Many years ago, I read a story about two neighbours. One of them bred pedigree dogs with almost-human ability to show emotion; the other grew the most beautiful flowers, with a tragic flaw: the petals were poisonous, they killed all who touched them. One day, the inevitable happened. One of the dogs managed to get through/over/under the hedge between the properties, played with the petals that had fallen off the beautiful-but-deadly plant, and proceeded to die a horrible death.
The dog neighbour took the flower neighbour to court. Wanted an injunction preventing flower neighbour from growing any more beautiful-but-deadlies. The judge thought about it, and then delivered a Solomon-like judgment.
The flowers could still kill. But only if the buyer had paid for that function. Accidental touches could no longer kill. The court ordered the flower neighbour to redesign the flowers that way.
Ever since I read John Perry Barlow’s A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace I’ve been curious about just how much the world I knew, (and still know, though to a steadily declining extent) will change as a result of digital transformation.
That curiosity, underpinned by childhood and youth in Calcutta in the 1960s and 1970s, built on the foundations of being part of a Brahmin journalist family and an education based on fifteen years with the Jesuits, continues apace. It’s why I found the stuff put out by Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant and Howard Rheingold and Kevin Kelly intoxicating. It’s why I was fascinated by the world as described by people like Cory Doctorow. They were all pointing to a magnitude of change I could barely imagine.
As Roy Amara said, we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate it in the long run. When it comes to the rollout of digital infrastructure and the consequent digitisation of everything, we’re now in the long run. And we’re busy making sure Amara’s Law continues to hold.
Earlier this afternoon, I read that millions of people in the UK were being threatened by some unusual spam. The email comes with an attachment, some clever malware. The “ransomware”, as it is now called apparently, encrypts files on the computer, in effect kidnapping them. You have to pay to have them released; you effect the release by paying the ransom and receiving instructions on how to decrypt the files.
And to cap it all, the ransom has to be paid in bitcoin.
This may look like a trivial scam, but to me it represents a serious inflection point. One that was signalled to me when I heard that many purchasers of Defense Distributed’s 3D printed gun paid for their purchase using bitcoin. One which started taking real shape when I learnt that Cody was working on a Dark Wallet for bitcoin.
For too long, too many people have been labouring under the misapprehension that the internet and the web were convenient distribution mechanisms for the entertainment industry, and much of the heavy action in legal terms was in that space. Hollywood, the music industry, the publishing industry in general, have all been happily breathing sighs of relief of late, as the tablet form factor and the app-store philosophy seemed to give them back the control they were angry about losing. Paywalls are now two-a-penny.
More recently, the focus shifted to espionage and snooping; some of the players changed, privacy took centre stage, and piracy exited, followed by a bear.
All this is just a prelude.
When the Maker Generation, 3D printing and open source P2P money (as bitcoin is often described) come together, the first act will begin to take shape.
Governments will be watching, as will disaffected people everywhere, of every age, political persuasion and socio-economic status.
And the tendency will be to underestimate what’s happening. To be complacent in the belief that the hard work is over now that the internet has been tamed for content and for espionage.
Sergeant Esterhazy time.
Let’s be careful out there.