Talk about cultural differences. While the Finns dismiss computer addicts from their military, figuring them to be useless basketcases and sending them on their way with a firm smack round the chops, the United States has given them a job for life.
These are happy days for people who style themselves as Pentagon contractors. With the nation lulled into a permanent sense of war, and deficit-defying budgets earmarked for anything military, technology companies can't believe their luck.
While inadequately-protected soldiers are being shot in Iraq, the US government expects to spend $200bn on "a new internet" for the Department of Defense, the New York Times reports today. The Global Information Grid, or GIG, is a ten-year project to provide a completely new information network uniting the services. Beneficiaries this time will include IBM, Microsoft, Hewlett Packard and Sun Microsystems, alongside more familiar names like Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon in a giant consortium formed six weeks ago to build GIG.
On the official GIG website, even Donald Rumsfeld has bought into the bloggers' hopeless, huggy, Thesp-like religion of interconnectednessivity, otherwise known as I've Done My First Acid Trip, Mom! As you can see from his quote here, Rummy will soon be keynoting at a "knowledge management" seminar, near you.
GIG isn't actually new, the Times fails to tell us. It has been the subject of wary reports from the government spending watchdog the Government Accounting Office since 2001, and of hopeful PowerPoint presentations for even longer. What is new is that it will finally get funding beyond most of the consortium members' wildest dreams. Infrastructure spending on what the Times calls 'connections' will be $24 billion in the next five years, with cryptography spending another $5 billion.
Isn't there an abundance of open source cryptography already available, you're thinking? Isn't the existing internet good enough? Evidently not, because the GIG's real purpose is to be most expensive, and certainly the most exclusive TV channel ever created.
Swooning a little, the Times tells us,
"It gives the generals what one supporter describes as 'a picture of the battle space, a God's-eye view'".
That's a vision which thanks to the technology, has just been launched from its cage inside a General's dozing mind. Where it really should have stayed.
There are problems with this "God's-eye-wins" view of military technology. Skeptics point out that with modern warfare already 'asymmetric', high technology is little help here. Low technology insurgents have taken a toll on the mightiest military the world has ever seen. Having an abundance of information doesn't help when all you need is a little very good information, so quality triumphs quantity when you're in a tight spot. And basic human qualities, like courage and intuition, are needed like never before. These should be the basis for a military technology policy, but our generals keep having power fantasies based on what they're sold - missold, really - by technology companies, such as the only alliance behind GIG.
And from all the public specifications so far released, GIG looks like the biggest boondoggle the IT sector has ever created: they've actually persuaded the government to write a blank check for which they can a create an open-ended project, into which they can pour as many IT consultants as they can afford to employ. A lot of them with "knowledge management" on their business cards.
In the 1990s, when they pitched for business against the lower reaches of the public sector, IT consultants realized that they were far smarter at managing their contracts than their partners, and so could evade the accountability requirements (like public floggings) necessary when you goof. But to find such bedfellows as IBM and Microsoft and Sun, all in a consortium angling for government pork, you have to suspect that they're pretty desperate people. Or they think it's easy money.
There's another explanation, which we cannot dismiss. Has a small, frustrated class of middle manager asserted its authority in the USA, the class of "knowledge management" experts? If this is the case, then they've clearly got their man installed right at the top, as we noticed with the bloggy Rumsfeld-speak at the website.
Meanwhile, the project has rung alarm bells with the spending watchdog, the GAO, because the Department of Defense doesn't know what it's doing. An August report suggests that GIG is already out of control. "While DOD has taken steps to define its vision and objectives for the GIG on paper and in policy … it is not fully known how DOD will meet these objectives.
That's because the staff at the DOD's tasked "visionary department" have been staring at blobs on a PowerPoint for the last four years, wondering what the heck to do. Panic! Better call in some more knowledge management consultants.
"Moreover, it is not known how DOD will assess the overall progress of the GIG and determine whether the network as a whole is providing a worthwhile return on investment, particularly in terms of enhancing and even transforming military operations.
So in the best case, things will be as bad as they were before.
"Until DOD implements an investment and oversight strategy for the GIG as a whole, it is at risk of making investments that do not fit its vision for the future. In addition, DOD faces risks inherent with the nature and scope of the effort it is undertaking, for example, risks related to protecting data within the thousands of systems that will be integrated into the network. Furthermore, the technical challenges to develop new networking and network management capabilities to support mobile, integrated communications are considerable. DOD recognizes these challenges, and many of the actions it is taking to implement the GIG are meant to address them. However, it is too early to assess how successful DOD will be in addressing the challenges and overcoming long-standing organizational impediments."
Couldn't $200bn be better spent? In a tactless Freudian slip, one of GIG's proponents accidentally seems to think it could, too -
"This is what we want… A web based, browser enabled, self healing [they've been listening to bloggers again - ed.] network that uses COTS applications to support existing and projected business practices while integrating data elements across all legacy systems protected by a multi-level secure environment that we can trust in war, is US only but can be released to our allies, and cures world hunger by noon tomorrow…"
Now, chaps. Speaking of world hunger… you've got a few questions to answer.
The IT industry's sudden comradely common purpose is fascinating. Long time foes, like Sun and Microsoft, and IBM, have all put down their mutual differences as brothers as they agree - just for a second - what a splendid idea it is to raid the public purse.
The pension industry only just survived its "misselling" scandals because its highly complicated contracts (alarm bells have rung, we hope) allowed it to substitute the word "misselling" for the word "fraud". But it's fraud pure and simple, when someone sells you something they don't have, and will never have in the future.
So how long will it be before an IT consultant or his firm (and knowledge management PowerPointers - yes, we're looking at you) is convicted for misselling a technology that doesn't work? When it's the private sector's money that's being lost to such fraudulent scams such as Jack Welch's "Six Sigma" that's OK with us. Which will be the first IT company to be implicated, now they've all invited each other into the firing line? When it comes to our money being involved, in the public sector, we do notice. ®
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