A rather dystopian view

I’ve been reading a text in Wired by Bill Joy with a fascinating title: The Future Doesn’t Need Us. At the same time I was researching some stuff about terrorism, security, things Edward Snowden said. I realize that the empowerment of the individual by information technology and the availability of knowledge about stuff such as nanotech, genetics, robotics, biotech also empowers individuals and small groups to commit mass atrocities. Bill Joy uses the expression “knowledge-enabled mass destruction”. In this context I guess security services everywhere find it easier to convince governments that mass surveillance is necessary.

However, in order to organize the Big Data which they accumulate, super computers are needed, machines which can learn and decide. In order to create that, we need more nanotech, information technology and other stuff which in turn empowers the individuals even more as the availability of these technologies spreads out. It’s like an infernal cycle. I used Google Drawing to sketch my thinking about this (click on the map to go to the clickable version):

A dystopian view

The sobering aspects of the cyber world – and our future

Yesterday the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), better known as MI6, held a public speech – for the first time ever. He was dealing with ethical issues such as torture and secrecy.

I’d like to focus on some other aspects of the speech (full version here) by Sir John Sawers, which have to do with a networked world and future threats. I think these issues, even though depressing, are important if one wants to think about scenarios for the future.

Sawers briefly explained the structure of the security services. The Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, operates abroad, dealing with threats overseas and gathering intelligence mainly from human sources. The security service, MI5, works in the UK, protecting the homeland from terrorist attack and other threats. GCHQ produces intelligence from communications, and takes the lead in the cyber world.

These three specialised services form the UK intelligence community, and operate in a networked world. Technology plays an ever growing part in their work, for SIS as well as GCHQ, and the boundary line between home and abroad is increasingly blurred. So, they’ll have to collaborate more and more – also in order to make savings.

The security services are dealing with more than the classical terrorist attacks:

But our country, our democratic system, will not be brought down by a typical terrorist attack.

The dangers of proliferation of nuclear weapons – and chemical and biological weapons – are more far-reaching. It can alter the whole balance of power in a region.

The impact of cyber attacks can be devastating as well:

Attacks on government information and commercial secrets of our companies are happening all the time. Electricity grids, our banking system, anything controlled by computers, could possibly be vulnerable. For some, cyber is becoming an instrument of policy as much as diplomacy or military force.

A few weeks ago, GCHQ director Iain Lobban said UK’s critical infrastructure – such as power grids and emergency services – faces a “real and credible” threat of cyber attack. The threat posed by terrorists, organised criminals and hostile foreign governments was “real and credible” and he demanded a swifter response to match the speed with which “cyber events” happened, so the BBC reported. Another interesting quote from the BBC coverage:

“Cyberspace is contested every day, every hour, every minute, every second. I can vouch for that from the displays in our own operations centre of minute-by-minute cyber attempts to penetrate systems around the world.”

While 80% of the threat to government systems could be dealt with through good information assurance practice – such as keeping security “patches” up to date – the remaining 20% was more complex and could not simply be solved by building “higher and higher” security walls.

It’s a sobering thought that the same characteristics we usually like so much in cyberspace, such as the blurring of national boundaries and the dazzling speed of innovation and change, are also lethal menaces.

Roland Legrand

Thinking the unthinkable

A strange sequence of events: last Saturday I was on a personal finance event (I’m a financial journalist) in Brussels, Belgium, and the day after I went to the Photo Museum of Antwerp (Belgium). I visited the exposition of the work of Willy Kessels (1898-1974), who is considered as one of the most important Belgian representatives of a new, ‘modernistic’ photography which came to the foreground from the end of the 1920’s onward. His body of works is particularly illustrative of the practise of the professional photographer in the 1930’s, so the museum site explains. Strangely enough, visiting that exposition made me muse about futurism.

Maybe it was not that strange after all: in the thirties Kessels made pictures of the modernist headquarters of the socialist newspaper Le Peuple, of the at the time very modern installations of the national broadcasting organization NIR, of new installations of factories and breweries. The pictures show us an optimistic, modern wold which seems very familiar to us, even in this day and age.

It was that familiarity which made me feel uneasy. The people in those modern interiors and buildings, would they have realized what horror and collapse of civilization would take place a few year later (the Second World War, the holocaust… )?

Kessels’ career was rather strange. He made those modernist pictures, and also pictures of the making of the movie Misère au Borinage about the suffering of workers. But he would also befriend Joris Van Severen of the Verdinaso, a very right-wing organization. Kessels would become a photographer of rural Flanders, trying to capture a sense of authenticity.

While many observers think Kessels was an opportunist, he also demonstrates an important cultural tension in the West: on the one hand the optimism, a belief in progress (economically, socially, politically, technologically) and on the other hand a Romantic rejection of all this in favor of the (often imaginary) virtues of the past, of local roots versus cosmopolitanism and globalization.

This tension increases when the social fabric of society is threatened. This was one of the themes we discussed at the investment seminars the day before and it is one of the big underlying issues in the trade discussions between the US and China: which of both countries will end up with an unemployment of 10 percent to 20 percent of the labor force? About 42 million people, more than one in eight Americans, are now on food stamps.

It’s rather difficult to have constructive political debates in such a context – on the contrary, it’s an ideal environment for extremists.

All of which explains my rather depressing thoughts: will museum visitors of the future look at pictures of our time, with our technological dreams and our modernist buildings and interiors, and wonder whether we realized what horror would happen to us a few year later?

As financial experts said during the seminar, the shift toward the East of the world economy is not that strange. Before the Industrial Revolution about 70 percent of the world economy was non-Western, so the fact that we return to that situation should not surprise us.

The road toward that new world order will be bumpy. How bumpy, we cannot know at this point in time. Will discussion about trade and exchange rates lead to war? Will extremists and fundamentalists use of the technological empowerment of the individual in order to commit horrible acts of mass destruction?

It’s strange that experts these days often work in ignorance of each other’s work. While security experts study issues like nuclear- cyber- and bio-terrorism, urbanists and economists often just don’t take these dreadful possibilities into account in their risk assessments. It’s one of the reasons that I like near-future science fiction so much: it constitutes one of the few accessible places where scenarios are developed and knowledge from various fields is combined into possible futures. It helps us imagine the unthinkable, so that we can try to prevent it.

Roland Legrand