As with many cool and scary things, it usually starts as SF, then somebody in a little office in DC or Crystal City says, "You know, you could probably do that..."And, all too often, that little somebody has no idea what fresh hell. . .
A habit of highly successful Large and Powerful Entities (governments, corporations, Facebook) is the collection of pet geniuses, essentially nerds of various disciplines who can be tossed problems or thought experiments and be counted on to puzzle them out without consideration of down-the-line implications.
Want to spy on everybody in the world? Ask the Poindexter in cubicle 3212 about it. Got a hankering to shut down a power grid? Old Weird Annie loves that kind of problem. Death Star? Shelled HIV? There's a geek for that.
I've encountered a couple of these caged problem solvers, from the hippies who solved the UPC scanner for three dimensional objects to the guy who brought you the ATM.
And, of course, Uncle Bob.
Uncle Bob was a cliche New Englander, strait-laced and wound a bit tight, who had an uncanny knack for imagining molecules. He came to DC during the Second World War and was quickly snapped up by the bunch occupying Dumbarton Oaks at the time where, I'm told, his contributions to the war effort were invaluable.
By the time I came along, Uncle Bob worked, ostensibly, for the Library of Congress, which is where he indeed drove every morning. Still, things said by his card-playing buddies (they called him "Napalm Bob") made me wonder how much of his job had to do with shelving books and how much to do with... other stuff.
Like every other alumni of Donovan's office I've encountered, Bob wouldn't say word one about anything he'd ever done for the government, but some folks who'd known him well told me he was a genius at envisioning what kind of molecule you'd have to synthesize to yield the results required. He was especially good, I was told, at stuff that burned. That, and his DIA ID (I peeked), made me wonder if his nickname wasn't really more of a title than a joke.
Bob likely knew why he was asked to come up with things that burned and went blooey, but pet geniuses don't really have to know what ends they serve. For them, the problems are the ends, the thrill of cracking a good, hard, intractable puzzle.
"I just send zem up/I don't care where they come down/Zat's not my department"
The problem for the rest of us is that, even the pets' masters can't really predict to what uses their charges' breakthroughs might be put. Not even project principals know. Do you think Alexander Bell envisioned, as he called out for Mr. Watson, that your dinner would be interrupted by a robocall from "Heather from Card Services?"
No matter how specific the problem, or how limited in scope the pet's flash of insight, the great god Unintended Consequences always waits.
Which brings me to my last bit of family history, the story of How My Dad Invented the Mark of the Beast.
When I was growing up and people asked, "What does your father do?" I would tend to mystify them with the response: "He's a programmer and systems analyst." In an age when every computer's name ended in "AC" and Hollerith-style punch cards were an efficient data storage format, "programmer and systems analyst" was gibberish to most folks.
But that's indeed what he was and what he did, mostly for MIC projects through his job at Systems Development Corporation, where his work on the original ARPANET led, eventually, to my being able to post this story on a "blog" called "DailyKos."
His MIC work wasn't only secondhand, though, as he also worked directly for the Navy, being a busy reservist to the end of his days (final rank Lt. Cmdr). While he preferred ship duty and did boast some interesting Cold War adventures (I'm told his was one of the last ships through the Suez before Nasser nationalized it, provoking the Crisis), his skills doomed him to a life of anonymous slogging in BuPers (Bureau of Personnel).
One evening, he came home from BuPers and told my mom, "I might have done something bad." When she asked what, he said he'd been in his office when his commanding officer looked in and said, "How would you design a universal taxpayer ID number system for the IRS?"
Dad, you see, being a 'puter nerd, was the equivalent of the Poindexter in cubicle 3212 for not only the Navy, but any government agency with pressing data management problems. Guys like him were always tossed puzzles by their superiors, who loved showing off their dancing bears.
That afternoon, when the IRS numbering question was asked, he tossed out the first thing that went through his head: "Well, why not just use Social Security numbers? Everybody's signing up for them."
Unlike many pets, Dad realized almost instantly the sorts of abuses that could come from a universal, cross-referable ID number, hence his rather shaken visage when my mom asked, "How was work today?"
So, should some nefarious sort ever get hold of your social and go romping through a zillion accounts and databases, scamming and hustling and generally making your life a living hell, you can thank my dad, pet genius.
With all the talk these days of dystopian tech and Big Brother government beyond Orwell's worst nightmares, I couldn't help but reflect on the stories of inevitable unintended consequences I've known, and wondered what the little nerdlet who came up with the latest keyword-search algorithm might be feeling now.
If there's any moral to the story, perhaps it's