Which are the most dangerous digital divides?

In 1968 I joined STC Microwave and Line Division as their first graduate trainee computer prgrammer and found myself in a hostel of communications engineers. They too were programming computers, but they called them switches. “Mine” had an air-conditioned room and spent a day a week off-air for “maintenance”. “Theirs” were going to sit on a mountaintop in Brazil and be visited once a year, if that.  

We assumed the cultural divide between our two disciplines would fade away over time as the technology got more reliable.

In 1994 the Fderation of the Electronics Industries and EURIM organised a two day conference on ther Digital Information Revolution in Westminster Central Hall – opened by the Duke of Kent, followed by the President of the Board of Trade and a galaxy of chief executives, from users like NatWest and Reuters through network operators, broadcasters and suppliers.

The theme was covergence. I remember listening to delegates celebrating the coming together, “now we understood where each other is coming from”. They had not even understood each other sufficiently to realise that they were using the same words in completely different contexts, masking fundamental differences of approach.

Until this morning I thought we had made reasonable progress in bridging the cultural gulf between the computing and communications professions.

Then a very eminent figure in the “systems engineering” world said he had not heard of X805, the emerging ITU “standard” for auditing complex “telecommunications” networks. He then quoted a four year old review to dismiss it as complex and muddled.  

It rocked me.

Then I thought of a recent discussion on the claimed resilience of a network where it transpired than one side had no knowledge of the physical infrastructure over which it ran and no concept that this might negate the resilience they were assuming from their use of a variety of IP-based products and services. All their alternative network paths passed through a handfull of “single points of failure”: vulnerable to a lightning strike or JCB operator, let alone flood, fire or power failure.   

The contrast between the belt, braces and, if all else fails, bits of string approach of the telecoms engineer to resilience and that of the computer man remains.

On the one side – “the signal must get through – by semaphore if necessary”. On the other side, “system down – not our fault: that’s hardware, we mathematically proved the specification and implementation”.

By comparison the cultural divide between politicians and techies is far less dangerous in a world that is coming to depend ever more on the latter, as its trust in the former collapses.