In Geeks We Trust   (2015Jul19)

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Sunday, July 19, 2015                                              6:06 PM

Some people get whiny when their cell-phone service isn’t perfect. It’s a mistake to take instantaneous light-speed communication with anyone else on the face of the Earth for granted. For thousands of years of civilization, no one could speak to anyone who wasn’t within shouting distance. And that’s still true whenever there’s a power outage, a natural disaster, or if you travel too far from where people make money.

The electromagnetic umbrella of cell-phone coverage does not blanket the Earth. It doesn’t even blanket where all the people are. It only covers where there are people making and spending money. Some people purposely vacation where there is no cell-phone coverage, to hide from people who abuse the privilege—but those people are usually involved in over-intruding on others, when they’re not on vacation, so most of us aren’t driven to such an extreme.

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When we lose cell-phone service because of a storm, we don’t think of it as a deadly threat—we wait for someone to fix it. But if it didn’t get fixed, we’d be in a bit of a mess. The further we travel down the road to wireless everything, the more resounding the thud when Mother Nature or some other cause brings down the network. When we began using computers in our office, back in the seventies, we kept paper back-up records of everything. The computers broke down sometimes, and we had to be able to go back to the old paper records to continue doing business.

After a while, we stopped doing that. Not only were the records a huge storage problem, but the volume of transactions we were doing on a daily basis had grown far beyond what could be done by hand in the same amount of time. We were doing business faster using computers than we could have physically done by hand on paper. Suddenly, our digital back-ups became important—even vital. Hard drives can die—and without a digital back-up to restore from, an entire business can disappear—all the records of sales, bills, and payments gone—poof.

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Now we’ve invested in digital to the point where even an individual can find themselves in big trouble through the sudden loss of a cell-phone. To a large degree, they’ve replaced wallets, address books, calendars—they’re even starting to replace credit cards recently. We don’t just talk on them, we exchange memos, agenda, travel info, we have meetings with small groups, we get directions, we store passwords and account info. Pretty much anything that used to involve a piece of paper or the use of a reference book or map or required memorization—it’s all been digitized down into that one little gadget.

Back-ups became as important a part of our personal lives as our businesses—enter the ‘cloud’. A cloud is a place where you rely on someone else to make reliable back-ups of your stuff. If you lose your phone, you can get a new phone and replace everything from your cloud. Clouds are billed as ‘conveniences’, but this belies the enormous trust and reliability implicit in (1) trusting someone with all your personal info and (2) relying on them to do a better job of keeping your data safe than you could do yourself.

For most people this is natural—they don’t know from back-ups and would have, in the past, simply accepted the fact that they lost all their data whenever they lost their phone. But my background goes back far enough that I still talk about ‘computers’—I’m old school. I spent most of those old days worrying over my own back-ups, in the office and at home. My home PC is fully backed up, in duplicate, on CDs (for the older files) and external hard drives (a more recent, easier and cheaper alternative due to the plummeting cost of digital media storage).

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But even for me, the cloud offers something important. One rule of safe back-ups is to always have one copy off-site. A cloud allows me to have another copy of all my personal data files in a place other than my house—in case it burns down or something. For now, I’m not doing this—clouds are expensive and new, which makes them unreliable. And this idea that new technology guarantees trust is ridiculous—I’m never getting behind the wheel of a vehicle that can be hacked—that’s insane. And I’m never going to trust my data to a cloud until clouds have some kind of industry oversight or government regulation. If information is the new currency, then where’s the Federal Reserve Board for my personal data?

I don’t want to get all survivalist about it—but those people are correct when they point out the fragility of our existing infrastructure. The more complex the system, the more vulnerable it becomes. Our digital technology gives us great speed and convenience, but our trust and reliance on its uninterrupted, secure continuance is based on wishful thinking rather than any proof that the digital industry has the gravitas of a life-supporting industry. They are more like kittens, easily distracted with a laser-pointer.

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Hacking can come from friend and foe alike. Parents can hack their kids. Kids can hack their schools. Government can hack us all. And black hats can hack the government. Businesses, without any actual hacking, can take your life story and sell it as demographic research to marketers and retailers. Online services can take tacit ownership of your intellectual property through draconian EULAs that users never even read before clicking ‘I Accept’. Banks and phone companies and credit cards can stick little charges in your bills, hoping that you won’t look close enough, or care enough, to complain. Insurance companies routinely refuse claims, or make you jump through an exhausting number of hoops, knowing that a certain percentage of people will just throw up their hands and walk away. We’ve been ‘hacking’ each other for long before computers got involved—they’ve just added another layer to the conundrum.

Yet we willingly place our trust in anything that’s got silicon chips inside. I can see where it got started. People used to have to trust nerds—we were the only ones who could tell you how to work a computer. But it’s not like that anymore—except in the basement of development labs working on new tech. Everywhere else in business and consumer electronics, the nerds are no longer in charge—or they own the company, which amounts to the same thing—a billionaire becomes a businessperson, nerd or not. Just ask Bill. And there is one thing we know for sure about business—it can’t be trusted with the public welfare.

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As digital becomes more important in our lives, we see many bad side-effects. We see poor driving—make that dangerous driving. We see a lack of social interaction and a rise in online addiction. We see misuse of mega-data collected for one purpose and used for a hundred others. We see online stalking, online bullying, and online terrorism. We see ubiquitous surveillance. We see the markets being manipulated by micro-traders. Drones and hackers range from the harmless to the bloodthirsty. What we don’t see is regulation and oversight.

I want to keep the Internet free and open to equal access—but that’s the only thing I want to see remain in its wild state. Everything else should be managed and regulated with the same stringent requirements as money or medical records. I know that such an initiative would just draw all the lobbyists out of the woodwork, trying to tie us all into a tighter-still knot of commercial peonage, rather than acting as the civil service I’m suggesting. But there’s little enough accountability in business and government today—the digital industry should have at least a taste of it. After all, we aren’t that far from a day when we’ll all die without it—shouldn’t we take it a little seriously?

We can’t take a bottle of water onto a commercial airplane—but we can take a laptop, cell-phone, i-whatever—and we’re not all agreed yet on whether those things can crash the flight electronics of certain planes. Does that make any sense? Electromagnetism is invisible—we’re always tempted to think of it as harmless. We’re lucky there’s thunder—or we wouldn’t have the sense to fear the lightning.

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