Wednesday, June 19

Fractal Borders

After the printing press, we experienced a number of changes that might be attributed to the existence of printing:

The Protestant Reformation
Copyright Laws
The Renaissance
The concept of "Separation of Church and State"
and eventually, the "Industrial Revolution" and modern life...

Back in the 1500s, "church" was an expected part of governments. In other words, if you were Swiss, for example, people that disagreed with the swiss branch of the catholic church got their heads cut off. On the other hand, because of the printing press, people were able to read the bible and see just how different it was from what the official party lines were.

So, on the one hand, there were people who were fond of proper authority. An example of this might be to go before the city counsel to resolve theological matters. On the other hand, there were the "radicals" who made up their own mind about theological matters based on their understanding of what they read. This was heresy, and carried a death penalty.

Two examples of these heretics were the Protestants, including Martin Luther (not to be confused with Martin Luther King Jr, who was named after the original) and the Anabaptists. Technically speaking, anabaptists are protestants, but that didn't stop Martin Luther's crowd from killing them for heresy.

The heresy of the anabaptists were named after was that they did not believe infant baptism meant anything - something about a lack of meaningful choice on the part of the infants. They also strongly objected to the concept of celibacy - they felt that that was evil (I think that this was based on simple observation of the consequences). They also felt that christians could not be a part of the government (probably this had something to do with how government officials were obligated to chop their heads off).

One story I read was about a town where the entire population was sentenced to death for heresy. Pregnant mothers were given an exception long enough for their children to be born, at which point they were killed and their children were put into a catholic orphanage.

Another involved secret agents who would infiltrate these heretical settlements and be converted to the new ways as a way of gathering names for the executions.

After decades of this sort of thing, there weren't very many "heretics" left. The best survival tactic for them seems to have been to recognize the authority of the state, and to support it in the sense of working hard, growing food, while being quiet and humble and keeping their views to themselves. (The Amish are an example of this sort of thing. The Hutterites are another. These are people who would rather be killed than go to war - and as recently as WWI some of them have been killed because they refused to fight. Nowadays, though, we have a "contentious objector" exception to the draft, for people like this.)

Anyways, ... I think that the concept of separation of church and state arose because of people like this, and because of people with less extreme views (including those who were willing to fight).

All this because of a new form of communication - the printing press, but also because of how people have used their abilities to reason and decide. And, in some sense, because people need some sort of consistency in their thoughts and actions.

* * * * *

Flash forward to today, and the problems surrounding the NSA. Just as the printing press resulted in social revolution, the forms of communication afforded by modern technology have been reforming society. Some of the mechanisms, like radio, television, movies, newspapers and so on, are "broadcast" mechanisms - they make a voice or a work available to many people. Other mechanisms, like telephones, have been structured as "point-to-point" mechanisms that let individuals talk with each other. But there are also mechanisms such as ham radio (and "citizen's band" radio) and various computer based communication systems (email, twitter, blogging, facebook, ...) which start to blend the personal point-to-point mechanisms with the impersonal broadcast mechanisms.

And this means that some of the arbitrary social mechanisms which we cobbled together after the printing press revolution need further work to cope with the more recent revolutions.

In essence, information flows much more freely now than in the past. One reaction to this change is to try and stop the flow of information. And this works, for a time, but the problem is that anyone adopting this position is also hurting the people who cooperate economically. This leaves criminals and those in other countries with a competitive advantage which soon turns into a security problem.

On the other hand, people have gotten used to privacy. We expect it in sexual contexts, in business contexts, in government contexts, in military contexts, in religious contexts and in criminal contexts. We react almost violently to its removal.

So we need, somehow, to find a way to live together without hurting ourselves in the process. Worse, the classic mechanisms (get people to shut up, kill them if necessary to make sure they shut up) have serious problems. One problem, for example, is it's hard to kill in secret now, and people get upset when their friends and family get killed. Another problem is that the flow of information lets people more easily discover culprits which reduces the value of killing people and often turns an otherwise successful campaign of brutality into a liability.

(Actually, I think I like having these problems, but of course it's more complicated than I have described.)

* * * * *

So, flash forward to the present day...

It's extremely difficult to talk with any accuracy about secret things, like the NSA.

In Bradley Manning's case, and in Edward Snowden's case, revealing information to the public has been classified as "revealing information to the enemy". And, maybe this is correct. Or, maybe not. Obviously, some people believe that it is correct.

One possible issue is terrorists. But, I cannot for the life of me figure out how a gag order on otherwise public court cases has any influence here.

Another possibility is that the people of the USA are indeed the enemy. This could be a viewpoint for people who are fed up with criminal activities, and it could be a viewpoint for people who are a part of a foreign government. There's probably little distinction between "criminal" and "government" in this context, other than association with a particular region or territory. Governments are probably also bigger than other organizations, though that is not a given.

Another possibility is simple bureaucratic maneuvering... This is not mutually exclusive with the other possibilities, and of course different people can have different beliefs.

Other concepts which might tie in here include British Colonialism, Chinese bureaucracy and might, corruption in various institutions (for example, I grew up hearing jokes about "choir boys" and priests and we have been starting to see that the very advocates of sexual celibacy have also been engaged in sexual rape of children (I don't think "pedophelia" adequately describes the problem) on a grand scale; for example I also grew up hearing statements about how building inspectors routinely expect bribes and of course the construction industry is a "major part of our economy"; for example, the protocols involved in high frequency trading make it difficult for us to even track where our money is going and the deregulation of derivatives and some other deregulation efforts make that even worse; I am sure there are other significant examples).

Anyways, let's consider that this is an open issue and get back to it later.

If we think about the issues which Edward Snowden raised, he mentioned something about endpoint security being weak. We've not been taking responsibility for spam, for malware, nor have we been paying attention to how our computers simply radiate information in the electromagnetic spectrum. It should be ludicrously easy to detect malware that emits spam - it's not at all a secret that it's happening. Given typical computer architecture, we would probably need some hardware devoted to the issue but it's not like there's anything radically difficult here, nor are the concepts particularly hard to grasp. (For example, you can count the number of mail protocol connections made by a computer and if that count is obviously wrong you've got malware. Similarly, we could do something involving tracking of connections to remote machines and organizations could declare which machines are theirs. There are other examples. But "no one cares about that". Except, of course, people do care, when they finally see what the issues really are.)

Basically, we've been giving up all sorts of competitive advantages, so we should not be surprised to find ourselves at a competitive disadvantage.

In other words, it's not just the "NSA" who can tap into this information. And, having people that are at least plausibly patriotic and plausibly focussed on important issues should be a good thing. But no one exists in a vacuum.

* * * * *

And I'm falling into some of the self-similar complexities which we are all tripping over.  So, I am going to end this in a recap that does not satisfy me:

A fractal perimeter can have infinite length and enclose a finite area.

The "NSA" is in some sense a discardable acronym describing an exposed face of the U.S. federal government.

The internet brings international borders into our homes.

Democracy has always been about bending to pressures without breaking too badly. We must not only expect failures but we must expect buildup of efforts where the failures happen.

Those pressures include both legal and illegal pressures. Those pressures include both local and international pressures. Those pressures include both present and historical pressures.

Meanwhile our bastions of morality (e.g. the church, and probably most of history) are anything but adequately moral.

The concept of a "cell" (in the activist sense) is inefficient, at best. It's great when you can throw away people, but the secrecy involved means and assumes communication failures. You also need some broadcast mechanism that they all subscribe to and if that is secret you have to assume that your cells will fail more often than they succeed.

In a democratic government, the government answers to the people. The President of the U.S. is hierarchically beneath the people of the U.S. when viewed over any extended period of time.

Nobody lives alone, not even the U.S. - over the long term, we need to be fair and we need others to be fair with us.

* * * * *

Just to be clear: I think that the FISA secret courts were a bad mistake.

No comments:

Post a Comment