A Very V-E-R-Y Long Day Without Software

Evan Schuman By Evan Schuman
October 11, 2017

Over the summer, some friends at Veracode approached me and asked if I would be willing to help them with an experiment. Could I, they wanted to know, spend an entire day neither using nor leveraging any software whatsoever. They bet me that I couldn’t. I love a challenge as much as any journalist so I said “Sure. How hard could it possibly be?”

The point of this is to make business people better understand how devastating cyber thief and cyber terrorist attacks can be and how remarkably dependent we are today on software. Still, with a wee bit of creativity and ingenuity, why should the absence of a few executables slow me down?

First off, no need to boot up the laptop. Won’t be using that today. No problem. My trusty old electric typewriter is in a closet somewhere and that should allow me to write as much as I need.

For research, I have my iPhone, so I can call anyone I want and scour the Web. (Pause.) Uh-oh. The operating system and apps are clearly software. That sharply curtails my research efforts. For that matter, there also goes my plan for dictating what I write into the phone and sending it to my clients that way.

When I started my career, I would do 95 percent of my interviews in person (at the courthouse, when visiting police, interviewing a source over lunch, etc.), but that number has now flipped. With the Internet and sources around the globe to interview via Skype and regular phone calls, I do 95 percent of my interviews remotely. That means that my 2017 research options are much more limited. Uh-oh.

Maybe I take the day off of work and just have a day off. Ha, got you there, Veracode! Spending the day without software won’t be so difficult at all.

First off, given that I forgot to do it yet, I’ll go into my kitchen and craft some breakfast. Cooking on the gas stove is out—the natural gas comes to us from a utility that uses oceans of software and the electricity comes courtesy of another software-dependent utility. It will be a cold and room-temperature breakfast then.

A cold breakfast isn’t so bad on a hot August day in North Jersey. Just remove some oranges and kiwi from the refrigerator and add it on a plate next to a bowl of cereal with soy milk. (My college daughter is visiting so everything has to be vegan. Trust me. The moment she’s back at school, I have an overdue appointment with our neighborhood butcher.)

Uh-oh. That electricity that I couldn’t use in the oven also powers the refrigerator. Guess I can either ignore what’s in the refrigerator/freezer or unplug it. Might as well unplug it and keep the door closed as much as possible to preserve what cold is in there for however long I can. I’ll also drive to the local dry ice merchant (which, believe it or not, is a party rental place about a 15-minute drive from here. They also do free paper shredding once a month. I guess they’re diversified) to extend the cold a wee bit longer.

I pull the refrigerator/freezer from the wall and unplug it. Wow, when my wife gets home tonight, I will be so popular. She loves it when I do these kinds of experiments.

Come to think of it, I better get a lot more dry ice because the air-conditioning also runs on electricity, which is from that same utility using software. I was going to look up the high-temperature for today to try and generate some reader sympathy, but I concluded it would only depress me more. Given the choice, I’ll opt for ignorance over suicidal feelings.

I turn the air-conditioning off. I anticipate that will only make my wife even more animated when she gets home.

First, though, let me call the party supply place and make sure that they have enough dry ice in stock. I can’t use my mobile phone, of course, but I fortunately still have a couple of analog copper-line landlines, due to podcasts and webinars I produce. They have their own electricity courtesy of the copper, so we’re good.

As I pick up the phone and hear the comforting dial tone, I envision the dry ice moments away. Regrettably, I also remember that the dial tone comes courtesy of the telco’s switching network. And, yes, that network is run these days with software. I sadly hang up. Guess I’ll have to drive over there and hope they have enough dry ice.

Jumping into my 14-year-old Toyota (yeah, writing doesn’t pay that well), I am pleased I am allowed to drive at all in this deal. If this was a new car, everything would be managed by software and I couldn’t use it at all. The point, of course, is not merely that software exists. The idea is software that could be attacked by cyber thiefs or cyberterrorists. The new cars today have networks and wirelessly get updates from the mothership. Hence, they would be forbidden under this evil torturous scheme that Veracode tricked me into. (Yes, tricked. I’m wise to you, Veracode.)

But my old clunker has no car LAN and it has no way to grant access to a cyber bad guy. Fortunately, I had just had this sedan into the local mechanic last week and they fixed a major engine problem by connecting it to a diagnostic system.

No, don’t you dare go there. The rules of this challenge is that I couldn’t use software, not that I couldn’t use something that is only functioning because of software that was used days ago. I’m allowed to drive. Honest. Fine, be that way. I will check in with the Veracode judges and get a ruling whether I can drive.

Wow. Veracode cruelty knows no limit. They ruled that a day without software includes doing without anything that was recently enabled by software.

I don’t give up that easily. There’s a horse farm a few miles from here that teaches horse-riding. All I have to do is walk to that farm, rent a horse and I can ride to that party supply place and get my dry ice. This will be the most expensive breakfast I have had in a long time, but that’s the price I pay for being stubborn and refusing to concede.

Out I go into the heat to walk to the horse farm. I pass by the local bank, where LED lights tell me that it’s 101 degrees. Such information I didn’t need. Technically, I should have closed my eyes and not looked as software-enabled electricity powered that sign, but my curiosity overcame my stubbornness.

When I finally reached the horse farm, I found one of the owners who was more than willing to rent me a horse for the day. That dry ice was as good as mine.

They were willing to rent me one horse for the day for $180. Done! I pulled out my credit card and was about to close the deal. The merchant had an older card swipe and POS system and it took a moment for the handshake and approval. Uh-oh. The payment card authorization used software and was absolutely susceptible to attack. I can’t use plastic today and I don’t have nearly enough cash on me.

The owner kindly pointed to an ATM machine across the street, where I could get the cash. Alas, that machine definitely used software so it was forbidden to me. Oh well. I never learned to ride a horse so I would have probably gotten killed anyway.

As I was walking back home, I realized that the only community I can think of that could pass this test would be a Pennsylvania Dutch community, where they forego all modern conveniences. Unless companies start taking software security seriously, we all better brush up on our farming and pretzel-making skills.

Evan Schuman has covered IT issues for a lot longer than he'll ever admit. The founding editor of retail technology site StorefrontBacktalk, he's been a columnist for CBSNews.com, RetailWeek, Computerworld and eWeek and his byline has appeared in titles ranging from BusinessWeek, VentureBeat and Fortune to The New York Times, USA Today, Reuters, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Baltimore Sun, The Detroit News and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.