Putting the life back in science fiction


Gen. Alexander and the Legacy System from Hell

Here I am venturing into something I know nothing about: the Internet. Recently, I read a 1999 quote from Steward Brand, in The Clock of the Long Now (BigRiver Link), that the internet could “easily become the Legacy System from Hell that holds civilization hostage. The system doesn’t really work, it can’t be fixed, no one understands it, no one is in charge of it, it can’t be lived without, and it gets worse every year.”

Horrible thought, isn’t it? What I don’t know about are the legions of selfless hackers, programmers, techies, and nerds who are valiantly struggling to keep all the internets working. What I do know some tiny bit about are the concerted efforts of the NSA, under General Keith Alexander (who’s due to retire this spring), to install effectively undocumented features throughout the Internets and everything connected to them, so that they can spy at will. Perhaps I’m paranoid, but I’m pretty sure that every large government has been doing the same thing. If someone wants to hack us, they can.

So what?

Well, what I’m thinking about is the question of trust, rather than danger. The idea that cyberspace is dangerous goes well back before the birth of the World Wide Web. Remember Neuromancer? Still, for the first decade of online life, especially with the birth of social media, there was this trust that it was all for the greater good. Yes, of course we knew about spam and viruses, we knew the megacorps wanted our data as a product, and anyone who did some poking or prodding knew that spy agencies were going online too, that cyberwarfare was a thing. Still, there was a greater good, and it was more or less American, and it pointed at greater freedom and opportunity for everyone who linked in.

Is that still true? We’ve seen Stuxnet, which may well have had something to do with General Alexander’s NSA , and we’ve seen some small fraction of Edward Snowden’s revelations, about how the NSA has made every internet-connected device capable of spying on us. Does anyone still trust the US to be the good guys who run the Internet for the world? Even as an American, I’m not sure I do.

This lost trust may be the start of the Internets evolving into the Legacy System from Hell. Instead of international cooperation to maintain and upgrade the internet with something resembling uniform standards, we may well see a proliferation of diverse standards, all in the name of cyber security. It’s a trick that life learned aeons ago, that diversity collectively keeps everything from dying from the same cause. Armies of computer geeks (engineers by the acre in 1950s parlance) will be employed creating work-arounds across all the systems, to keep systems talking with each other. Countries that fall on hard times will patch their servers, unable or unwilling to afford expensive upgrades that have all sorts of unpleasant political issues attached. Cables and satellites will fail and not be replaced, not because we can’t afford to, but because we don’t trust the people on the other end of the link to deal fairly with us and not hack the systems they connect to.

I hope this doesn’t happen, of course, but I wonder. Once trust is lost, it’s difficult to regain. On a global level, can we regain enough trust to have someone run the internet as an international commons? A good place? Or is it too late for that? I’m quite sure that US, Chinese, and Russian cyberwarfare experts all will say that their expertise is defensive, designed to minimize damage, and they may even believe it. Still, in the face of so many soldiers and spies amassing online, why trust our lives to this battlefield? Anything we put online might be wiped out or compromised, victim to a battle we neither wanted nor approved of.

Even though I don’t have a reason to like him, it would be sad if General Alexander’s legacy was starting the conversion of the internet into a legacy system. It will also be instructive too, a lesson in how the buildup of military power can backfire (something I think even Lao Tzu commented on). Fortunately or unfortunately, any history written on a legacy system will most likely vanish when the last expert walks away and the owners pull the plug. That’s the problem with legacy systems, you see. Their data can vanish very, very quickly.

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