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Lost transactions

When information is lost in a sea of transactions, so are valuable individual perspectives. Pursuits hed: Lost transactions dek: when information is lost in a sea of transactions, so are valuable individual perspectives. by Nelson King

Perhaps only in a speeded-up technological world can the events of history happen faster than change in technology. Maybe that’s why I’m writing this column during the first dark days after Sept. 11th and I have no idea what the world will be like when it appears six weeks later. Yet I feel compelled to write.

We can thank the computer for much of the increased speed of life. I would argue that most of this is a result of the computer’s ability to rapidly process transactions–billions and billions of transactions. You buy a shirt and a computer somewhere records what you bought, what you paid, and often, who you are–a transaction captured in great detail. The transaction is a guarantee that you pay your money and you get your goods.

Without computers–with their inhuman speed and capacity–we would not have the modern stock market, credit cards, or in fact, many essential aspects of retail and commercial trade. Anytime there are too many transactions or other operations for humans to handle, we rely on computers. At a thousand points–most of them one kind of transaction or another–computers and telecommunications make things move more smoothly and rapidly. Generally, they do a magnificent job helping to keep our economy humming, unless somebody cuts the power.

In a sense, the World Trade Center buildings were towers of transactions. They would not have existed if it weren’t for the money made in billions of daily transactions in stocks, bonds, commodities, inventory, and other appurtenances of a global economy–all of it made possible and facilitated by computers and communications. When those buildings descended into dust, we lost the records of many transactions from the past. We also lost the transactions of the moment. Then we lost days of transactions. I know these are not the most important losses, but bear with me. Because of these lost transactions, we will lose billions more future transactions in the form of business that will not take place, such as people not booking flights on commercial airlines. In a sense, the loss of transactions is a barometer of the wounded economy.

Most individual transactions are routine and impartial. Computers record them, store them, and eventually are capable of disgorging the consolidated record for people who need to interpret them. It’s the analysis and interpretation that turns the billions of data bits into information, some of it vital. Business people continually review the flow of transactions to monitor financial status and analyze business trends. A lot of work done in the World Trade Center was of just that kind.

I bring this up to frame a parallel line of thought about the intelligence agencies, which have become increasingly fond of using high technology to monitor billions of phone calls, faxes, broadcasts, and electronic emissions. In a similar fashion to analyzing business transactions, the goal seems to be to sift through the consolidated data and read the comings and goings of criminals and evildoers. The United States spent more than $25 billion last year on espionage, much of it going for high-tech methods such as satellite observation and communications monitoring.

This approach to intelligence starts with billions (if not trillions) of data items, and uses computers to find things in them that are interesting from the point of view of national security or whatever agenda happens to be operative at the time. Using computers to help filter and flag items that match some kind of criteria, people interpret the information. I think it is fair to say that by the standards of our results-oriented society, U.S. intelligence entities dropped the ball.

Let me speculate: It is plausible that while a lot of our intelligence resources were spent chasing data points in the ether, we had almost nobody watching the people. We could see the terrorist training camps from space. We didn’t have enough (or any) people in the camps. We profiled an average terrorist. We knew little about specific terrorists–including Osama bin Laden. We didn’t successfully track enough terrorist individuals. In the end, we were surprised by what they could do.

Experts were concerned about what terrorists could do based on what they had done in the past. I heard this over and over. Nobody expected these tactics. Terrorists are supposed to be young, crazy, and operating in their own country. These terrorists were of many ages, educated, and middle-class, long having lived away from home. They more or less fit into American society–one even owned a red convertible. How did we not know these kinds of people were being put into position, even if we didn’t know the details?

This happens in business, too. A company sees its business booming in one region, but doesn’t notice the climbing payroll costs or the corruption that eventually causes bankruptcy because nobody really knows the key people in that region. I worked for a company whose owners religiously studied daily and monthly reports, but failed to notice until it was too late that managers in one state got a million dollars in inventory to leave at night by the back door. While the information provided by computer reports can be helpful and at times revelatory, if the right questions aren’t asked, or the wrong perspective is used, obvious things can be missed.

In a way, the problem is the reverse of the old cliché: They can’t tell the trees for the forest. Thanks to computers, there is a constant dynamic between dealing with people in the aggregate (our customers) and as individuals (Jane Smith, one of our customers). Marketing people are becoming increasingly aware that successful businesses get beyond the generic appraisal of customer transactions and tend to approach customers one at a time. Those who make good business decisions should be agile at alternating between use of generic, aggregate information and information about individuals.

I bring this up because in the context of striking back at terrorists much the same situation exists. Given the current state of our information (which is very incomplete, especially about individuals), how do we deal with those who should and must be brought to justice without harming the largely innocent people around them? Do the governments of the world go into countries and apprehend individuals, or do they drop bombs to accomplish the same effect with the risk that innocent people will be killed?

Unfortunately, there’s no question that gathering relevant information about individuals and their activities is much harder than gathering generic information. Then there is the question of interpretation. I recall Attorney General John Ashcroft putting out a public call for people who can speak Arabic or Farsi, implying that a lot more should be done to translate those languages, but intelligence agencies hasn’t been in a position to do so. I wonder how many people are available to interpret the information–and in fact, present competing views so that decisions can be made using a variety of perspectives.

It seems to me that weighing alternatives, understanding the different forces at work, using both generic and detailed information, and evaluating conflicting points of view are all part of what could be called the civilized way of working. It stands in stark contrast to authoritarian methods (whether religious or governmental), or the mindless expediency of those who will use what are called lumping fallacies: All Muslims are potential terrorists, just as all blacks are potential criminals or all Italians are potential Mafia members.

To end on a personal note, on Sept. 12, I received this e-mail from my wife, who is working in Europe:

“Here in Riga, Latvia there is a freedom statue, a woman standing on a tall pillar with her hands upraised and holding three stars, sort of the equivalent to the American Statue of Liberty. The locals affectionately call her Milda. Every year at the anniversary of Latvia’s freedom from the Soviet empire, people come to lay flowers at Milda’s feet to commemorate friends and family lost during the Nazi and Soviet occupations. At that time, as a country of then less than 2 million, 350,000 were sent to Siberia by the Soviets; 41,000 eventually returned. The Nazis murdered 40,000 Jews. There are a lot of flowers. This is a tiny country that has known much grief, but their hearts are generous. Today the Latvians began laying flowers not for Latvians but for Americans in New York and Washington D.C. Some of them were crying. I cried, too.”

Shock, loss, grief, anger–like most people, I’ve run the gamut. Perhaps we should take a moment to lay flowers at the foot of the Statue of Liberty and remember all that she represents.

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