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net.wars: Technical enough for Government work

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 30 June 2006


Wednesday night was a rare moment of irrelevant glamor in my life, when I played on the Guardian team in a quiz challenge grudge match. Why?

Wendy M Grossman

A simple story: in March, Richard Sarson (intriguingly absent, by the way) accused MPs of not knowing which end was up, technically speaking, and BT funded a test. All good fun. Results of test are, of course, confidential...

But Sarson had a serious point: MPs are spending billions and trillions of public funds without the technical knowledge to them. His particular focus was the ID card, which net.wars has written about so often. Who benefits from these very large IT contracts besides, of course, the suppliers and contractors? It must come down to Yes, Minister again: commissioning a huge, new IT system gives the Civil Service a lot of new budget and bureaucracy to play with, especially if the ministers don't understand the new system. Expanded budgets are expanded power, we know this, and if the system doesn't work right the first time you need an even bigger budget to fix them with.

And at that point, the issue collided in my mind with this week's other effort, a discussion of Vernor Vinge's ideas of where our computer-ridden world might be going. Because the strangest thing about the world Vernor Vinge proposes in his new book, Rainbows End, is that all the technology pretty much works as long as no one interferes with it. For example: this is a world filled with localisers sensors and wearable computing; it's almost impossible to get out of view of a network node. People decide to go somewhere and snap! a car rolls up and pops open its doors.

I'm wondering if Vinge has ever tried to catch a cab when it was raining in Manhattan.

There are two keys to this world. First: it is awash in so many computer chips that IPv6 might not have enough addresses (yeah, yeah, I know, no electron left behind and all that). Second: each of these chips has a little blocked off area called the Secure Hardware Environment (SHE), which is reserved for government regulation. SHE enables all sorts of things: detailed surveillance, audit trails, the blocking of undesirable behaviour. One of my favourite of Vinge's ideas about this is that the whole system inverts Lawrence Lessig's idea of code is law into "law is code".

When you make new law, instead of having to wait five or ten years until all the computers have been replaced so they conform to the new law, you can just install the new laws as a flash regulatory update. Kind of like Microsoft does now with Windows Genuine Advantage. Or like what I call "idiot stamps" – today's denominationless stamps, intended for people who can never remember how much postage is.

There are a lot of reasons why we don't want this future, despite the convenience of all those magically arriving cars, and despite the fact that Vinge himself says he thinks frictional costs will mean that SHE doesn't work very well. "But it will be attempted, both by the state and by civil special interest petitioners." For example, he said, take the reaction of a representative he met from a British writers' group who thought it was a nightmare scenario – but loved the bit where micro-royalties were automatically and immediately transmitted up the chain. "If we could get that, but not the monstrous rest of it…"

For another, "You really need a significant number of people who are willing to be Amish to the extent that they don't allow embedded microprocessors in their lifestyle." Because, "You're getting into a situation where that becomes a single failure point. If all the microprocessors in London went out, it's hard to imagine anything short of a nuclear attack that would be a deadlier disaster."

Still, one of the things that makes this future so plausible is that you don't have to posit the vast, centralised expenditure of these huge public IT projects. It relies instead on a series of developments coming together.

There are examples all around us. Manufacturers and retailers are leaping gleefully onto RFID in everything. More and more desktop and laptop computers are beginning to include the Trusted Computing Module, which is intended to provide better security through blocking all unsigned programs from running but as a by-product could also allow the widescale, hardware-level deployment of DRM. The business of keeping software updated has become so complex that most people are greatly relieved to be able to make it automatic. People and municipalities all over the place are installing wireless Internet for their own use and sharing it. To make Vinge's world, you wait until people have voluntarily bought or installed much of the necessary infrastructure and then do a Project Lite to hook it up to the functions you want.

What governments would love about the automatic regulatory upgrade is the same thing that the Post Office loves about idiot stamps: you can change the laws (or prices) without anyone's really being aware of what you're doing. And there, maybe, finally, is some real value for those huge, failed IT projects: no one in power can pretend they aren't there. Just, you know, God help us if they ever start being successful.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).