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Real life, why people escape it – and bringing them back

Dec 21, 201811 mins
Data and Information SecurityEmerging TechnologyIT Leadership

Security isn’t just about technology - that's only 10% of the total solution. Most of what we try and do is build awareness and communication between our team members and the rest of the company. And that requires being active social participants in the organization.

Real life is difficult.  It’s tedious, filled with peaks of excitement, troughs of desperation, and long valleys of sameness.  It’s also filled with repetitive tasks. Due to the modernization of the labor force, cooperative and social work has been replaced with men and women interfacing with machines or having them as communication intermediaries. Consensus and collaboration have been replaced with ones and zeroes, decision trees, and metrics.

This is not only true for work, but also for education. What Fredric Taylor started to measure work performance and timing has evolved, and now we’re getting to the point where we measure everything about the workday and work habits, even if someone’s working remotely.

A history of gradual isolation

What this leads to is a sense of profound isolation, and for many, a loss of what it means to be human and alive. This is not how our ancestors lived.  Even without technology, people collaborated and cooperated.  When the first technological communities, such as Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs), CompuServe, Quantum Link (pre-AOL), Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs), and Internet Relay Chat (IRC) came about, one of the first things each did was to provide some sort of replacement for social communities outside the computer realm. 

CB Simulator and Club Caribe from Quantum Link and MUDs, amongst others, provided those escapist fantasies.  Instead of sitting isolated in the computer lab late at night, or working on an assignment or experiment, you could be transported off to another world and be someone else different, and virtually live a different life.  Many people I knew from college flunked out after discovering either MUDs, IRC, or both. 

This evolved to Second Life, Everquest, Ultima Online and many of the Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (MMORPGs) we have today, such as World of Warcraft.  This can also include Fortnite, PUBG, Call of Duty and social media.  The next generation of this is virtual reality, which will soon be powerful and small enough to be fully immersive.

What have we created?

We’ve managed to create a substitute for reality without the direct human communication and social cues.  This disconnects us from the rest of humanity, and causes people to feel more lonely, isolated, and alone.  It also leaves many with a lack of empathy, understanding, or ability to separate real-life experiences and people from their virtual equivalents.  All the while, the technology around us serves as a gigantic Skinner Box used to measure our conditioning and quantify our behavior and response. 

We’ve managed to create generations of people who respond better to technologies than their peers, who are measured on engagement with technology, and who are, in reality, in a gigantic video game.  As the past few years have shown, we’ve had significant decay socially because of this.  Violent video games, according to Sestir and Bartholow, in their paper “Violent and nonviolent video games produce opposing effects on aggressive and prosocial outcomes,” increase aggressiveness.  Anger and aggressiveness, as I’ve written about before, increase engagement, and ironically, make people buy more. 

We’ve also substituted technology for parenthood and extended family interaction.  Over the past 30-40 years, the cost of living has increased so much that both parents have to work, and there are also a significant number of single parents.  This means that we have a number of children being left to their own devices with little to no supervision, and little control over what they do or access since security is expensive and obstructive for content blocking, and realistically, many people don’t do it. 

We also remove degrees of social interaction in other ways.  With the emphasis on mobility of families for jobs, extended and close social interactions with close relatives and parents as part of the immediate social circle has decreased.  As this has happened, the number of elderly and older relatives staying with their children or grandchildren has decreased.  Facetime and Facebook don’t provide adequate substitutes for close interaction.  This potentially leads to more isolation.

What are the effects?

If we make people the hero of their own little world, it gives people more reason to stay.  In the real world, they feel like they are nothing.  In the computer world, they’re actually something.  We have generations of people now who have significant accomplishments online in virtual worlds, and almost none to speak of outside of them.  This also leads to people who promise to keep the world the same or enhance personal experiences as being in charge, as opposed to overall improvement of society as a whole, because people can’t (or won’t) see outside their immediate world view.

The algorithms that are used to keep people engaged and keep that positive response don’t have feelings, empathy, or understanding.  They just understand that giving more like content means that people spend more time on the site, click more ads, or buy more items to quest on further.  Keeping people angry, distracted, detached, and responding to stimuli without major consequences is now big business.  Keeping them the hero of their story in a narrative that has them triumphing over the mundane and vanquishing/eliminating their foes dehumanizes those they think are different and lowers the barriers for hatred and resentment.  Keeping them in a tunnel where their actions rid the world of evildoers and bring them fame, praise, and victory will keep them engaged, less likely to leave, and more likely to lash out at those that interfere with it or cause withdrawal. 

This leads to minor instances and issues that would otherwise be resolved in minutes in real life, such as losing a video game, having violent consequences because people become so angry and visceral at any interference with stimuli that they fake hostage situations so that SWAT teams attack them, sometimes with tragic consequences, organize Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks on people or companies they don’t like, hack websites that criticize them, and violently oppose and attack others with differing points of view, beliefs, genders, or skin color, such as with GamerGate and Charlottesville.  The increased detachment leads to more anger and less empathy.

This also leads to people that can be more easily manipulated based on stimuli.  If you easily understand what makes people tick, how to make them angry, and how to provide positive stimuli to them, you can direct them to do what you want.  It doesn’t have to be conscious.

Was Walter Mitty an infosec professional?

“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is a short story about a man leading a normal, albeit boring, life, who is triggered by external stimuli he observes on a shopping trip to have realistic daydream fantasies about leading a more exciting life than the one he has.  This reflects an escape from his boring life.

We see the combination of both detachment and loss of emotion/empathy/hope and need to have an escape from the drudgery of normal life and technology in Information Security, much like Walter Mitty.    

Information security isn’t always exciting.  It’s frustrating.  We fight for budgets with everyone else and often lose.  We are understaffed and underpaid.  We have customers who do not understand what we do.  The lack of understanding is often a gulf between cybersecurity, the IT department, and the rest of the organization.  Work that should be getting done, such as organization-wide risk assessments, insider threat analysis, or data exfiltration analysis, often dies on the vine due to lack of support or understanding.  There is an undercurrent of anger and resentment with many cybersecurity professionals, and a lack of empathy toward their peers. 

There is also the constant fear of losing jobs, standing, or getting large fines from data breaches or hacks.  The fear of fines from the Office of Civil Rights, in particular, is pervasive in healthcare organizations.

The current focus on cybersecurity products and stopping foreign threat actors is a Walter Mitty daydream.  No matter how exciting we try to make it, cybersecurity is a lot of repetitive daily work and process with some exciting points, and more than a few troughs of depression.  We’re not going to be stopping Russian FSB agents or North Korean military hackers every day with our tools.  However, the marketing and materials from many companies resemble marketing for video games, with an emphasis of stopping foreign actors with just one click. 

In healthcare, marketing for many companies could be replaced with a role-playing game where one plays the hero striking down the big bad evil OCR.

With cloud computing and modern technology, we have people who lose focus and think they are changing paradigms when they lose focus on the customer and the why of what we do.

We make people the hero of their own narrative, and despite the rest of the organization having issues, giving them a sense of accomplishment and happiness, albeit undeserved.  We turn security into a video game that addresses one minor piece of the puzzle.  We ignore our customers, and worse, give them bad service that leads to us addressing what we think are the issues, but really don’t.

What can we do?  How can we change this?

We need to be realistic about how we structure and manage our organizations. 

We need to focus on getting people to engage outside of the computer or phone.

This is hard work, because you have to construct substitutes for the social structures that once existed in abundance.  You have to give of yourself to give others a reason to get out of the “bubble” and get them interacting.  A major focus that we have is providing that opportunity for everyone and getting them out and interacting with the rest of the team.  We don’t want people on web conferences.  We want them interacting in real life, giving them a chance to meet their peers and understanding their needs.  We’ve observed that a real-life meeting with participants reduces fear and uncertainty, and that making the effort to approach someone and interact with them in their territory is a chance for everyone to learn.  We have to emphasize in-person interactions and making that extra effort to understand customer needs.

Security isn’t just about technology.  We consider it to be approximately 10% of the total solution.  Most of what we try and do is build direct awareness and communication between our team members and the rest of the organization.  We want people calling us.  That doesn’t happen without people being active social participants in the organization.

The more we focus on the technology and security events, the less we focus on customer needs and about what their real mission is.  If we don’t address why social isolation and customer hostility occur, then we will see more of the same no matter who works in security. 

To do this, we need to help people understand what is important, and put systems in place that reward team members for social interaction, customer service, planning, and communication.  We want people to call us, and to feel comfortable doing so.  We need to realize we are dealing with people on their worst days, and that we need to be empathetic about that.  We also need to understand we deal with human beings, not nameless computers or applications, and that change starts with the person.  Most important is for us to emphasize the rewards in real life vs. on a computer console.   This means phone calls instead of emails or texts, and real-life interaction whenever possible.

We have grown up with technology.  It has caused a palpable loss of humanity.  Just because it’s been lost doesn’t mean that it can’t come back better than before.  What we need to do is to emphasize the humanity in what we do and get out of the bubble and into the real world. 

This holiday season, write a few cards, hand them out, and say thank you. Set the example for your team, even if you aren’t the boss.  Reach out and be nice to someone.  Show them that there’s more to life than a narrow focus, and that the rewards far outstrip any rewards you get in a game or online.

The best gift you can give everyone is to be the person who makes the change and improves the world around them.  Hacker Secret Santa comes a close second.

Happy Holidays to all my readers.  Thank you for a great 2018.


Mitchell Parker, CISSP, is the Executive Director, Information Security and Compliance, at Indiana University Health in Indianapolis. Mitch is currently working on redeveloping the Information Security program at IU Health, and regularly works with multiple non-technology stakeholders to improve it. He also speaks regularly at multiple conferences and workshops, including HIMSS, IEEE TechIgnite, and Internet of Medical Things.

Mitch has a Bachelor's degree in Computer Science from Bloomsburg University, a MS in Information Technology Leadership from LaSalle University, and his MBA from Temple University.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of Mitchell Parker and do not necessarily represent those of IDG Communications, Inc., its parent, subsidiary or affiliated companies.