Feb 032011

I attended Here Be Dragons: Governing a Technologically Uncertain Future at Google DC today and yesterday.  It was deeply informative in an especially compelling way.  Maybe it was the topic: governance of two disruptive technologies, the internet and synthetic biology.  Maybe it was the policy experts who articulated very complex issues, or maybe it was the three famous science fiction authors.  Maybe it was the science comedian.

Curious Case of Wikileaks Panel
Curious Case of Wikileaks Panel

I took a lot of notes, and will put up separate posts for each of the sessions, in no special order.  I’m starting with the last session of day 1, The Curious Case of Wikileaks (the link is to the session video).  The panelists were Don. E. Kash, George Mason University; Rebecca MacKinnon, New American Foundation; Bruce Sterling, author; and moderator Robert Wright, New America Foundation.

Wright began the session by asking if Wikileaks was the inevitable result of where we are with information technology today.  In other words, it may be that the global distributed network infrastructure is so pervasive for all kinds of information–including highly classified–that it is a small step to disclose just about anything.  All the panelists agreed, but with different twists.

MacKinnon said that Wikileaks was a reminder about the dangers and ultimate futility of nation states keeping large quantities of classified information. She said it was time to review how to balance accountability and secrecy, and made it clear that she supported First Amendment rights, citing the belief that while she didn’t know precisely how to view the matter, she was also “anti-anti-Wikileaks.”

MacKinnon also referred to Karl Popper’s view in The Open Society and Its Enemies that it was wrong to assume that history–or technology–unfolds in a inevitable way.  We have to reject this notion to grapple with the consequences of technology and do our best to prevent harmful effects.  She further suggested that we were at a “Magna Carta moment” in which the existing ruling system doesn’t work and we need to demand a replacement.  She confessed not to know what the replacement would be, and that answers will remain elusive because “we haven’t begun to figure it out.”

This theme of “things don’t work now, there is no obvious fix and we need to have a broad national conversation to figure things out” recurred throughout the panel–and throughout the conference.

Kash pointed to the nature of the internet as a classic complex system: it is made up of numerous interacting parts that collectively give rise to outcomes that can be different than what all the components intend.  One small part can use the system to great disruptive effect, both in immediate impact as well as in forcing the entire system to adapt.

Kash noted that synthetic biology is a complex system in its early stage.  Teenagers working on DIY bio projects are no big concern, but once synthetic biology becomes integrated with the environment, health care and other major sectors the potential disruptions are enormous.  He noted that when it comes to these systems “we don’t know what to do with them, how to govern them.” Any such system always leaves us behind in controlling them because we don’t  understand them. All we can do is patch them up after a problem crops up. He said that despite years of studying complex systems, for example, it never occurred to him that something like Wikileaks would ever happen.

Curious Case of Wikileaks Panel Screen
Curious Case of Wikileaks Panel Screen

The biggest issue according to Kash is that we now face an exponential advancement of technology that government is in no position to keep up with.  He suggested a need a new commission of experts with a $20 billion annual budget and authority to invest in whatever technology they want.  They would also have authority to rapidly build new regulatory structures and also to rapidly tear them down whenever their work was finished.

Bruce Sterling weighed in with a decidedly non-academic point of view, declaring “a sense of melancholia” that something like Wikileaks had taken so long to happen. He said that he has known about threats like this for a long time.  He also said that it robbed Assange of agency to say what he did was inevitable, despite systems weakness. “We wouldn’t say that it was inevitable that Alexander Solzhenitsyn would write about the Gulag. He had to go to jail and win the Nobel Prize. And Julian [Assange] is a guy who has modeled himself on Alexander Solzhenitsyn.” His cause? “He hates nation states. He thinks the world should be run on wiki-style principles by people like himself.”

Sterling also agreed that “we are dependent on systems that are very unstable and that we don’t understand and that have vulnerabilities that we don’t know about.”  When Wright pressed for an example, Sterling said “you could go out with a cocaine [drug smuggling] submarine out of Columbia and cut 4, 5 underground cables and just blackout the U.S. Egypt-style.”  He further predicted that the Wikileaks method would be “professionalized and weaponized” by nation states.  This would yield far more serious consequences than Wikileaks, which Assange and “Australian hippies” perpetrated because “he is a geek who thought it would be cool.”