Dust off that Osborne and dig through the attic for your old Commodore 64, because there could be a government job in your future. Based on a recent article, the feds may be spending your tax dollars faster than you can say “national debt,” but new computer hardware seems to be pretty low on the federal wish list.
The article asserted more than a few of D.C.-based agencies continue to operate on computer platforms that are a few years removed from “state of the art.” The Internal Revenue Service for example still utilizes systems built in the 80’s. As disconcerting as it is to think that your long form is being processed using a platform that was cutting edge during the heyday of the Brat Pack, the article also stated that the computer system that runs our nuclear arsenal still uses 8-inch floppy disks. The author didn’t elaborate on whether the system supported code that utilized “If/Then” statements like: “If attacked by a load of Soviet missiles, then press the red button.”
I guess the rhetorical question is, “Is anyone shocked by the technical state of affairs within elements of our national government?” In defense of this antiquated state of affairs, the author alluded to the difficulty found in attempting to replace systems that have grown in a kind of “Rube Goldberg” sort of way. This makes a bit of sense, and moreover, explains a lot. We hear a lot about the inefficiency of the federal bureaucracy, but maybe it’s not the fault of employees with virtually no chance of being fired no matter how inept they may be at their jobs.
Think about it, just how motivated can you be when an upgrade to your workstation means giving a 386-based machine—“Boy, this baby is a screamer. It updates my Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheets in no time flat”. I mean, the government updates the picture of the president found in their facilities every four years, but you still start every morning at the DOS prompt—not exactly the type of work environment that instills a “gung-ho” attitude.
While the age of the equipment used to collect money from half the population and protect us if the Russians or Chinese start feeling a little frisky is cause for concern, what is most disconcerting is the question, “Where do they get spare parts for these things?” For example, how many 8″ floppies does it take to back-up the files that control the nuclear triad and where do you buy them? Are they available from the local store or do they have to be purchased in bulk from Amazon? I can’t be the only one who thinks that this reliance on anachronistic components could cause problems at the worst possible time. The mental picture of someone rummaging through their old disk holder and saying, “Okay, who took the launch code disk. C’mon this isn’t funny” while a belligerent opponent decides to lob a few nuclear warheads our way isn’t just scary, it’s downright humiliating.
I’m sure many of you are thinking to yourselves, “Gee, you’d think with a four trillion dollar budget we might be able to buy a Mac or two,” but even if they could would it make any difference? Sure, you could toss in a few GPU-laden servers, but isn’t this really like dropping a racing engine into a model T? The good news surrounding this situation is that there will always be employment opportunities for the less technically savvy among us. More succinctly, if you think owning a flip-phone puts you on the bleeding edge of technology Uncle Sam Wants You.