, the right set of passwords, and the proper encryption keys has the potential to exert enormous amounts of control on the world, from anywhere in the world. Yes, security is the buzzword of the day and the powers that be are going to a great deal of effort to make sure that control of the world's information systems stays in known hands. But let's face it: A thousand dollars can buy you technology that cost millions in the early 1960s, if such technology existed at all. Today, anybody with an adequate amount of time, money, and smarts can learn to "work" an information system. Whereas in the old days it was nearly impossible to teach yourself to read and write, today it's not unheard of for someone to be a self-taught, competent, successful software developer who works with and in technologically advanced information systems. I know. I'm one of those software developers.

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