Transparency, Secrecy, and Copyright for the Modern Age

=== A Look at The Transparent Society  15 years later ===

Why freedom of the press concerns us all. Nick Cohen of Standing Point Magazine (UK) does a detailed retrospective and appraisal of my book The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? He examines how far we have gone in the directions that I discussed, suggested…. and warned about.  Especially regarding the profession of journalism.

Brin’s Transparent Society stood out from the mass of now forgotten predictions about the internet because he understood that technology had made old levels of privacy impossible: “The djinn cannot be crammed back into the bottle. No matter how many laws are passed, it will prove quite impossible to legislate away the new tools and techniques.” The best encryption systems in the world are of no use if the state or another public, private or criminal organization can place a miniature camera behind you while you type, or insert a program into your system to monitor your key strokes. Instead of trying to protect the unprotectable, Brin called for political change to match changes in technology. He envisaged possible responses by imagining how two cities might look in 2018.

In his first city, cameras were on every vantage point. Only the authorities could access them. Crime fell, but the city’s inhabitants knew that the police could monitor their behavior and record their arguments against the status quo.

Brin’s second city looked much like the first. It, too, had cameras on every vantage point. All citizens could access them via devices on their wristwatches, however. (He could not predict the sophistication of the modern mobile phone.) A woman walking home could check that no one was lurking behind a corner. A man late for a date could check if his girlfriend was still waiting for him. When the police arrest a suspect they do so with meticulous attention to his rights because they know that unknown eyes might be monitoring them.

===Swiss Cheese Mountains==

Recall the “Helvetian War” from my novel Earth?  In which the whole world pummels Switzerland and it takes years and nukes, before they finally release the bank records?  Well nobody ever said it would be easy!  John McPhee reports: “Near the German border of Switzerland, every railroad and highway tunnel has been prepared to pinch shut explosively. Nearby mountains have been made so porous that whole divisions can fit inside them. There are weapons and soldiers under barns. There are cannons inside pretty houses. Where Swiss highways happen to run on narrow ground between the edges of lakes and to the bottoms of cliffs, man-made rockslides are ready to slide…”

The whole country, in fact, is mined with self-destructs.  Did they reinforce the efforts, after reading EARTH?

==Technology for better and for worse==

You will want Google Glasses: A glimpse into the advantages of wearable “overlay computing” that is given its early, primitive-initial form in Google’s Project Glass… which was unveiled (intentionally?) during the very same month that saw publication of my novel EXISTENCE, filled with speculations, warnings and things-you-never-thought-of about wearable Augmented Reality (AR).

Farhad Manjoo writes about Google Glass in Technology Review: “This was a revelation. Here was a guy wearing a computer, but because he could use it without becoming lost in it—as we all do when we consult our many devices—he appeared less in thrall to the digital world than you and I are every day.” Such mobile systems may actually help the user pay more attention to the real world as opposed to retreating from it, providing you with the integrated information you need, when and where you need it.

(Well, this shows a remarkable lack of imagination beyond the five year near-future. Still, it is nice to see a positive tilt unfold.)

=== Other AI developments ===

The Pentagon’s intergalactic black-magic plot is getting ready to raise the dead. Dead satellites, that is. Darpa, the military’s research agency, intends to harvest parts from unused communications satellites still orbiting the Earth, and convert them (particularly antennas) into a communications array to reach troops on the ground.  Yes you read that right. Actually cannibalizing physical parts in GEO. Very different from my idea of utilizing the 10% remaining capacity in retired DoD commsats for a backup civilian net.  This new idea offers possibilities for good, including automation and cleanup techniques… and is also meant to make clear US ability to act at will in the valuable realm of GEO.

Are we drifting too far from Asimov’s Three Laws?  More and more machines are being equipped with capabilities to use force – including lethal – against human beings. Despite case-by-case justifications, will this turn out to be a creep we later regret?  Are there methods to embed ultimate human judgment and control into the “DNA” of such machines?

==Copyright for the Modern Era== – is a new approach to paying authors to make their ebooks freely available: The author sets a price (“I’d like to make another $10,000 from this novel I wrote a while back, and if I could make that much I’d be happy to release it into the world under a Creative Commons license so the ebook would be free to anyone who wants it.”) and has a fundraising campaign to raise the money to pay the author for some of the rights to the book.

I’ve long held that copyright is a practical measure to guarantee creative people enough income for them to be creative publicly.  Along with patents, this bribes them out of the recourse to secrecy that dominated the previous 6000 years.  There is no mystical right to “own” ideas.  But the practical effects of Intellectual Property (IP) have been staggeringly positive.  Today, instead of being squirreled away and lost (e.g. Hero’s steam engines, the Antekithera Device, the Baghdad Battery…) our ideas now mingle and breed in the open, leveraging and accelerating progress.  Find another way to solve the age-old disaster of secrecy, and I will happily watch copyright go into retirement.

== The big security Trojan Horse ===

Buy up old computers.  Seriously.  A fellow I know sent this: “When a recent edition of Windows came out, I looked very closely into the security literature on it. I was appalled to see that the main new security features were security against users trying to establish control over their own computer either at home or at work. Many large institutions discriminated against Mac in favor of Windows, because Windows made it easy to install “hidden” security software (easy enough to find, impossible to suppress) to monitor and control everything you do. I have had a few struggles with Radia at home. But a corollary is that the computer is wide open to things from the outside.

“The new Mac operating system Lion is said to make the institutions much happier, and is fully compatible with external control. Great news for really competent hackers. And regular security updates come to Mac too, more and more.”


A thought provoking rumination about how many of the world’s extant 6500 spoken languages are dying, while English and Chines and Spanish rise…. And English speakers use less complex or precise speaking patterns.  Worth some contemplation!

Former WIRED editot-in-chief Kevin Kelly has an interesting kickstarted project that I recommend you look at: The Silver Cord. Kelly writes, “The Silver Cord is my first try at fiction. My co-authors and I are giving away the first book, hoping that those who enjoy it will want to fund the concluding half. First part of the story is free; the ending will cost. We’ll see how well that works.” It’s an interesting exercise in speculative theology as Kevin puts it.  A phrase you’ll also find – with some differences – in another book that came out the same day… Existence.  (Kevin’s approach is about how technological advances may instigate a clash between humans, robots and angels!)


1 Comment

Filed under science, technology

One response to “Transparency, Secrecy, and Copyright for the Modern Age

  1. Man I love John McPhee! That guy can write about anything and pull the interest out of it!

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