Yes, Everything Is Broken

Indeed, everything is broken.

I was reading the above-linked piece, thinking about the bigger picture with respect to the systems we’ve all come to rely on.  The power grid, the pipes that bring drinking water to your home, the telecom infrastructure – if something catastrophic were to happen to any of those systems, how many people do you know who could actually do something about it?

It’s terrifying to think about, partly because you may know some people who are good with cars or someone who can wire up an electric outlet or someone who can set up a wireless router in your house, but the people who are intimately and wholly familiar with the systems that bring services to your home actually don’t exist.

Nobody understands these systems from beginning to end.  We have specialists that may understand different bits of them, but as a system gets bigger and more complex, we invariably lose comprehensive subject matter expertise.

Computer software is no different.  Neither are the systems that run digital advertising.  I’ve heard this era of Big Data and custom delivery and measurement systems referred to as the “Age of the API” and that makes sense to me.  But sometimes I think it’s healthy to take stock of the situation and think about how quickly it could all come crashing down.

Just like the computer software industry and modern society’s infrastructure in general, we’ve built systems on top of systems until the whole nugget is so infinitely complex that no one can possibly understand it all.  Talking to a colleague recently who got her start in the digital ad business right around the time I did, I thought it was profound that many of the people who were around when adserving first came about are senior in their careers and have a much different intuitive understanding of how it works than relative newcomers to the business might.  What happens when they all retire?

For someone getting into the digital ad space today, adserving is something that just works.  While it’s not without its glitches, adserving is something that is barely worthy of a thought – it’s just another of the basic systems that help drive our business.  It’s so commoditized that the companies who own major adserving systems barely invest in them anymore.  Well, at least they don’t to the extent their predecessors did when market share was up for grabs in the ’90s.

Look at what has been built on top of adserving in the past decade and a half.  Targeting systems, dashboards, new ad formats, entire end-to-end systems for an agency or publisher to conduct business.  Look also at how vulnerable the system is, as we read the umpteenth article about infrastructure being hacked to deliver malware, or entire botnets being set up to deliver bogus ad impressions, hijack affiliate commissions or worse.

The systems we use to drive our business forward are themselves built on top of information technology that is held together “by the IT equivalent of baling wire” and that’s all something we need to be cognizant of.  It lends context to the fraud issue, and it gives us an idea of what’s to come.

Perhaps we should be glad that complexity has made it impossible to know our systems end to end.  Can you think what might happen if somebody did know them comprehensively?  Particularly if they also knew a thing or two about exploits?

Tom Hespos is a contributor at The Makegood and Founder and Chief Media Officer at Underscore Marketing, a boutique firm that creates and manages digital marketing programs. Look for Tom’s column the 1st and 3rd Friday of every month.