Hammer, Meet Nail

I find it fascinating that people’s reaction to the news of NSA data mining is exactly as if a modern-day J. Edgar Hoover was caught red-handed in their basement with headphones on listening in on their private conversations. But that’s not what is happening here, not at all. That’s just an analogy and a broken one at that.

The majority of people I meet and commentary I read seem to be lacking a fundamental understanding of networking in general and the Internet specifically. It appears to me that our society bases its opinions by mapping the Internet into some familiar pre-21st century technology: the printing press, television, Xerox machine, telephone, etc. This, ten years after our telephones stopped being telephones.

I will now explain in precise detail what the Internet and networking is: are you ready? Here it comes:


That’s it. Everything tied to everything else. The Internet can do a lot of things, but connectivity is what it is. Yes, you can buy a mop from Amazon, you can send a picture to grandma, you can read an article from the New York Times but only after you severely restrict its natural tendency toward massive connectivity. Those restrictions do not mean the Internet is a store, a letter or a newspaper.

A piece of paper is a concrete thing that is unattached to anything else. Daniel Ellsberg took 1000 pieces of paper, stood at a Xerox machine and made one copy of each page and delivered that stack of papers to the New York Times who then typeset the contents of those copies and made many 1000s more copies. We had to do all that because paper is paper and would not naturally replicate itself.

Meanwhile, in the 21st century, a piece of email is sent from the State Department on C Street in Washington, D.C. The contents of that email passes by 1000s of network nodes on its way to an American embassy on the northern coast of Africa. The packet of data with the contents of the email wends it way past connected nodes that are pro-actively deciding to ignore or pass along the email’s content except for one lowly node, sitting in the basement in the embassy which decides to pay attention. Oh, also, Private First Class Bradley Manning connects a node to that trail that is also paying attention. He points Julian Assange at his node who then points all of our nodes at it, as they naturally would — without the explicit instruction to ignore the contents.

A 20th century telephone is a device that translates sound to electrical impulses on a wire that you hook up to another telephone which translated the impulses back to sound. If Hoover wants to listen in, he crawls under your house and pro-actively redirects those impulses on just the right copper wire to his headphone (called that because it’s just the earpiece part of a phone strapped to your head.)

Your phone is nothing like that. Not any more. Not even close. Your “phone” is a network node that restricts the natively massive scaled connectivity of the network to a one-to-one connection so it can imitate the functionality for which we used to use a telephone.

It took a lot of logistical wheel turning and grinding to get the Pentagon Papers and Hoover wire taps to happen. Edward Snowden, Assange, Manning? The whole thing is there every time their laptop comes out of sleep mode. (Ironically enough Manning was found out through chat logs.)

To wit: the NSA did not “collect” any data. They just looked at it. The data was already there. They just looked at what nodes connected to what other nodes.

I got schooled on big scale networking at Microsoft by a tiny crew of visionaries working on Internet Explorer in the mid 1990′s but even once I personally “got it” it continued to be a brutal cultural battle within a company that spawned from software distributed on floppy disks for decidedly non-connected PCs. See Stutz’s “Flippant Farewell” from 2003 where he warns the “Internet wave [was a] phenomenon that Microsoft co-opted without ever really internalizing into product wisdom.”

The battle continued with my work at Creative Commons during the 2000′s as we bumped heads with the entertainment industry, especially record companies (it’s right there: “record” company, or if you prefer “label”) with their draconian, willful denial of the new networking realities. Try evangelizing BitCoin to a loan shark.

The battle between what the ‘Net is versus a broken-analogy-retro-device some aging boomer wishes it to be, was the fuel, if not the cause, of Aaron Swartz’s suicide.

Swartz represented a generation coming up that isn’t burdened by 20th century analogies. They natively know the difference between a piece of paper and a network packet. They rightfully don’t see the difference between a “phone call” and a Tweet and are therefore bemused when my generation assume otherwise. It’s not an accident that Swartz was mentored by the founder of Creative Commons or that Snowden has an EFF sticker on his laptop. These kids were taught that freedom is important and it makes perfect sense to them when Assange’s WikiLeaks manifesto encourages them to “discover technological changes that embolden us with ways to act in which our forebears could not.” Hint: he is talking about connectivity.

This is not to suggest a specific policy in regards to privacy or policing terrorists. What I am suggesting is that we will never come up with a workable policy or law as long we don’t understand the fundamental nature of what we are dealing with.

I have several Eastern European relatives who, even though they have lived in the US for over 50 years, are dumbfounded and confused by concepts like “freedom of speech” and “innocent before guilty.” They were raised in a time and place that molded their thinking to assume that if you spoke out, you got shot down (or strung up — or both.) They are completely confused when neo-Nazis are given a permit to march in our streets, leave alone the idea that, hey, sometimes guilty people whose rights were violated go free to help ensure that innocent people don’t get locked up. My relatives whinge on and cling to what they consider “law and order.”

Someday, maybe sooner than later, perhaps our time now and our place here will seem as dangerously wrong as my relatives seem to me now. For example in the old world to “share” meant firing up printing presses or a tape recorder but the ‘Net is a sharing machine; if you want it do something else (like imitate a telephone or pay-for-play television) you have to severely restrict its natural tendency. That is why to a young person, the idea of comparing a song on a peer-to-peer network to being rendered (“copied”) onto a magnetic cassette tape is nonsensical, because, you see, it is. More substantially, it is also why people like Assange, Swartz and now, Snowden talk of “freedoms” in a way that sounds a little foreign to us.

It would not surprise me if after all of us old fogey Boomers are finally gone, they look back at us in wonder as we clung to our antiquated version of “privacy” pitting it against a completely broken concept of “security,” all the while forgoing the basics of ‘Net freedoms inherent in connectivity.

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