Of firewalls and fish and lock-ins

James E. Robinson, III:

Give a kid a firewall and you protect him for a day. Teach a kid to surf and you protect him for a lifetime

In so many places and in so many ways we have to stop the give-mode and move on to the teach-mode. In a completely different context, sometimes I think we get the whole concept of aid wrong as a result: how many studies do we have to read that tell us that a dollar of trade is worth a hundred dollars of aid?

Giving per se is not a bad thing. I tend to think of human beings as fundamentally altruistic rather than selfish, man is a social animal. But sometimes, the process of giving actually creates a dependency; instead, we should be concentrating on developing the people we give to, be it in the classroom or even in emerging nations.

Way back in 1974, I remember a maths teacher of mine telling the class, upon meeting them for the first time:

From today, you will impress me, not by the answers you give, but by the questions you ask

It’s all about education, access, empowerment and opportunity. Whether in education, enterprise or government, the answer’s the same. The web provides us immense opportunity to extend all this. Unless we continue to get it wrong in the context of Identity, Intellectual Property and the Internet (which we are wont to do).

10 thoughts on “Of firewalls and fish and lock-ins”

  1. I learned very early on that I could not prevent my children from falling off their bicycles. Sidewalks and roadways are unforgiving places. Should I forbid bicycles because I cannot defeat the Law of Gravity?

    We taught our children very early that there were places and people on the net that they must be very wary of. We taught them about personal privacy and the need to protect it.

    Finally and most importantly we did not condemn or chastise our children for mistyped URL or unsolicited pop-ups – we merely reinforced that there are people and places that they should be very wary of.

    Subsequently my children have demonstrated good common sense and appropriate use of the Internet. They now have a useful and rich tool as a resource instead of a forbidden playground full of temptations.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. As a person who works with organisations helping them deal with issues about being involved in the online world, I am quite often asked what I think of, for example, filtering – both at the corporate firewall and of the home network. In each case my answer is the same – don’t.

    Now, that’s a little simplistic, and I follow with information on teaching people – whether they are your staff or your children – on appropriate usage, proper supervision if needed and openness. My 9yo daughter, a digital native, now uses the Internet daily. She’s never inadvertently come across inappropriate material. She’s never introduced a virus or spyware to our home network. She is strongly empowered through her use of the richest information resource in the world (even if learning about High School Musical 2 and the latest Hannah Montana episodes are what she’d rather be looking at).

  3. I have two questions that probably brand me as a reactionary. (1) Why is it that when unrestricted comment is permitted on any subject on www – from Potter books to Youtube – so many of the resultant comments are illiterate and/or foul-mouthed? (2) Does it matter?

  4. David, I think the answer to your first question resides in the “Thermodynamic Theory of Stupidity,” which is based on the fundamental premise that stupid behavior is entropic. Consistent with the laws of thermodynamics, it cannot decrease nor can it be held at a steady level; so it can only increase! Entropy can only be reversed by a Maxwell’s Demon, and no such Demon exists when there is a large population contributing unrestricted comments. Does it matter? I suppose it matters that we are REDISCOVERING it, since it had previously been observed in user behavior on Usenet, which is why I have been making such a big deal about being better informed about Usenet history!


  5. Can we modify the quote? “Teach a kid to surf with discretion…” or something like that?

    The other possible modification is the one discovered by the One Laptop Per Child program: “Give a kid a firewall and you protect him for a day. Teach a kid to surf and he will access porn for a lifetime.”

    Kudos to you, Stephen, for your work with your daughter — if children don’t know appropriate behavior, no amount of filtering and firewalls can protect them.

  6. This is a *great* post – thank you for clarifying something that’s been bothering me since I heard this: My wife’s family (USA) are fundamentalist Baptists (she’s one of 10, and all the others are passing it on to their kids). One of her brother’s two kids (17 and 19 YO) are college age and are attending a Christian college. Here’s what surprised me: The college has internet filters in place to protect against “objectionable” content!

    Fits right into your quote – these kids have been so thoroughly “protected” from the world, that they’ve (temporarily, hopefully) lost the ability to think for themselves – dependent, as you put it.

    The fundamental emotion their parents and religion deal with is fear – mostly fear of the unknown or different. The former is to be avoided, and the latter avoided or converted (to their brand). As an atheist uncle, I’m clearly in the to-fear category.

    Sorry for the long comment – you hit a nerve. Thanks again!

  7. On a similar vein, I remember being quite frustrated at the amount of time and effort expended on Sarbanes-Oxley “compliance”. In fact, many would contend that Enron was Sarbanes-Oxley compliant!

    Legislation is a poor substitute for morals, ethics and values. Systems-driven constraints on behaviour are an even poorer substitute.

    What children need is time. Time with their parents, time with their peers, time with people who will build them up and encourage them and help shape them. Time with people who will teach them how to fish.

    This is no holier-than-thou comment, I am still personally learning about this, as I strive to give my wife and children the time they deserve. [I still shudder, still see myself in the mirror, when I hear Harry Chapin’s Cat’s In the Cradle).

    The One Laptop Per Child example cited by Kaila is at first glance worrying. But upon reflection, my contention would be that it wouldn’t have happened if the children had been taught the right way. Which includes active and supportive supervision in the early stages.

  8. JP, you are, of course, right that legislation is a poor substitute for morals, ethics, and values; but, to paraphrase a Hasidic saying about the First Commandment, morals, ethics, and values are just too much for all of us “ordinary folks.” (Hell, they have been too much for over two thousand years’ worth of philosophers!) So it is that we stumble over those same fundamental questions of governance that continue to pop up when we encounter not only pornography but also death threats in cyberspace. Of course the philosophers have done no better with governance than they have with morals, ethics, and values; and, at least at the level of collecting case data, we seem to be recognizing that systems require regulatory mechanisms and that self-regulation tends to look better in theory than in practice (at least when we look at the dynamics of large populations, rather than conscientious individuals).

Let me know what you think

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