Jon Stewart, Healthcare.gov, and Ignorance

culture, economics, health Leave a reply

I want to talk about ignorance. I mean, I often talk about ignorance, but this post will be about addressing Jon Stewart’s ignorance, regarding Information Technology (IT), specifically as it applies to the healthcare.gov website. I understand that Stewart’s main goal is to ‘be funny’, and to poke fun at the politics and policies of the US government. I get that. But it would also seem that he sees his mandate as poking fun in an informed manner, given his endless barbs and jibes for those politicians and public figures who say all manner of ignorant things. And with regards to healthcare.gov, his attacks on the US administration are embarrassingly uninformed.

“A website” isn’t like a picture on a wall, in that anyone can simply walk up to it and look, and the access to that picture is really down to how the people organise themselves. “A website” is something we interact with. Each interaction requires us to send information to the computer that holds the website, and that computer to send information back to us. The internet as a collection of pipes here is a good analogy: if there’s only ‘one pipe’ to a website, then only one user can use it at a time. If ‘ten pipes’, then ten users (and so on).

Data breaks down a little more easily than ‘pipes’ though, so let’s talk about ‘pieces of information’, where ‘a piece of information’ means that your computer and the target computer simply notice each other and ‘say hello’. I.e. healthcare.gov loads. Logging in is slightly more complex, as the hearthcare.gov website would need to take the credentials of the user, process them, and make a decision about providing access (which would send more data) to the user.

It’s analogous to a supermarket checkout: you don’t need one lane per person, but the ratio of the lanes to the customers determines how quickly each customer gets served. Moreover, some customers are going to take longer than others and are going to tie up resources longer than others. Where websites get a little more complex is that the lanes aren’t independent: the more customers there are, the more the cashiers slow down.

There’s a tradeoff to be made here, that involves time and money: how many people do we want to be able to serve simultaneously, and how quickly? The team involved in this would have been stuck between a rock and a hard place: if they had optimised the system for ‘maximum load’, then the budget for healthcare.gov would have massively spiraled out of control, and most of the equipment would have been entirely unnecessary within 6 months. This would have led to criticisms of overspending.

And sure, harping on about “government incompetency” is the easy, ignorant choice. It also completely ignores the fact that this exact problem occurs in the private sector in the world of Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMO). World of Warcraft was rolled out by Blizzard, and experienced the same issues as healthcare.gov but with massively less players. Almost every MMO that has been launched (or when they have launched expansions) have experienced these problems, and none (to the best of my knowledge) had to contend with one million people logging in on Day One.

Sure, taking shots at the government is what Stewart does (and I am generally a fan), but taking shots about how ‘it should have been done better’ or ‘it just should have worked’ is really just screaming at the TV ‘I have no idea how internet-stuff works!!!’ I’m assuming that he thinks that he’s pandering (and he’s probably right). But it’s embarrassing to watch someone who normally exhibits great skill at weaving through various complicated issues instead just flipping the table out of ignorance.

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