Heroes who work behind the scenes

Some things in this world are just too horrific to think about until they actually happen. Even then, it is only our enduring need to put events into some larger context that eventually forces us to make the attempt.

Some things in this world are just too horrific to think about until they actually happen. Even then, it is only our enduring need to put events into some larger context that eventually forces us to make the attempt.

Recent tragic events have swept the IT community along with everyone else as we all try to respond in a meaningful manner to what are only the latest terrible acts of senseless cruelty. As with any tragedy, heroes great and small emerge, ranging from the people on United flight 93 bound for San Francisco and the other flights, to the people presumed dead on the ground, and finally to the hundreds of thousands of people who have responded to a national emergency.

Among the smaller heroes of this tragedy are the IT people helping to coordinate emergency relief efforts. They earn comparatively low salaries at organisations including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the American Red Cross, the Office of Technology for New York City, and of course the police and fire departments for the city of New York.

To facilitate the efforts of hundreds of thousands of relief workers, these people had to help create a logistical support network capable of tracking tons of incoming material and supplies where virtually no systems had been in place before.

Meanwhile, IT people in the financial services industry, which bore the brunt of the attacks in New York, worked feverishly during the past week to rebuild the technology infrastructure. These people tend to be the best and brightest in our industry -- and trading began this week largely due to their efforts. Worrying about whether people can conduct financial transactions at this time may not seem like a priority, but in the face of terrorism the most important thing is to return to some level of normalcy as quickly as possible. Things will never be the same again, but the longer it takes to recover, the greater the terror. For that reason, the people rebuilding the global financial networks are heroes, too.

Of course, in the wake of this disaster we can't help but ponder what role technology will play as we adapt to a new view of the world. Obviously technology can help make us more secure and help track down the people who would commit such deeds. But there is much more going on here than a war against terrorists. In fact, it really isn't a war in the conventional sense. Rather, it's a long-term struggle against ignorance and fear. People resort to violence when they are afraid. And the only way to combat fear is by disseminating information. Sharing information creates knowledge, which leads to understanding and ultimately peace and prosperity. And prosperous people usually don't feel the need to make war.

In the long term, the most important thing IT people can do to make the world a more stable place is to think of ways to make it easier for average people worldwide to access information. That means finding ways to bridge the global digital divide in an economical manner to create new technologies that foster language translation. People only start killing each other when they stop talking. As an industry, we need to focus on creating ways to make it easier to communicate, which in turn will foster education.

Vizard is editor in chief of Infoworld (US). Send email to Michael Vizard. Send letters for publication in Computerworld NZ to Computerworld Letters.

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