The Fragile Digital World Described By Zeynep Tufkeci Invites Smashing

In “The Looming Digital Meltdown” (New York Times, January 7th), Zeynep Tufekci writes,

We have built the digital world too rapidly. It was constructed layer upon layer, and many of the early layers were never meant to guard so many valuable things: our personal correspondence, our finances, the very infrastructure of our lives. Design shortcuts and other techniques for optimization — in particular, sacrificing security for speed or memory space — may have made sense when computers played a relatively small role in our lives. But those early layers are now emerging as enormous liabilities. The vulnerabilities announced last week have been around for decades, perhaps lurking unnoticed by anyone or perhaps long exploited.

This digital world is intertwined with, works for, and is  used by, an increasingly problematic social, economic, and political post-colonial and post-imperial world, one riven by political crisis and  economic inequality, playing host to an increasingly desperate polity sustained and driven, all too often, by a rage and anger grounded in humiliation and shame. Within this world, all too many have had their noses rubbed in the dirt of their colonial and subjugated pasts, reminded again and again and again of how they are backward and poor and dispossessed and shameful, of how they need to play ‘catch  up,’ to show that they are ‘modern’ and ‘advanced’ and ‘developed’ in all the right ways.  The technology of the digital world has always been understood as the golden road to the future; it is what will make the journey to the land of the developed possible. Bridge the technological gap; all will be well. This digital world also brought with it the arms of the new age: the viruses, the trojan horses, the malwares, the new weapons promising to reduce the gaping disparity between the rich and the poor, between North and South, between East and West–when it comes to the size of their conventional and nuclear arsenals, a disparity that allows certain countries to bomb yet others with impunity, from close, or from afar. The ‘backward world,’ the ‘poor’, the ‘developing countries’ have understood that besides nuclear weapons, digital weapons can also keep them safe, by threatening to bring the digital worlds of their opponents to their knee–perhaps the malware that knocks out a reactor, or a city’s electric supply, or something else.

The marriage of a nihilistic anger with the technical nous of the digital weapon maker and the security vulnerabilities of the digital world is a recipe for disaster. This world, this glittering world, its riches all dressed up and packaged and placed out of reach, invites resentful assault. The digital world, its basket in which it has placed all its eggs, invites smashing; and a nihilistic hacker might just be the person to do it. An arsenal of drones and cruise missiles and ICBMS will not be of much defense against the insidious Trojan Horse, artfully placed to do the most damage to a digital installation. Self-serving security experts, all hungering for the highly-paid consulting gig, have long talked up this threat; but their greed does not make the threat any less real.

The Fragility Of The Digital

A week or so ago, during my in-laws’ visit to New York City for the July 4th weekend, we all made a trip to the Metropolitan Museum. Wall to wall art all day; as much as you could handle. Several hours later, tired and spent, still thanking our lucky stars that our lovely toddler daughter had blessed us with a lengthy nap in her stroller in the middle of the afternoon, we headed home. As we did so, I cast my mind back to some of the wonderful pieces of art I had seen in the section devoted to Greek art from the fifth and sixth centuries BC. It seemed miraculous that over two thousand years later, those artifacts were still around, still being admired by the residents of one of the world’s greatest cities.  A wondrous confluence of actors had come together to make that possible. Included in them would have to be the materials of which the artworks were made: clay, stone, metal; the methods for storing them, and their interactions with the environment.

I must admit I feel little confidence when I consider the digital artifacts that so prop up our lives today. I cannot but be bemused by the fact that I am still in possession of many letters from days long gone by even as a great deal of my digital correspondence has vanished. And the less said about photographs the better; hundreds, if not thousands, of digital photographs have vanished from my collection: mistakenly deleted, destroyed in a hard drive crash, and sometimes, mysteriously, I just can’t find them. If you thought sticking photographs in old-fashioned paper albums was tedious, think again; little compares to the mind-numbing boredom of trying to organize a digital photo collection; losses and confusion are inevitable. (In part, of course, this is because we now take hundreds of photos in the course of a typical life event–as compared to the dozens of yesteryear.)

I say this as someone who considers himself a reasonably competent technology user: the fragility of the digital is frightening. Data is all too easily wiped out, too vulnerable to technical and human disasters. Yes, we have the opportunity to backup, but we also have occasion to forget (or not, in some cases, know how.) Those who imagine apocalyptic scenarios that bring about the end of civilization often dream of rampant disease and pestilence, nuclear war, climate change, and zombie outbreaks. To this list of imagined catastrophes I add my own: a freak cosmic event, perhaps The Solar Flare From Hell, which wipes out in an instant, all digital storage on this planet. Or perhaps some suitably disgruntled hacker will write a Trojan Horse that will combine patience and a hatred for data into a malevolent mix: it would insert itself into every single storage devices worldwide, and then, after confirming full occupancy had been attained, wipe the digital slate clean.

I would write more, but I’m afraid this already flaky network connection will start acting up again, so let me sign off for now.