Seventy-Five years ago, America was attacked, by Japanese forces, at Pearl Harbor. The USS Arizona alone lost 1,177 souls. The attack cost a total of 2,403 American lives. A further 1,178 were injured.

I visited Pearl Harbor earlier this year and of all the many lessons we can learn from this terrible tragedy, the story of technology perhaps tells the wider story of America’s entry into World War II the best.

Code was a big part of the wartime strategies. Yes, there were coding and decoding machines very similar to what we would now recognise as computer coding. But there were also simple codes – like secret names for operations.


One of the most effective codes of the day, was essentially a code of conduct – silence. The strategic non-use of radio technology, helped to deliver the crucial element – surprise.

“Tora! Tora! Tora!” was like the facebook status of the day – a signal to everyone in the know that the goal had been achieved.

The biggest technology failure, and it was much worse than this year’s census debacle by IBM, was the failure associated with the new technology of the day – radar. The US Army was only using it for 3 hours a day, and because it was a new technology all the operators were inherently inexperienced. Even so, the operators trusted their new tool and told management of their concerns – but the manager dismissed their warnings. It was his first day on the job.

The ability to escape detection was one of the key “success” factors in the Japanese attack. And it is still a strategy widespread in technology wars today. For all of the blatant attacks by hackers that you hear about, there are many more which go undetected, let alone publicized.

One of the key lessons of Pearl Harbor is the recognition of an investment in technologies that aid in detection. Radar had been considered “a toy” before the attack; there isn’t an airbase anywhere in the world that would operate without it today.

Technology investors and managers today would do well to remember these lessons that came at such a high cost.

Whilst radar was a disruptive leap of innovation, it was a less radical incremental technology which did the actual damage. Pearl Harbor was too shallow for traditional torpedoes. But the Japanese had modified conventional torpedoes by designing a fin, which turned them into brutally effective shallow-water aerial torpedoes.

It’s always less risky to make a proven technology better, so don’t discount the power of a simple design tweak – it could mean a simple strategic advantage – or a matter of life and death for thousands of souls.

And in that context, as well as the more mundane day-to-day uses of technology, we’d all do well to remember the best technology decision you can make is summed up in the original slogan of tech giant, Google; “Do no evil”.

 

 

 

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