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Weekly Column

Mean Time Between Failures: We need a search engine for hate.

Status: [CLOSED] comments (113)
By Robert X. Cringely

Last week's shooting tragedy at Virginia Tech brought back memories for me -- memories I would rather had remained forgotten. Twenty-five years ago I was teaching at Stanford University and one of my students was clearly disturbed. I don't want to dwell too much on the details, but from the beginning there was something odd about him. Then the women in the class began to complain about the kind of attention he was paying to them. The last straw came when he submitted to me a paper that had been plagiarized.

I went to my department chairman, who said I should confront the student about his paper. But how do you confront someone who comes late to class (if at all), leaves early, and won't speak or make eye contact? Eventually the case was referred back to his dean (this was a graduate student), who took no action for several weeks, until the academic year was almost up, and then decided to expel him.

Expel? I never asked for that. It seemed a harsh punishment, so I interceded with the dean and was told the student could graduate but only if I was satisfied with his work. Facing expulsion, he spoke to me for the first time.

People smoked back then and I remember this young man sitting in my office chain-smoking. He would light each cigarette from the butt of the one before it and each smoke lasted almost exactly a minute. I didn't even think that was possible until I saw it.

He begged me to pass him with a 'D' but my terms were firm. He had to complete on his own the paper he had copied and I had to be satisfied that the place where he was going (an internship) knew what they were getting. The night before graduation I sat up with him as he finally finished the paper, graduated, and left my life.

Then the letters began.

I had ruined his life, he wrote to me every few days. It was all my fault -- whatever "it" was.

The year before, a math professor had been murdered with a hammer as he worked in his office late one night, the victim of a former graduate student. I worked late nights, too. My friend Kirk, who was Doug Engelbart's research assistant, rented a room in the math professor's house and I remembered Kirk preemptively harvesting his marijuana crop from the garden when he heard the police were on their way over. That was mildly amusing at the time, but not anymore. As each letter arrived, I became more nervous at work and the building at night seemed to make noises it never had before.

Then the letters ended. My former student had committed suicide, jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. His father was the mayor of Palo Alto, so of course there was a story in the local paper and an obituary, both wondering how a young man of such accomplishment could come to end his life that way. But I knew.

People fail just like machines do. We break for any number of reasons -- mechanical failure, fatigue, bad programming. But unlike machines, people are not subject to statistical quality control, though maybe they should be. There are probably signs of impending failure we could see if we were looking. Only we don't look, because it never seemed necessary.

What has changed is the failure mode. Twenty-five years ago the failure mode was an unhappy kid killing himself. Today the failure mode is an unhappy kid killing himself and killing 32 other people, too. The stakes are higher but we haven't really taken that into account in the way we, as institutions and adults, respond to these threats.

Imagine how differently you would react if a hard disk head crash in your laptop could not just destroy data but also trigger a small nuclear explosion. I would give up computers entirely.

If the failure mode has changed but the institutions that are supposed to be paying attention haven't, well the only good news is that the rest of us are in a lot better position to pay attention than we were in the past. The Columbine shooters had a web site, you'll recall, that pretty much telegraphed their murderous intentions, and the school knew about it. Virginia Tech, too, became a multimedia extravaganza, though a bit too late. The fact is that these alienated kids are generally not into denying their alienation. They shout it. And more and more they'll be shouting it on the Internet.

There are Internet start-ups scouring the web by the hundreds right now looking for every imaginable form of content or commercial intention, but I'm guessing there isn't a single spider program specifically dragging back signs of hate. Why not? Search the web for hate and vitriol and despair, do some clever parsing and analysis to figure out the where and when, then throw a mapping mashup interface on it all with the simple goal of giving school principals and baseball coaches and worried moms and dads a place to look for trouble brewing in their schools, towns or neighborhoods.

It wouldn't violate privacy, free speech, or any laws because everything searchable on the web is public anyway. IT COULD EVEN BE SUPPORTED BY ADVERTISING. It would be like the program that is supposed to warn you when your hard drive is about to die, only applied to our culture.

It would probably save lives.

Comments from the Tribe

Status: [CLOSED] read all comments (113)

No need to have a search engine. Just record the IP of everyone who visits Tech Central Station.

A student I have been worried about asked if he could write about Sean Hannity. The student thought it would satisfy the assignment requirement: find a site on the internet that was put up with the intent to help mankind in a significant way by someone who is offering the fruit of his/her research in a selfless way. I'm thinking health, housing, or food and he's thinking some oddball thing stuffed into his head by a professional troll.

Bob Calder | May 04, 2007 | 8:01PM

Yes, I agree, what we need is a computer that monitors the activities of all human beings, constantly scanning for aberrant behavior or attitudes.

We should start by compiling a list of telltale behaviors that indicate mentally instability.

Here are my two contributions for the nutcase behavior list:

1) People who file law suits against their previous employers to retain use of a nom de plume when they don't feel comfortable of using their real name of Mark Stephens.

2) Claiming to have a Ph.D when you don't.

Fissile | May 09, 2007 | 8:53AM

Hmm. Isn't it funny that this happens a lot in your country? So, instead of creating your high tech surveillance thingie you should struggle to understand why is it that your "hard drive" burns out so often.

By the way, people are not hard drives.

Daniel | May 10, 2007 | 2:15PM