Simple Life, Secure Life

Oct. 27, 2008
A Mexican adventure teaches our hero that the newest technology doesn’t always make us safer.
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I struggled up the parched jungle trail in a vain attempt to keep up with my guide, Guillermo. Although I am proud of my consistent use of the elliptical trainer at my big-city health club, this real-world trek showed me just how out of shape my body really is. Guillermo looked back at me from under his large straw hat, and a radiant white smile suddenly appeared on his dark-skinned face.

“You are quite slow, Juanito,” he called out. I looked back quizzically at my daughter, who had three years of high school Spanish. She explained to me that our guide was softening his indirect criticism with a familiar form of address that implied a close friendship. It is similar to being called “Johnny-boy” or “my buddy John,” she said.

“Si, Memo, muy lento,” I called back between gasps for air. I used the familiar nickname I had overheard the truck driver use when he spoke to Guillermo.

“Muy bien, Juanito, muy bien!” he said as I finally approached the top of the rise. “Your Spanish is now almost as good as when you were drinking tequila!” he added, switching to English.

“You are too kind,” I replied, giving up on my lame attempts at verbally sparring with a witty bilingual local. My girls guffawed, and Memo’s smile grew wider.

Guillermo had been unfailingly kind to us throughout our trip, and we all appreciated his droll humor and patience. On the drive out to the jungle, Memo would point to various objects along our route through rural Jalisco and say their names in Spanish for us. When the driver had to navigate around a cow in the road, Memo gestured and said, “vaca.” A nearby man on a horse was identified as a vaquero. The horse became a bayo, and the dogs following the horseman were perros. By the time we reached the jungle, I felt I could at least make myself understood. I had already learned about the baños and, more important, cerveza. What else did a visitor need?
We had come to this remote outpost on the edge of the jungle to take the famed canopy tour. This particular adventure consists of a series of wires and hanging bridges connecting tiny platforms attached to trees 90 feet above the ground. The tour literature states the visitor will have “maximum opportunity to marvel at the stunning, tropical setting as you effortlessly traverse through the huge tropical trees, amongst wild orchids and a diversity of native birds and reptiles.”

The actual tour was somewhat different than the advertisement. It was more akin to a thrill ride at a theme park. I had no time to marvel at the stunning flora and fauna. I was too busy marveling at how quickly a man who wears extra large everything can fly along a wire in a sling harness wrapped around his ample behind. When I crossed the swaying planks suspended nearly 100 feet above the jungle floor, I had to fight the constant urge to pinch my eyes shut and scream like a six year-old girl.

After the hair-raising ordeal, we climbed into a rusted Mercedes Benz all-terrain vehicle for the trip back to the resort. I was banished from the passenger compartment by my family for the effrontery of lighting up one the very fine local cigars. I said I had earned it. I offered one to Guillermo, and in return he happily let me ride shotgun.

I was grateful for the opportunity to spend some one-on-one time with our guide. On the way out, we had passed through rural hamlets and farms. I mentally classified the Mexican citizens living there as grievously impoverished. Most of these rural homes had neither doors nor windows. A quick look inside showed very little in the way of furnishings, and most cooking as well as sanity functions took place outdoors. I even saw women pounding their laundry on rocks on a riverbank. Of course, the tropical weather is an important factor, but the abject lack of what we call creature comforts wells up pity in the outsider. I explained my observations to my guide.

Guillermo grinned again and said I misperceived what I saw. He told me that these were certainly poor people using my standards, but he asked me to look at it from their standpoint. He pointed to the tops of the houses as we passed through a small town with dirt streets and open-air kitchens. He asked what I saw. I was amazed when I looked among the ubiquitous black plastic water cisterns on each rooftop to see that almost every house also sported an 18-inch satellite dish for global television reception.

“See,” Guillermo said, “these people see your world every day. They see what you have and how you live, even if Hollywood and your national news shows skew the reality somewhat. We call this the simple lifestyle, and these people as simple people. I do not mean simple in the English sense of stupid or slow. I mean simple as one who lives simply. Without valuable possessions, there is no need out here for locking doors or windows. They do not need to worry about acquiring, storing, maintaining and protecting such things as cars, fancy furnishings, and a nice wardrobe. Even their televisions are cheap by your standards, and almost everyone has one. They operate these small farms using methods that date back 5,000 years.”

“So you are saying they aren’t poor?” I asked incredulously.

“Sure they are poor,” he replied smiling, “most even by our standards. But most choose living simply, and many even ridicule a lifestyle such as yours. How hard must you work to earn the money to acquire a nice car? How much do you have to pay to insure it each year, and maintain it, and buy gas for it? For these people, their job is just outside their open door. For them, a car—even an old one—is a colossal waste of resources. Without things such as this, they need very little money to maintain their simple life. Without the need to acquire new things, they do not feel pressure to go out and earn more money. They feel secure.”

Guillermo’s use of the word secure struck that familiar chord within me. I have seen a similar quest for security by those who eschew every trendy, new electronic device. Some organizations have passed on innovations such as wireless networking and multifunction cellular telephones in order to maintain a more controlled information security environment. They have chosen less flexibility in the name of security. Sometimes this approach makes sense, sometimes it does not.

I have a colleague who always wants the latest and greatest technology gadgets. His desk is not far from mine. I often hear him using unsavory language in his office, and when I go over to investigate I usually find him wrangling with a handheld device or mobile telephone. Because of software and integration issues, he has already burned through three mobile telephones in less than six months. I like to tease him and ask why he enjoys being a beta-tester for the mobile technology industry.

In some cases, it makes a lot of sense to adopt a simpler technology lifestyle for the sake of security. Many problems can be avoided if you allow other people to go through the pains of early technology adoption. It is often easier to let others experience the problems and find the vulnerabilities in new technology. The simpler life is sometimes a more secure one.

John McCumber is a security and risk professional.He is the author of Assessing and Managing Security Risk in IT Systems: A Structured Methodology from Auerbach Publications. Mr. McCumber can be reached at [email protected].