Ian Angell - The Economist

Professor Ian Angell, London, England

Interview conducted by MG Michael.



Ian Angell has been Professor of Information Systems at the London School of Economics since 1986. His main research work concentrates on organizational and national information technology policies, on strategic information systems, and on computers and risk (both opportunities and hazards), particularly the systemic risks inherent in all socio-technical systems and the security threats posed to organizations by the rapidly diffusing international information infrastructure. His growing reputation comes as the culmination of twenty years work developing a new perspective on information systems, stressing that the social, economic and organizational issues are more important than the technological ones. In particular he emphasizes that even the very best software and investment in the Internet will be a total waste and the cause commercial risks if the complexity caused by societal aspects are not managed properly.

Professor Angell acts as a consultant to many national and international organizations and to a number of governments and the EU. Until 2000 he was a personal advisor to the Cabinet of the Director General of UNESCO (Federico Mayor), he has consulted for the Russian Ministry of Science, presented his ideas to the Malaysian National IT Council and held private advisory sessions with three of the sons of Sheikh Mohammed Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai. He has also presented his ideas before the Parliamentary IT Committee at the Palace of Westminster to a cross-party group from both Lords and Commons.

Undoubtedly it is Angell's radical and controversial views on the global consequences of IT that has brought him such a high-profile reputation as a 'futurologist' in business circles and in the media.



M.G. Michael: I’m speaking to Professor Ian Angell, who has agreed to answer some of our questions. I’m in London, at the London School of Economics. Thank you so much for the opportunity to speak with you. To begin with, how do you understand homeland security?

Ian Angell: Right. So formal security is just the government trying to tell the population that they are being protected. It’s what every politician does. Giving it the name homeland security, it is where it all began to go wrong. The population has given the government the right for legitimate violence against them in return for their personal security. The government basically has the monopoly on violence against people.

M.G. Michael: What role do information systems play in national security?

Ian Angell: They are not securing the nation. No nation is secure. It’s a fallacy. It’s simply offensive securing, and offensive securing is also offensive controlling of the nation. There are two sides to each story, and here is a practical example: CCTV (figure 1). We have more TV cameras here in London than anywhere else in the world. You can’t go anywhere without being photographed and of course there are some advantages. They do catch out certain criminals but on the other hand it’s not comforting when you find that these images appear on mass media for various materialist purposes. One of the main problems is also to do with the fact is that they, the government, are not controlling it.

M.G. Michael: Could you tell us something about how you understand “singularity”.

Ian Angell: That’s one of my key thoughts, singularity. Singularity is something that has occurred for the very first time. It is regarded in any scenario. If something has never happened before, how do you protect against it? Because you can’t see it coming. It’s what the IRA said after the “great bombing.” They, the government, have to do the overtime, we have to do what we did at once: that’s a singularity. You just don’t know where the first attack is going to come from. They took as much time to think about getting you, you have to be on your guard every single moment (figure 2). This is the problem with every form of security not just national security or organizational security and that’s why there are lots of things to do with security.

M.G. Michael: The social implications of what you have said are extensive not only limited to governments, but to private enterprise, and to individuals generally.

Ian Angell: And therefore yes... it’s general. And all security fails. It may fail catechismically, catastrophically or it could be just little failures. But little failures damage individuals catastrophically. The nation may be fairly secure but individuals become very damaged.

M.G. Michael: Economics plays a crucial and important role in all of this, doesn’t it?

Ian Angell: I would think so. Ultimately you can only do so much before the cost becomes excessive. We are beginning to find now that we have become involved with all of these escapades in Iraq and Afghanistan. We just can’t afford it.

M.G. Michael: Do you believe tracking terrorist suspects will help to curb terrorism?

Ian Angell: I don’t believe we can track terrorists. But I think it’s the only way, you’ve got to use good old fashion black mail, hang traps, not computers (figure 3). Terrorist is a singularity and computers work statistically. Singularities and statistics don’t relate. It steps through the net every time.

M.G. Michael: Are these your own perceptions?

Ian Angell: Yes. How can your model catch something which hasn’t been modeled?

M.G. Michael: Surely there are exceptions to the rule?

Ian Angell: It may catch by accident but you can’t plan to catch them.

M.G. Michael: So it’s self competing?

Ian Angell: Not self competing, it just doesn’t work. If it catches somebody it’s not because of what you do it’s despite of what you do.

M.G. Michael: How should emerging technologies such as RFID be considered?

Ian Angell: It’s a matter of power so the ethics is irrelevant. If the powers want to impose it, they impose it. End of story. Ethics has got nothing to do with it. And of course they have an economic model in mind they think they are going to save money on-

M.G. Michael: Fraud?

Ian Angell: Fraud, immigration, all of those sorts of things. It’s a way of reducing costs (figure 4). Control freaks.

M.G. Michael: Can you make a general comment on the capabilities of RFID?

Ian Angell: It’s only just begun and it won’t just be the state that will be dealing with RFID cards, everybody will. So whenever you walk down the street people will be able to find out everything that’s tagged onto you. So you have a form of RFID voyeur, for instance, going round checking whether your underwear is draws or suspenders or not.

M.G. Michael: So you’re forecasting this technology? Is it alarming for you?

Ian Angell: Not really. I’m not alarmed by technology because I don’t believe it works the way they tell us it should work. What will happen is it gets so complicated that the whole thing falls over. It implodes.

M.G. Michael: So eventually it’s going to be unchecked technologies themselves which will add to the problems which you are citing.

Ian Angell: What you have is all these huge systems in place at vast expense and they actually achieve very little. It’s like the drug tsars, huge money is spent on drug barons, they catch hardly anything. It hasn’t changed the drug situation one iota.

M.G. Michael: Will the RFID technology as it evolves, will it create an elite?

Ian Angell: It will create an industry.

M.G. Michael: Will it at least meet up with some of its goals?

Ian Angell: It won’t achieve any of its aims, but it will be in place and it will keep on going.

M.G. Michael: Will it create a great social divide between the haves and the have-nots? Those that can access the higher echelons of technology, and those that cannot access them? Will that be the case?

Ian Angell: Not really, because those interested in the RFID’s are normally the “nobodies.” It’ll actually be more invasive on the rich rather then on the poor. Because nobody cares about the poor. They’re always with us as a great man once said…

M.G. Michael: Are there any applications that you know requiring implantation of transponders into humans?

Ian Angell: This is happening, and it is happening right now.

M.G. Michael: Yes.

Ian Angell: You’ve got it now in clubs.

M.G. Michael: Oh yes, in London and in Barcelona. It’s becoming a fashion statement. Its use for medical purposes is well known.

Ian Angell: It’s also for economic purposes.  I’m doing it to save money to make my society my conditions more effective and efficient. I like to save money so I can do the same thing I am doing now, but cheaper. And that’s why RFID cards are gaining momentum. Because the technology will take up the slack and do the checks that at the moment is a highly expensive industry.

M.G. Michael: Does it matter if you’re rich or if you’re not?

Ian Angell: Not necessarily.

M.G. Michael: Why?

Ian Angell: Because technology always increases bureaucracy because it denies the ability to choose, it forces you to operate in very restricted ways.

M.G. Michael: Do you think that eventually RFID technology that we implant in our bodies will become the defacto secure ID?

Ian Angell: Well it depends whether a way is found to bypass it. And then it all becomes irrelevant. You know we will be carrying wallets with aluminium foil inside so that the card money that we are carrying won’t be noticeable. And shoplifters will disable the RFID tag and then get out of the store without paying any money. So there have always been ways of beating the system. It is a regular system after all; it’s not perfection. And so you can always find a way of beating the system. And if the way is readily available and inexpensive, then the people who push these things are the criminals. It’s like the work they did on CD’s where they solely put a huge amount of money to stop CD’s from being read by computers, and it turned out that if you looked at the back of a CD and drew a black line with a felt tip pen across it you totally bypassed the whole thing. For ninety cents you could actually bypass a multi million-dollar system for protection. So people will come up with something really cheap that will-

M.G. Michael: Bypass?

Ian Angell: I don’t know, I don’t try it but people will start thinking about putting magnets next to these things... And then what happens… And then the problem that happens is all technology fails from time to time. What happens when it fails? What backup systems do you have? The engineers who put this in place actually think this stuff is perfectible. And that’s one of the problems they believe in a perfectible technology when there is no such thing.

M.G. Michael: Do they truly subscribe to that thought?

Ian Angell: Yeah, they say it. They say its got to be foolproof.

M.G. Michael: That’s quite incomprehensible.

Ian Angell: Yes, totally incomprehensible. But some of these people we are talking about are not necessarily bright. We’re talking about MP’s too.

M.G. Michael: So during these final stages of implementation we are seeing policy makers making use of this technology.

Ian Angell: They’re not very bright either. And worst of all they talk to the people who are selling the stuff. Now I have no problem with that, if I am selling something well, of course I’m going to push it. I’ve got no problem with that. Buyer beware. You know caveat emptor.

M.G. Michael: What are the most important social implications?

Ian Angell: Well it’s going to be privacy and surveillance... that is the big issue, and also compliance. But people are now guilty until proven innocent. And proof of innocence is handing over all information about how much money you’ve got and where you have been. You could actually prove innocence by having a complete audit trail of your actions.

M.G. Michael: And of course the important thing is context because a lot of these things are taken out of context like data mining, that sort of thing.

Ian Angell: Yes.

M.G. Michael: So it’s important to make sure the context is accurate and usually we can’t do that. Okay- who are the ‘shapers’ of technology?

Ian Angell: Does society shape technology, or does technology shape society? I believe in a non-linear world, so both. It’s dynamic, there is no opposing relationship there. It is on the go all the time. Is it the blind leading the blind? Well we’re all blind. “All I know is I know nothing.” Humanity knows very little, so we are just trying things out to see what happens and it works until it fails.

M.G. Michael: It’s all a great social experiment?

Ian Angell: It’s all an experiment. Life is an experiment.

M.G. Michael: I get the feeling you don’t think that there are any solutions per se?

Ian Angell: Well there are no such things as solutions, just temporary results which then start something else. There are no solutions; solutions are a very naive concept. Nothing is over, the journey doesn’t end, you just start the next one. So anyone who actually thinks they can solve the problem is a fool. Society goes from one issue to the next one. You think, you start giving injections to get rid of diseases and the diseases mutate, and they become far more dangerous, that’s what happens. Think back. Every action has a reaction. It’s not that utopian, there is a reaction to every action. There’s multiple reactions which then feed back and cause all sorts of trouble.

M.G. Michael: So this technology, let’s call it intrusive technology, can it be tested?

Ian Angell: You can’t test it. They actually believe-

M.G. Michael: That it’s a viable product?

Ian Angell: They believe in the factory metaphor. That the world is describable, it’s tidy and simple, if you put all your dominos in a line then everything will be wonderful, the trouble is all you need is one of them to trip up and the whole thing goes over line and line. So one of the golden rules of security is not to have perfected security. Localize it. If one part falls over, it doesn’t affect the rest. So efficiency is dangerous. If you tried to have an efficient society it is a highly insecure society.

M.G. Michael: Yes, that sounds terribly paradoxical but it makes a lot of sense.

Ian Angell: Security only works when things are going well, when things are going badly then security is an impairment (figure 5). Efficiency is a problem because it just goes through everything.

M.G. Michael: Do you think that people nowadays are becoming increasingly desensitized to the notion of privacy? Do you think that incrementally we are giving up so much of our privacy that we are ready to comply with almost everything and anything? How do you sense …

Ian Angell: Well, people today you know, in the West, in most of the world, it has never been that way. The way people have been imposed upon-

M.G. Michael: In the West…

Ian Angell: We have been spoilt and what we’ve got is basically a bunch of fascists who are trying to drag the West in the same direction as everywhere else. That’s right? It’s power and it’s a question of how do… it’s the classic problem of the individual versus the collective. A culture is the result of a compromise that occurred in the individual. And different cultures have different compromises. And whenever a technology comes along it almost always destabilizes the relationship, and so now we have to find a new compromise that will link the individual to the collective. You have some societies which will have different solutions to others and so your different cultures, different societies.

M.G. Michael: You notice how some societies depend on religion to define and determine their cultures.

Ian Angell: Religion is just one power base, one way that politicians control the population. See if you forget about religion being true or not true and just look at it as a political entity then it’s easy to see how it is used for political means by certain groupings.

M.G. Michael: How do you understand-

Ian Angell: I don’t understand anything, I just describe it.

M.G. Michael: How do you describe the role of legislation? A lot of the latest legislation coming in quickly to counter balance-

Ian Angell: This is the jerk reaction. It’s control freak, and when things don’t work out the way they want they just get more freaky, and so they introduce more and more and more. “When empires are doomed they have many laws,” an old Chinese saying. We’re going through this vast increase in legislation because it’s running out of control.

M.G. Michael: We were talking before the interview about the people register. Can you tell me some more about the British national ID card?

Ian Angell: The register is basically statistical. All the criminals, all the people that it’s suppose to target; the ones who have the money who have the investment will be able to bypass everything.

M.G. Michael: What are the alleged benefits of the ID card?

Ian Angell: The actual ID register. With all the confidential information on people. Terrorists will be able to buy false identifications and bypass all the immigration regulations because according to the register they belong here. The only thing registers work on are statistical, that means the vast majority of honest people will be controlled by the registers and its main purpose is going to be taxation. So that’s how I see the register. The register enables the government to keep control over a substantial proportion of the population, namely the honest members of society. There will be honest members of society who will have all sorts of grief because of errors in the database. But the perceived benefit is going to be, it will allow the government to tax more people and keep an eye on what they’re spending. But as for the criminals or for the malcontents they will be able to find a way behind it all and break into and abuse the system.

M.G. Michael: I know I have caught you at a very busy time and my time with you is just about over. There were many more questions I would have liked to have asked and to have teased out more of the implications of what you have been saying… but thank you once again for meeting with me.

Ian Angell: Thank you, Michael.


Key Terms & Definitions

Caveat emptor: Let the buyer beware.

Closed Circuit Television (CCTV): Used in monitoring and surveillance. CCTV consists of one or more small video cameras sending images to a receiving monitor, television or video device. Surveillance can be covert or overt.

Confidential Information: Spoken or written in confidence; secret.

Control: To exercise restraint or direction over; dominate; command.

Economics: The science that deals with the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services, or the material welfare of humankind.

Factory Metaphor:  A metaphor used to describe a world where everything is tidy and simple. The problem with this metaphor is that it just takes one false move to have things go wrong one after the other.

Homeland Security: Refers to the broad national effort by all levels of government to protect its territory from hazards, both internal and external, natural and human-made. The term is most often used in the United States; elsewhere, national security has more usage.

Information Systems: Any written, electronic, or graphical method of communicating information. The basis of an information system is the sharing and processing of information and ideas. Computers and telecommunication technologies have become essential information system components.

Irish Republican Army (IRA): The original Irish Republican Army fought a guerrilla war against British rule in Ireland in the Irish War of Independence 1919-1921.

Personal Security: The legal and uninterrupted enjoyment by a human of his life, his body, his health and his reputation.

Register: A book or database in which entries of acts, occurrences, names or the like are made for record.

Religion: Recognition on the part of humans of a controlling superhuman power entitled to obedience, reverence, and worship.

Security: Freedom from risk or danger; safety. Freedom from doubt, anxiety, or fear; confidence.

Singularity: Unexpected events that cannot be predicted. Technology is intrinsically statistical, and that means that it cannot deal with singularities.

Surveillance: Close observation of a person or group, especially one under suspicion.

Terrorism: The use of terrorizing methods, especially the use of violence to achieve political ends.