The Internet Age of innocence

Recently, I discovered that I am a middle-aged man. I'm 38, so it shouldn't have come as a surprise. But I must admit that it did. I suppose everyone is surprised when they reach middle age.

How is this related to information technology in the federal government? Good question.

Let's take a quick look at the perspective of age. The federal government is just over 210 years old. The computing age is just over 50. And, although the Internet began in the 1960s, the era of the Web is a mere 5 years old.

Today we speak of moving in "Internet time" and keeping up with emerging market trends. What used to take weeks and months is now expected in hours or days. For techies, this is a fun time. "Shoot from the hip" hacking is an attitude in high demand. From a business case and production standpoint, though, these are what a purported ancient Chinese curse calls "interesting times."

If the federal government is what you could call mature, then the Internet is barely in its infancy. What does that mean? It means we are in the middle of a great transition. And it's not just one of technology — although that is the underlying reason behind this change. It's a transition of our society.

Those of us who've been working in the online world for the past 20 years are like the pioneers of the Old West. We are the Daniel Boones and Davy Crocketts of the Digital Age. We blazed trails and cut paths for the settlers of today.

Soon, the kids who are in high school and college will be building the digital equivalent of the railroads and highways and cities of tomorrow.

This, finally, brings me to my point. We, the digital pioneers, have a responsibility to the generations that follow us. We must act as a bridge to the past and a guide to the future.

Twenty years from now, it's possible that young people will have no concept of gathering information from books and papers. That's fine, but we must lay the groundwork today for information systems that are not only technically efficient but also able to preserve the history inherent in the information.

The social and political aspects of the Information Age are just as important as the technical ones. Policy is the foundation upon which technology is used to build the future. So when drafts of policy are released for comment and feedback, we must put forth the effort to participate in the peer review of these documents.

In a similar vein, a recent Justice Department report called for IT officials to pause and ask themselves a number of questions as they put agency services online, including:

* Will important data be retained regardless of changes to computer hardware or software?

* Will electronic processes comply with laws governing privacy, confidentiality, recordkeeping and accessibility?

* Will the transactions hold up legally?

As a middle-aged techie, therefore, it is my responsibility to take the time to ensure that the knowledge and lessons of the past are not forgotten in the rush of Internet time.

Klemmer is a senior Unix system administrator and security analyst at the Strategic and Advanced Computing Center at Army headquarters. He can be reached at joe.klemmer@us.army.mil.mil.

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