Computer-Based Faith
By A. D. Freudenheim

15 October 2000

Increasingly, more - and more varied - aspects of our lives become dependent upon computers. Typically, this dependence takes the form of relying on the information computers provide, either because of their ability to process large amounts of data rapidly, or because they facilitate communication. With this reliance must come a certain amount of both trust and responsibility: we trust that the information the computer feeds us is reliable; we must be responsible about how we program the computer, and then use the information. When things go wrong, however, our tendency as humans is to blame the machines rather than ourselves. We do ourselves a disservice by ignoring the fact that the computer's accuracy - as well as its mistakes - is ultimately our responsibility.

On 26 September, the government's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released a report showing that the Consumer Price Index (CPI), a statistical measurement of inflation, rose 2.7% this year - not the previously-reported 2.6%. The miscalculation was the result of a computer error. Katharine Abraham, the Commissioner of Labor Statistics, said that the miscalculations had been happening since January 1999, but that the BLS would not attempt to revise figures further back in time because it would be too "disruptive to the whole gamut of users…"[1] Yet anyone who has a grasp of basic math, can see that a deviation of even several 10ths of a percentage point can have a significant financial impact over time. The Social Security Administration, for example, reported that if they were forced to revise their payments based on this increase in the CPI, annual outlays would go up by some $400 million.[2] The issue of accuracy is relevant precisely because numbers like the CPI's are used to calculate other things - such as, in this example, the cost-of-living increases that should be given to Social Security recipients.

Around the same time, news broke that a 15-year-old named Jonathan Lebed had made an agreement with the Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) to settle charges that he had falsely and illegally manipulated stock prices for his own personal gain. Investigators determined that Lebed used his father's online brokerage accounts to buy stock; he then went into online chat rooms populated by other traders, and spread misinformation about the target companies and their stock price. When the stock prices rose, he sold his shares, making significant profits.

What's compelling about these two stories, and what binds them together, is the implicit - but mostly unexplored - commentary on our relationship with technology. The coverage of the CPI story barely acknowledged that the computer error must originally have been a human error; it's simpler just to blame the computer. (The Washington Post, to its credit, attempted - unsuccessfully - to address these issues.[3]) In the case of Lebed, the coverage focused mostly on his age and his status as the first minor ever accused of illegal stock manipulation by the SEC.[*] Of secondary interest to the coverage was Lebed's use of these chat rooms. Rather than critically viewing the ease with which Lebed was able to mislead people, his chat room manipulations and use of online brokerage firms made him another internet prodigy, albeit a deceitful and manipulative one. Newsweek even said he had "cachet: he knew how to make big money on the internet."[4]

We cannot escape personal responsibility for our individual and societal use of technology. We rely on computers, and the information they provide, but we cannot let that information rule us, and we can never forget that - for now, anyway - the computers do not make their own decisions. The responsibility is ours at each moment in the information cycle: to ensure that we have made the machines capable of functioning properly; to be sure that the information we enter is correct; to be sure the results are accurate; and to take care that we use those results appropriately. Reliable information is available, but in order to look for it you need an emotional distance, a critical intellectual understanding of the value of information. This perspective seems to be eroding. Blaming computers for the CPI error, and pinning Lebed's story to the internet, is unacceptable. It is merely an excuse, avoiding responsibility. The technology may have enabled these situations - but it is not responsible for them. Let's not forget this while we can still dictate the outcome of the situation ourselves; soon, we may not have the chance.

[1]As quoted in The Washington Post, "Rent Error Leads to Revision of the CPI," 29 September 2000, Financial Section, Page E3.
[2]The New York Times, "U.S. Adjusts Inflation Rate Upward for A Small Error," 28 September 2000, Business Desk, Section C, Page 6.
[3]See, for example, note 1 above, or "Inflation Higher Than Reported; Revised Price Index Will Boost Benefits," 27 September 2000, Financial Section, Page E1.
[4]Newsweek, "A Shark in Kid's Clothes," 2 October 2000, Page 50.
[*]All comments here are in the context of the allegations against him as they were reported, and are not to be taken as further accusations by me or by this web site. Lebed settled his claim without admitting guilt.
Copyright 2000, by A. D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired!