Why the term “cyber” is cool.

In 1986 William Gibson published Neuromancer, his masterpiece. In it he coined the term ‘cyberspace’. For many of us it described the world of ‘computers’ at the time. It captured the experience of disappearing into code.

Later ‘cyberspace’ was an uncannily accurate metaphor for getting online and disappearing into, for me, the telephone networks through phone phreaking and later the Internet and the text based online communities like IRC, NNTP, telnet based MUDs and so on.

The term ‘cyber’ is now mocked by those in information security as something uncool. I’m not sure why but I think it’s because the term has been coopted by companies trying to sell products in cyber security.

For me and I think many others, ‘cyber’ and ‘cyberspace’ are precious reminders of the beauty of Gibson’s writing and how he accidentally captured the reality that was to follow in a beautiful metaphor.

This is my favorite passage from Neuromancer as Case is cured and once again is able to access cyberspace. What I love about this passage is that it captures the sense of longing many of us have when we exist in the real world and the sense of belonging when we’re online.

And in the bloodlit dark behind his eyes, silver phosphenes
boiling in from the edge of space, hypnagogic images jerking
past like film compiled from random frames.  Symbols, figures,
faces, a blurred, fragmented mandala of visual information.
  Please, he prayed, _now --_
  A gray disk, the color of Chiba sky.
  _Now --_
  Disk beginning to rotate, faster, becoming a sphere of paler
gray.  Expanding --
  And flowed, flowered for him, fluid neon origami trick, the
unfolding of his distanceless home, his country, transparent
3D chessboard extending to infinity.  Inner eye opening to the
stepped scarlet pyramid of the Eastern Seaboard Fission Au-
thority burning beyond the green cubes of Mitsubishi Bank of
America, and high and very far away he saw the spiral arms
of military systems, forever beyond his reach.
  And somewhere he was laughing, in a white-painted loft,
distant fingers caressing the deck, tears of release streaking his
face.

The Chinese Wall that Isn’t

I used to work at a Swiss bank. At investment banks they have a virtual Chinese wall that exists between folks who do deals and the trade floor for obvious reasons.

At my bank, and this is back in 2000/2001, the people who did the deals and those who traded shared elevators, lunch rooms, pubs and so on. So you can imagine the level of cross pollination.

The US government, just another organization, has been given the green light to dig through your data if you’re storing that data in the cloud with Google using, for example, Google Drive, Google Docs or GMail. We’re trusting that they’ll keep their perusals limited to national security concerns and not tax enforcement, criminal investigation, foreign intelligence gathering or background checks and won’t leak data to credit rating agencies or anyone else. The old virtual Chinese wall.

The latest development with Google sets a precedent for other companies and their obligation to hand over data to government employees. That includes Dropbox, Intuit and their web based Quickbooks app, Facebook and so on. The trove of data the government now has access to makes the NSA’s traditional intelligence gathering look positively pedestrian. Oh for the good old days of Echelon.

As Google’s executive chairman once said, “If you don’t have anything to hide, you have nothing to fear.”.

This was where I was going to end this post. But lets take this idea a little further. Lets assume underpaid government employees are rifling through our data and habeas corpus is still as optional as extraordinary rendition. If you’re like me and are, at least in your own eyes, basically a good guy or girl, what’s the best thing you can do to prevent being falsely accused of something?

In a future world where people who have the power to accuse and convict are reading your docs, you can encrypt, encapsulate, misdirect, protest and so on. Or another approach is to provide an overwhelming amount of data on who you are, what you’re up to, what your views are, who you associate with, what you buy and so on. Remove all ambiguity on whether you’re a good or bad person. Essentially open source your life to avoid accusation.

I’m not sure what the right approach is, but as counterintuitive as it seems, I tend to favor the latter.

A thought experiment on liberty and the survival of our species

I came up with a thought experiment a few months ago and have been testing it on the smartest people I know.

This thought experiment relies on you agreeing with three premises:

1. Our knowledge of the natural universe will continue to increase.

2. Our ability to share information among each other will continue to increase.

3. Imagine everyone on the planet has a button in front of them that will destroy planet Earth and everyone on it. You can assume that we haven’t colonized space yet. You agree that a few thousand people will rush to press that button.

I agree with these three premises. If you don’t, please post why in the comments.

If you agree with these three points, it would seem we’re heading towards a world where it’s likely that our knowledge of the natural world will increase to a point where we know how to develop something that can kill all humans on planet Earth. It will also become feasible for individuals to implement that knowledge.

If you agree that information sharing will become very efficient and information will be accessible to all, the knowledge of how to create the destructor-thing that kills all people on Earth will be shared among all very quickly and efficiently.

We then have a situation where everyone on Earth has a button in front of them that can kill everything. And you’ve agreed a few thousand will rush to press the button – or implement the destructor-thing in this case.

So it seems our self destruction is inevitable.

As the conclusion to this thought experiment, I pose a question: How do we solve this problem. Specifically the problem of our inevitable self destruction through our increased knowledge of the natural universe, our ability to share information and the minority’s desire to implement self destruction. 

Thinking about this yields some interesting opinions from friends and acquaintances. These are various conclusions from different people, so don’t misunderstand and combine them:

  • Secrets are necessary.
  • A Police State is inevitable.
  • Governments will use the fear of destruction among the populace to sieze vast amounts of power.
  • Individuals will sense the inadequacy of the government to protect us from this threat and will police themselves.
  • This knowledge already exists and is kept secret which is why we haven’t seen breakthroughs of the magnitude of E=mc²

If you run across this article I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

How to avoid being unhappy and how to find happiness.

This started as a comment in reply to the sad posting on Hacker News that Linux Kernel contributor Andre Hedrick had taken his own life. I’ve seen a huge number of posts on HN during the last 2 to 3 years about depression and I worry that the Valley is an environment especially condusive to creating a very unhealthy mental state through creating unrealistic expectations and social disconnection. So here are my thoughts:

I think that many more people are at risk of falling into depression than ever before, particularly in the Valley. One of the reasons is that we are constantly exposed to the achievements of our idols and the most capable people we know via social networks and social media and we benchmark ourselves against that.

Until a decade ago your benchmark for “I’m awesome and I’m doing great” was your neighbors, your work colleagues and your friends. Now it’s the one in 100 friends or their friends who are mega-wealthy and fly to Belize for breakfast in their chartered jet and are back for lunch. If you’re not keeping up, you feel like you are somehow failing.

In the valley this is massively compounded because you are constantly surrounded by the mega-successful and are occasionally included in their jaunts. As a young 20-something you start to think you’re a loser because you aren’t vesting Google stock options or enjoying the wealth from your first $10 million exit.

If you want to be happy, do what you truly love, however humble it may be. It’s important that you’re also honest about what it is that you love. Don’t try to convince yourself that you enjoy being a “geek” and being surrounded by technology. If you enjoy the feel of cutting and shaping wood then go be a carpenter and be conformable in your own skin. If you like getting up at 3am, making bread and meeting your neighbors every morning then go be a baker and be happy.

There are in my humble opinion very few people that are actually cut out to be true geeks and to derive pleasure from long periods of solutide with nothing but the glow of a monitor and what it contains to keep you company.

Know yourself, know what makes you happy and take pleasure in the simple things in life, like the good, ordinary people who surround you every day.

Update, response to comments and some additional data:

Thanks for the comments and thanks Hacker News for taking an interest in this post. I’ve received many comments regarding clinical depression including from those with a family history of clinical depression. While it is tempting to simply answer by saying that this post is targeted at those who are simply “unhappy”, rather than suffering from a diagnosed condition of clinical depression, I find myself hesitating because I feel that often a diagnosis of a disorder leads to acceptance and complacency.

One inspiring story that comes to mind is that of John Nash who Sylvia Nasar writes about Nash’s life in great detail in “A Beautiful Mind”. [Ignore the movie, it is unrelated to the book] In her detailed biography Nasar describes how after years of drug treatment, electroshock therapy and treatment with insulin-induced comas, Nash actually found a way to succesfully treat himself by going on a “diet of the mind” as he describes it.

So if you are depressed, and even if you do suffer from clinical depression that a doctor has diagnosed and prescribed medication for, I encourage you not to give up and simply accept the prescribed treatment, but continue to look for ways to modify your behaviour, your environment, your diet and your situation to improve your prognosis.

I’d like to remind you of one final thing. Humans evolved largely during the Paleolithic era into the species that we are today. This period covered 2.6 million years of our history. We have only been “modern humans” for the last 30,000 years, which is only 1.1% of the Paleolithic. We have only been using the Internet en-masse for roughly 20 years. So when you think of creative ways to change your environment, consider which environment your species spent most of it’s time adapting to.

I wish you the very best of luck.