Friday, 5 December 2014

Fear and loathing on the Internet

Humans are not ready for the internet. We never were, and we probably never will be. And sooner or later, everyone reading this will end up on Wikipedia. The internet is changing everything and if you’re not afraid, you should be.

What will it mean to be human if we are unable to forget? How will Hobbes’ social contract operate if all our information is privately owned? What does the internet do to the concept of power?

This short exploratory series will think about what the internet means for power, industry, social conventions and what it means to be human. Suffice to say, we’ve never been here before and all the old answers aren’t fitting the new questions.

Last week, New Zealand and Australia’s top technology minds gathered at the Cybercrime and Trustworthy Computing Conference 2014. After listening to them talk about what’s happening on the internet, I felt a little uncomfortable but couldn’t pin down exactly why.

The feeling has been eating away for a while. But during the conference something clicked about what the “internet” actually means for humans and society.

Technology is great. The internet is great. And yet if we think technology can solve our problems then we don’t understand technology - and we certainly don’t understand our problems. Especially when the problems are us.

The strangest thing about the internet is that everyone embraced it without too much contemplation. That’s not unexpected, humans do that with most new technology. Perhaps the internet was once small enough not to worry about the incredible power and looming danger lying ahead.

Sitting now at the end of 2014, it feels for all practical purposes that we’ve always had the internet. But to future humans the development of the tool will appear as a blink from its conception to worldwide ubiquity. Facebook is only a decade old, think about that.  

How this technology grows now is anyone’s guess but it usually takes roughly a generation before the widespread use of a new technology can be realised. It’s safe to say it’s only just beginning.

Adults are giving it a good twist now, but the internet’s next step will be decided by the people we pat on the head and send to bed before 8pm. So the question is: are we being careful with what we pass down to our descendants? In my estimation, not in the slightest. This machine is too big and too fast to contemplate.

What the internet is

Geopolitics, fascinatingly enough, helps us understand how different the internet is to anything else we’ve ever invented.

One of the key drivers of geopolitics is the immutability of geography. It recognises that humans have less control over fate than we think. Some countries have bountiful resources which everyone wants, while others have bountiful resources that nobody wants. Life is accident.
From a government’s perspective, geopolitical constraints dictate the possible spectrum of decisions it can make. The natural constraints create a left and right hand boundaries. Sometimes they are bypassed or ignored by ideological individuals, but the mountains and oceans will always be there regardless of a government’s ambitions. The internet, however, has none of these constraints.

The original internet tool was built by a US government research agency only a few decades ago. In the subsequent years the new technology was eventually “released into the wild”, so to speak. It was meant as a communications medium but it spawned something entirely new and never before seen.

One’s personal metaphysics don’t really matter for the next analogy to be useful. For illustrative purposes, “God” invented the land, sea, air and space domains and did a fairly good job. But in the latter third of the twentieth century humans invented the fifth domain of the internet. And in all seriousness, we did a terrible job.

The internet has its uniquely flat geography without natural obstacles simplifying communication (and attack), but is a nightmare for privacy (and defence). It lets us talk quickly, but limits quiet human contemplation. It is the closest humans have come to creating life, but we created viruses first. It made a virtual space for our fantasies and dreams, but living the fantasies hasn’t been the utopia we each expected.

One of the academics at the conference thought he’d wrapped the internet up neatly by describing it as an extension of the physical world. But his description shoehorns the internet into a box it never came from. Perhaps it reflects the way we all want to see the internet, the way we wish it were, but it is unclear it actually is this way.

As the conference ticked along his statement gnawed. It really looks like humans were never ready for the power of the internet. And yet, here it is. The internet domain exists and there’s no switching it off. We have to deal with it now but it’s already beyond our control.

A technology no one anticipated

There isn’t a good comparison in human history to describe how disruptive the internet has been for humans. Some would say it is similar to Europeans discovering the Americas. Everything Europeans knew about the world changed at that point. But the cyber world is bigger than that.

Transportation is a close comparison. It changed the world in similar ways to how information and the internet is changing the world. So how does the speed of travel compare to what we’re seeing?

Only 200 years ago humans had never travelled usefully over long distance faster than a horse could ride at a gallop. Because of this, almost every city on the planet was built for either the foot or hoof. No one expected it to ever be different. Travel was unpleasant, slow and certainly not a pastime.

Then humans discovered hydrocarbons which made the upper limit on travel speed variable. Today, the upper limit seems to have effectively plateaued. The fastest human-carrying aircraft can’t push past Mach 6.72 (a face-melting 7,274 kilometres per hour).

That’s not a “normal” logistics speed but on the commercial end, since 1900, air travel increased the average Westerner’s total annual distance travelled by a whopping 50-fold. Today we’re travelling more and faster, but we’re also using more fuel overall.

The internet, while much younger than the boom in travel speed, appears to have a much more pronounced growth curve and is probably closer to its beginning than its finality.

Others say the invention of the internet compares to the discovery of a new language. They would be correct, but it doesn’t grasp the scale.

Inventing the internet is closer to the foundations of language among the first proto-humans hundreds of thousands of years ago. Everything you see in society is a result of that single invention. It is not an exaggeration to say the internet is a more radical invention.

Out of our control

And yet none of the speakers seemed to know exactly what the internet really is or where it’s going. That’s not a slight on them, it’s simply too big to understand.

What stirred a creeping fear at what we might have unleashed was that representatives from New Zealand’s Department of Internal Affairs and law enforcement were discussing the internet like it was the Amazonian rainforest.

Each had some concept of what they were dealing with - they vaguely sketched the boundaries - but not one of them knew how to properly navigate or catalogue the internet.

These were some of the smartest technology experts in the country, and for all their tools and power they are unable to regulate even small sections of the cyber domain. This is a technology that was created within living memory yet is now entirely out of anyone’s control.

The internet has radically changed everything humans do. We’re already living in a world that no one anticipated. While all of humanity is not yet fully “plugged in”, the preliminary results have been astounding.

While I’m sure good and smart people are thinking about this, the reality is that something like this has never happened before. Now that it has, it’s time to start thinking about the consequences.

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