Thursday, October 14, 2010

Common Sense and Common Knowledge

At the 2010 RSA Conference in London this week, long-established security visionary Ira Winkler was giving a speech entitled "If you tweet what you had for lunch, you deserve to be robbed". It was a very entertaining presentation about the amount of information people are unintentionally sharing into a public environment that is populated with both well-meaning and ill-intentioned folks. Perhaps a summary would be useful here, but that isn't really the point of this piece.

During Ira's presentation, he discussed the linked concepts of "common sense" and "common knowledge". In the social networking community, a lack of knowledge among many, particularly the young, about how all of this sharing could really hurt them, leads to decisions that we see as stupid, as lacking any sort of common sense about privacy, propriety, and personal space. As he was describing the disconnect between these adult values and the narcissistic need to share, I started to think about the challenges we are seeing in achieving a real and consistent set of common goals or methodologies as we work to secure the Smart Grid.

We see some organizations expressing security in terms of reliability, others in terms of privacy, still others in terms of financial justification and utility viability. A quick couple of keystrokes brought up some examples:

  • NRECA has provided some content that is customized and adapted to various smaller utility newsletters that talks about "Balancing Smart Grid Buzz with Common Sense". It presents a view of the coming Smart Grid in more conservative terms, tamping down some of the projected customer enthusiasm about new features with a strong dose of cautionary logic. The Dawson Public Power version of the piece closes with:
    "There’s a big difference between being on the cutting edge or the bleeding edge of technology. Dawson Power wants neither. We want the “proven edge”..."

  • On the other hand, common sense means something very different to some Smart Grid deployers in Texas. According to an article in Electric Light and Power, It is about evolution and revolution:
    Texas is the one I always point to, and the main reason, I would say, is they are taking a very common sense approach,” [eMeter chief regulatory officer Chris] King said. “The legislature passed a law saying, ‘We want smart meters.’ They didn’t spend 10 years trying to boil the ocean. They have home area network interfaces in the meters, as does California, but in Texas they’re already live. California is a year away, maybe two."

    Texas knows they’re making mistakes—they’re small—and they make a fix.

  • In April, the New York Times carried this thought on a differing style of Smart Grid common sense:
    ...Ralph Izzo, chairman and CEO of New Jersey's Public Service Enterprise Group, said better marketing may not be the answer to addressing the gap in consumer understanding of electricity use or changing consumer behavior.

    "I think we tend to overstate the contribution that sophisticated technology can and should make," Izzo said.

    "I feel like just shouting, 'Stop. Apply some common sense,'" he said. "Before we start championing multibillion-dollar investments in smart grids that control set-back temperatures on refrigerators because there is or isn't going to be a Super Bowl ... we need to get folks to caulk around their windows,"

So what do we do with all of this?

The fact of the matter is that there does not exist a common base of knowledge, objectives, or outcomes, that can be applied to the megalithic, polymorphic, thing we think of as the Smart Grid. This means that individual organizations, regulators, customers, and implementers will likely have a different basis from which to develop appropriate solutions and timetables. As so often happens, the definition of common sense is not so common. That isn't because the concerned parties aren't sensible, it's because they are highly sensible to their own uncommon needs.

This teaches us a new lesson, that solutions and proposals need to be very specific in their goals and rationales, and organizations must establish a common base of knowledge for discussions on any proposal's merits. Only with that shared understanding can we rely on the "common sense" of good people to create solutions that will ultimately make sense for the common good.

Image courtesy of Casey Brown

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