Another reason why we won’t exist in future history

I’ve went on Luddite rants before, but a NextGov article titled Most Scientific Research Data from the 1990s is Lost Forever settles in my mind the impending technoclasm will erase us from history.

As a  Maître Jaques, I amateurishly dabble in many fields, but have not the skill to bountifully harvest from any of them. But even a simpleton such as I can see that we will be an enigma to future generations, who might see the ruins of our great civilization, but have no surviving record of what we were capable of. Unlike the Egyptians, we don’t leave much of our record in stone. Unlike the Greeks and Romans, we don’t even leave it in paper anymore. We’re more like the Atlanteans (they did exist didn’t they???). What other ancient civilizations existed that we have no record of because they chose to store their records to “advanced”, and fragile, means of storage. ?

The article mentioned that much of the lost data were stored on floppy disks. This reminded me of another article about the migration of the original source code of Prince of Persia a while back. Had the source code not been found when antique hardware was available to read the ancient formats, that effort would have been lost as well. This is the dilemma of digital storage: every so often, that which is saved in an old format must be moved to a newer format. Obsolete tech, bit rot, and what-have-you.
I have firsthand experience with the hassle this is. After my father died, I inherited all the old VHS family movies. For a couple years now, I’ve kept a VCR around, connected to a DVD burner, so that I can convert the movies to DVD, which I will then rip to some digital format, saved to my hard drive. So what do I do then? I have to back them up to something else in case of hard drive failure. What do I do a decade from now when I have to migrate to some newer platform? When does the value of the “memories” diminish to where it is not worth the effort? Do my kids or their kids really care to see what my siblings and I did growing up? I don’t know, but as the family archivist, I’ll go through the effort, because I don’t want to be the one to let the family stories and legends die.
We tried to address this in the 70s with the gold disks sent out on Voyagers 1 & 2. I don’t think we’ve done many such practical things since. I’ve seen a theory posited online that the apex of human civilization was 1975. I’ll not link to them, because they’re just as crackpotish as I am (or more¡), but when you look at how little “new” we’ve created since then, the theory sounds reasonable. We haven’t been to the moon since then. Intel invented the 4004 microprocessor in 1971. We still use a small arms platform designed by Eugene Stoner in 1958. Even the Space Shuttle was a 1960s design that would have launched years earlier had it not been for government bureaucracy. Everything we have done since has been advances on these innovations. Sure we have smaller, faster, lighter tech that wasn’t available then, but its all built off of the thinking from that era. Even Unix was invented in the late 60s and was in pretty good use by the early 70s. We’ve even reached the limits of Moore’s Law.
So what is the solution? If we want to be remembered as a civilization, we need to develop some type of high-density, analog format etched into a robust media, like the disks on Voyager. This Wikipedia entry has other peoples’ ideas. Or we drop back to one of my other favorite topics, Tribalism, and each small group ensures the survival of its own legacy through whatever means it chooses.

The real-world ramifications of cyberwarfare

The following essay by Bruce Schneier has me thinking about the physical impact of cyberwarfare:

Cyberwar Treaties:
We’re in the early years of a cyberwar arms race. It’s expensive, it’s destabilizing, and it threatens the very fabric of the Internet we use every day. Cyberwar treaties, as imperfect as they might be, are the only way to contain the threat.

If you read the press and listen to government leaders, we’re already in the middle of a cyberwar. By any normal definition of the word “war,” this is ridiculous. But the definition of cyberwar has been expanded to include government-sponsored espionage, potential terrorist attacks in cyberspace, large-scale criminal fraud, and even hacker kids attacking government networks and critical infrastructure. This definition is being pushed both by the military and by government contractors, who are gaining power and making money on cyberwar fear.

The danger is that military problems beg for military solutions. We’re starting to see a power grab in cyberspace by the world’s militaries: large-scale monitoring of networks, military control of Internet standards, even military takeover of cyberspace. Last year’s debate over an “Internet kill switch” is an example of this; it’s the sort of measure that might be deployed in wartime but makes no sense in peacetime. At the same time, countries are engaging in offensive actions in cyberspace, with tools like Stuxnet and Flame.

Arms races stem from ignorance and fear: ignorance of the other side’s capabilities, and fear that their capabilities are greater than yours. Once cyberweapons exist, there will be an impetus to use them. Both Stuxnet and Flame damaged networks other than their intended targets. Any military-inserted back doors in Internet systems make us more vulnerable to criminals and hackers. And it is only a matter of time before something big happens, perhaps by the rash actions of a low-level military officer, perhaps by a non-state actor, perhaps by accident. And if the target nation retaliates, we could find ourselves in a real cyberwar.

The cyberwar arms race is destabilizing.

International cooperation and treaties are the only way to reverse this. Banning cyberweapons entirely is a good goal, but almost certainly unachievable. More likely are treaties that stipulate a no-first-use policy, outlaw unaimed or broadly targeted weapons, and mandate weapons that self-destruct at the end of hostilities. Treaties that restrict tactics and limit stockpiles could be a next step. We could prohibit cyberattacks against civilian infrastructure; international banking, for example, could be declared off-limits.

Yes, enforcement will be difficult. Remember how easy it was to hide a chemical weapons facility? Hiding a cyberweapons facility will be even easier. But we’ve learned a lot from our Cold War experience in negotiating nuclear, chemical, and biological treaties. The very act of negotiating limits the arms race and paves the way to peace. And even if they’re breached, the world is safer because the treaties exist.

There’s a common belief within the U.S. military that cyberweapons treaties are not in our best interest: that we currently have a military advantage in cyberspace that we should not squander. That’s not true. We might have an offensive advantage­although that’s debatable­but we certainly don’t have a defensive advantage. More importantly, as a heavily networked country, we are inherently vulnerable in cyberspace.

Cyberspace threats are real. Military threats might get the publicity, but the criminal threats are both more dangerous and more damaging. Militarizing cyberspace will do more harm than good. The value of a free and open Internet is enormous.

Stop cyberwar fear mongering. Ratchet down cyberspace saber rattling. Start negotiations on limiting the militarization of cyberspace and increasing international police cooperation. This won’t magically make us safe, but it will make us safer.

This essay first appeared on the U.S. News and World Report website, as part of a series of essays on the question: “Should there be an international treaty on cyberwarfare?”



Mr. Schneier is without a doubt one of the experts in this field, and I have no desire to analyze his comments which I believe to be spot on. I do want to ponder, however on the impact that unmitigated cyberwar would have on modern society, which ties in neatly with my technophobe, luddite stance.

First off, in cyberwarfare, the entire Internet is potential battlefield. There is no Bull Run, there is no Flanders field, there is no Iwo Jima, there is no DMZ and there is no line of demarkation. The battle is anywhere and everywhere in nanoseconds. Cyberwarriors do not march for weeks or even days to an enemy’s digital citadel and lay siege. The enemy’s stronghold is simultaneously in the midst of its capital and on its borderland. The cyberwarriors emerge from the ether and disappear equally instantaneously. There are no signs of encampment, and only rarely do any of the individual combatants leave any footprints behind. On both sides, the most frail mage is the most powerful warrior.

Second, cyberwarfare is the most unhuman form of conflict yet invented by mankind. There is no adrenaline-charged rush toward an enemy that is just as real and scared as one’s self. There is only the anonymous clatter and click of the keyboard and mouse, with its own source of adrenaline, which can be felt when playing a first-person shooter, such as America’s Army. The same can be said of robot proxy (drone) warfare, a physical/cyber hybrid. One can engage and kill an enemy and the enemy can engage and kill the drone, but the enemy cannot engage and kill the pilot flying the drone from the other side of the planet. The enemy can smell the iron from the spilling blood of his comrade, but the pilot only sees a pixelated image on his screen, if he sees the dead at all. While this is advantageous as long as it is asymmetric, once hybrid warfare is conducted on mass scale by both sides, it will be the most horrific thing we have ever seen. Assume that drones are just as susceptible to compromise as any other computer system and then imagine a malware like Stuxnet that targets UAVs. As horrible as nuclear warfare is with its ability to wipe out entire cities in seconds, how much worse would be a squadron of drones flying slow and low picking off civilians and combatants alike?

Finally, our global society depends on a stable cyber infrastructure. Destroy cyberspace and you destroy Western civilization, or at least set it back a couple hundred years. We live in an electron-driven society. No Internet means no international commerce, which means no local commerce. If the entirety of cyberspace is a battlefield, since you can’t designate war zones in an abstract realm that has no borders, then you can’t keep the battle out of your front yard, and everyone who is resident in cyberspace is victim in cyberspace. Everything is intensified because it is omnipresent and instantaneous. The collective intelligence of mankind is weaponized and can be turned against anyone by a small set of bad actors. Since bots are set-and-forget, taking out the general, the lieutenant, the sergeant, or the private, does nothing to slow the tempo of battle. The conflict destroys reactors in the Middle East and in nanoseconds, turns across the ocean to down the electrical grid in New England. Insert your own catastrophe here.

What we end out with is societal collapse because of an over-reliance on tech. Many parts of the world may not be impacted at all, and those societies may rise over ours. Such is the cycle of human cultures. But the question I would pose is this: can we not re-cork this genie before he gets all the way out of the bottle? I don’t suggest we eschew all the wonderful advances we have made, but as a culture, we need a robust backup plan that depends a little less on what our grandparents didn’t have and a little more on what our great-great-grandparents did have.

Caution Towards a Cashless Society

I am always leery of proposals for a cashless society:

IEEE Spectrum Digs Into the Future of Money: First time accepted submitter ArmageddonLord writes ” Small, out-of-pocket cash exchanges are still the stuff of everyday life. In 2010, cash transactions in the United States totaled US $1.2 trillion (not including extralegal ones, of course). There will come a day, however, when you’ll be able to transfer funds just by holding your cellphone next to someone else’s and hitting a few keys — and this is just one of the ways we’ll wean ourselves off cash. In ‘The Last Days of Cash’, a special report on the future of money, we describe the various ways that technology is transforming how we pay for stuff; how it’s boosting security by linking our biometric selves with our accounts; and how it’s helping us achieve, at least in theory, an ancient ideal — money that cannot be counterfeited.”

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I don’t know if its my inner luddite or my inner libertarian that makes me hesitant of digital-only transactions. Historically, there have always been some type of physical medium used to facilitate the exchange of goods, whether it was a direct barter of something you want from someone else for something you have that they want, or money, whether a hard currency such as gold or silver, or a fiat currency such as Federal Reserve Notes (dollars). Even with a fiat currency such as the US Dollar, you have a failsafe; with dollars in hand, you can buy something when the digital infrastructure goes down. The same cannot be said of a cashless system. Granted, most transactions today do not involve real money; they are just bit transfers from your account to another account in the global banking grid. This requires a fair amount of confidence in the banking system’s ability to maintain systems integrity. Using the Slashdot example of fund exchanges via personal tech, you have to have stronger faith in another set variables:

  • Cell phone providers, acting as clearing houses for transactions, will maintain systems integrity at least as well as traditional banks have.
  • Their tech doesn’t fail (i.e. transactions process when signal is lost)
  • Malware won’t be able to intercept your transactions and steal your identity
  • All devices are compatible
This system is fraught with problems. For one, search for some of the problems people have had with PayPal (Disclosure: I’ve never personally had any problems with PayPal) freezing their accounts. Many people, myself included have used Paypal as a bank. Money comes and goes entirely as bits. If you account is frozen, access to your funds is non-existent. So, what if your phone provider freezes your account? How will you access your money?
Or what about when Big Brother (pick a nation, a specific one is irrelevant for this argument) decides to perform a 100% audit of all financial transactions conducted by its citizens? I would assume that even most honest, free people don’t want their governments knowing *everything* they spend their money on. Nothing in anonymous in a digital system. Tie all this in with online medical records and such, and you can see where your local dietary enforcement officer would contact you to find out if you really needed that greasy cheeseburger you just bought, given you’ve already been flagged as obese and a health cost risk on the social healthcare system.
And in a TEOTWAWKI situation, you’re even further up a creek than you would be with fiat currency. You don’t even have paper that someone might be willing to trade goods for. To paraphrase Cypress Hill, when the bits go down, you better be ready.
I guess this is just my pessimistic nature. To quote Solomon from Ecclesiastes 1:9: “That which hath been is that which shall be; and that which hath been done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. (ASV). Not that I think all tech has existed in the past, just that history repeats itself; only the specific details change. Roman civilization believed it was the apex of society, had great plans, and collapsed. The Greeks likewise before them. All their knowledge was lost of centuries. Are we that much greater than those great cultures? Is our tech more robust? No, I would say that we have the most fragile tech that has existed in human history. A thousand years from now what tangible parts of our culture will archaeologists have to assess us? If we go the route of digital currency, it sure won’t be our money.
So I call on you, my fellow compatriots of anachronism, to stand up for the cause of physical money and resist the perceived convenience of all-digital currency. Jingle the coins in your pocket with pride. Pay cash when conducting business with humans. Barter for goods (but don’t evade taxes). Obey Gresham’s law. And last but not least, let you wallet be made of dead cow and stuffed with dead presidents, not made of lifeless plastic and stuffed with negative electrons.

GPS Hate! Part Deux

In continuance (see this post for the last rant) of my diatribe on the over-reliance on tech, I saw the following article in The Scottsman:

Scots the most misled by satnavs:

Misleading satnavs have caused more than £200 million worth of damage to cars in the past 12 months with Scots the most misled by their devices.
And here is a re-spin of the same story from Ireland’s Independent:

Satnav errors ’cause damage £ 200m’:Misleading satnavs have caused more than £200 million worth of damage to cars in the past 12 months, it has been revealed.

But being the Luddite that I am, I fear no squawk box sitting on my dash! I laugh in the face (if she only had one…) of my tinny-voiced navigator and her incessant “Recalculating!”. I’ll take no orders from the waif-er of silicon who would with all her might keep me off The Road Not TakenI am a man and I shall get lost on my own terms, and my wife and children will heartily attest to that. 


Ah, but I digress… so my advice to the weary traveler led astray by his GPS, satnav, or whatever the local  parlance for the little beast is, is to get a real map, and get a real navigator. The companionship of a fellow human is worth the inconvenience. And get lost along the way on purpose. Pull over at a gas station and meet the locals. You might find a treasure in the countryside that those who never leave the beaten path have opportunity to experience. 

Another reason why paper maps are superior to GPS

Over the past several years I have developed some fairly strong anachronistic views on the overuse of technology, with GPSes being one in particular. Given, I own hiking and auto GPSes, I find them no substitute for actual navigational and geo-positional savvy (i.e. knowing where you are, where you want to go, and how to get there). I prefer paper maps, and given the subject of the post below, they have a very strong characteristic in their favor: THEY CAN’T TELL ON YOU.

TomTom Satnavs To Set Insurance Prices: nk497 writes “TomTom has signed a deal with an insurance firm that will see its satnavs used to monitor drivers. Fair Pay Insurance, part of Motaquote, will use monitoring systems built into the TomTom PRO 3100 to watch for sharp braking and badly managed turns, rewarding ‘good’ drivers with lower premiums and warning less skilled motorists when they aren’t driving as they should. ‘We’ve dispensed with generalization’s and said to our customers, if you believe you’re a good driver, we’ll believe you and we’ll even give you the benefit up front,’ said Nigel Lombard of Fair Pay Insurance.”


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