October 6, 2016

The Cyber

Can a secret still be a secret if everybody knows about it? Top brass US intelligence officials, including former NSA director General Michael Hayden, seem to think so. “Stuxnet, no comment!” echoes like a mantra ...

Can a secret still be a secret if everybody knows about it?

Top brass US intelligence officials, including former NSA director General Michael Hayden, seem to think so. “Stuxnet, no comment!” echoes like a mantra throughout the beginning of Zero Days, Alex Gibney’s latest documentary, airing on Showtime November 19th. Unfortunately for the higher-ups at NSA, the secret’s out and pandora’s cyber box has been thrown wide open.

Co-designed by NSA and Mossad to wreak havoc on Iranian centrifuges back in the mid 2000’s, the Stuxnet virus, “the Stradivarius of malware,” has ushered in a whole new world, one in which physical objects in the real world can be turned into targets for sophisticated cyber weapons.

Nations around the world have rules of war IRL—treaties and red lines for nuclear and chemical weapons—but what are the rules of engagement online? Al-Qaeda whistleblower and all-around intelligence guru, Richard Clarke, tells us about the critical need for a new Geneva Convention for cyber warfare.

The Internet began with beautiful dreams of free-flowing information, of unfettered access to all the world’s information, of technology making the world a better place. But behind all the promises and wonders lay hidden vulnerabilities. Now with each hack, each breach, each leak—all spawning thousands of news stories around the world—we’re all being forced to confront the other side of paradise.

This hour, it’s digitally assured destruction, with Walter Isaacson, Richard Clarke, Alex Gibney, Jeremy Allaire, Sara M. Watson and Jonathan Zittrain.

Timeline: Weaponizing the Web

  • 1952: The National Security Administration (NSA) is founded secretly by the Truman administration to surveil communications and provide intelligence to governments.
  • 1952: Israel’s intelligence corps Unit 8200 founded.
  • 1989: Tim Berners-Lee conceives of the internet at CERN.
  • 2007-10: The US and Israel sabotage Iran’s uranium enrinchment facilities at Natanz with Stuxnet, malware coded by the NSA in conjunction with Unit 8200. It’s the first time a cyber attack affects real-world infrastructure. (Reuters)
  • 2009: United States Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM) created under the Obama administration as the “offensive” outgrowth of the “defensive” NSA. (Washington Post)
  • 2010 Iran creates their own cyber command organization, قرارگاه دفاع سایبری‎‎ (The Cyber Defense Command).
  • 2012: Iran’s Cyber Defense Command releases a virus that erases three-quarters of the files at Aramco, Saudi’s national oil company. (New York Times)
  • 2013: Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald leak NSA documents, revealing the scope of the U.S. executive branch’s global surveillance powers. (The Guardian)
  • 2015: Obama administration releases official cyber policy. (The White House)
  • 2016: Justice Department indicts seven Iranian hackers for breaking into major US banks and attempting to shut down a dam in NY. (Bloomberg)
  • 2016: Alex Gibney documentary reveals large-scale offensive cyber program, Nitro Zeus. (New York Times)

Extended interviews


August 25, 2016

DFW, FTW: Life In the Internet Age

This week sees the opening of The End of the Tour, an updated My Dinner with Andre about David Foster Wallace’s book tour in 1996 for his immeasurable novel, Infinite Jest. On that tour Wallace stopped ...

This week sees the opening of The End of the Tour, an updated My Dinner with Andre about David Foster Wallace’s book tour in 1996 for his immeasurable novel, Infinite Jest.

On that tour Wallace stopped by our old show, The Connection, and put forward a pitch: his America — better protected, educated, and entertained than ever — was entering a sad spiritual drift. And as a recovering addict, he hoped to help himself (and others) to grope toward inward peace amid the buzz of the coming 21st-century culture.

It’s now almost 20 years later. Is there a chance Wallace, who died in 2008, was right?

His masterpiece novel, Infinite Jest, what we took to be manic imagination now looks like prophesy: it was hung up on lethally good amusement long before screen addiction became a national anxiety and people dropped dead at their keyboards in Asian arcades. Wallace foresaw about the paralyzing strangeness of watching yourself in HD; now we have the selfie stick. He thought virtual-reality porn could destroy civilization as we know it — and now that’s available in prototype (the link is news, but still not safe for work!).

The president Wallace imagined in Infinite Jest’s near future? Johnny Gentle, a dried-up celebrity-turned-wall-building-germaphobe intent on shooting American waste into space. Gentle wins on “a surreal union of both Rush L.- and Hillary R.C.-disillusioned fringes… an angry reactionary voter-spasm.” In other words, he’s Donald Trump.

So, as Trump steps in and Jon Stewart steps out of a long career of laughing ruefully at all the bad news — maybe much of what we’re going through is somewhere inside Wallace’s long body of work, a one-man epic of irony, sincerity, mania, depression, addiction and forbearance.

A.O. Scott, chief film critic at the New York Times, told us Wallace captured the new voices inside American heads better than anybody else:

He was writing in fairly early days of the Internet and in advance of a lot of the digital culture that we now tend to blame for our alienation and loneliness and melancholy… I think that that sadness, that melancholy, that sense of a disconnection, of a perpetual un-fulfillment is a condition of modern life that renews itself in every generation and in every new technological dispensation… He was a very precise mimic in a way of a certain style of consciousness that is still very much with us and has if anything, intensified as the artifice and the addictive power of television has been supplanted and trumped by the addictive power of all these other screens that we now have.

We were joined by novelist and critic Renata Adler, who mapped that melancholy onto the meta American story, not the media. Postwar triumphalism and “public happiness”  gave way to something more paranoid, desperate, and defeated.

Maria Bustillos,who writes about culture for The Awl and The New Yorker, ventured that the latest phase of web living has us almost “lethally selfish,” comfortable with markets and politics that ignore real-world strife.  But, Bustillos says the heady, town-hall spirit of early blogger time isn’t lost forever; she still sees “a humanity rising up” in the Internet and its young users.

And Paul Ford — writer, programmer, and public intellectual of the web — agreed with his pal Maria. Ford points to their own web friendship (and even to Tinder!) to say that there is life on and off the web:

It’s remarkable that you put Maria and me both on this program. We have been chatting ambiently for years. When she comes to New York City, we go out and get coffee, and she gives big, strong tremendous hugs! There is an emerging physicality and sense of literal human touch that I think actually the Internet enabled… I live in this building far out in Brooklyn and we’ve all moved in there with our kids, and half the people in there met online. There is more physicality. There are more people meeting up, more people finding spaces for each other as a result, at the ground level.

October 9, 2014

Big Data: Who Are We On The Web?

On a corporatized Web, we’re often the sum of our all data — packaged and sold to data brokers for pennies. But the dream of the Internet was that we would be the producers, not the product: participants in a conversation outside of the force of gravity of moneyed media.

When you live on a computer, every hair on your head is numbered — every click, too, every date and breakup, every want and need. Christian Rudder, resident data guru for OKCupid, is parsing the numbers and rediscovering people: what men and women want (it’s not the same thing), that love is blind, that racism is still alive, and that there is in fact as a “whitest band in the world.” (It’s Belle and Sebastian, according to the data.) There’s a voyeuristic thrill to reading a book like Rudder’s Dataclysm, a book that wants to tell us “who we are (when we think no one is looking)”.

But Astra Taylor puts forward another view of what and who we might be online. On a corporatized Web, we’re often the sum of our all data — packaged and sold to data brokers for pennies. But the dream of the Internet was that we would be the producers, not the product: participants in a conversation outside of the force of gravity of moneyed media.

For all the worry about the NSA, it raises the question: just how well do Google, Facebook, or Apple know you? And would you change the arrangement, if you could?

And the data debate raises all the big philosophical questions, too, about our existence and our essence. Can technology help us to become better people, or only to see ourselves as we are?

 

Podcast • February 21, 2012

David Weinberger in “the smartest room in the house”

  The start of our David Weinberger conversation, with Mary McGrath, in Bob Doyle’s studio, 2003 I take it as self-evident that the truth about being human is that we’re always interpreting; and we’re disagreeing ...

 

The start of our David Weinberger conversation, with Mary McGrath, in Bob Doyle’s studio, 2003

I take it as self-evident that the truth about being human is that we’re always interpreting; and we’re disagreeing with other people’s interpretations. And that’s both the bane and the greatest joy of life. That’s what knowledge is.

David Weinberger in conversation with Chris Lydon at the Harvard Law School, February 17, 2012.

David Weinberger has made it his job to deal with the Internet as a philosophical event — as a radical turn in human understanding of understanding itself. Our conversations began a decade ago, between The Cluetrain Manifesto (1999) and his own sparkling treatise Small Pieces Loosely Joined (2002), which promised that the new information hardware and software would change everything. His new book Too Big to Know is an occasion here for a Ten Year Report on the Digital Age and how it has dismantled old taxonomies of learning, old hierarchies of expertise.

We’re talking about why (paraphrasing his subtitle) on finding “the smartest person in the room,” our first instinct is to look for a smarter room. We’re talking about how “knowledge” (conceived as libraries of information, even wisdom, like our old dining-room Book of Knowledge) got re-imagined as fluid, accessible galaxies of often contentious conversation. We’re talking about a Top 10 list of sites that make his point: Wikipedia, of course, but also Reddit, a favorite of his, and Chowhound, a favorite of mine. Also: Jazz on the Tube, a search tool for lost-and-found jazz videos; Trip Advisor; and Nate Silver’s hard-core political site 538, now part of the New York Times coverage online.

Arxiv.org turns out to be the site that reveals David Weinberger’s argument most significantly. It’s a scientific research journal I’d never read before — a serious but wide-open site, as David Weinberger explains, where “any scientist of any standing can post any thing.” It’s a site, furthermore, that made major news just recently about the speed of light.

“That’s where these findings are posted. Very responsible scientists. And over the course of a couple of months, over 80 other papers were posted there in response and it spread out immediately across the web, in posts and tweets – the whole ecology jumped in. And as a result, the ecology of knowledge got filled out far more than it ever could be before… First of all, it shows how you scale knowledge. Had this gone through the peer-review process to get published in an important journal – which this paper certainly would have in the old days – had they chosen that route, it would have taken a year, a year and a half… The old idea that we have the peer-review process to protect us so that we only got good science – well, yeah, it does that – but it also restricted science so severely that it couldn’t work as quickly or as broadly as we want it too… The knowledge lives in that network. The pieces are connected and arguing with one another – not agreeing – and that’s where the knowledge is not only developed, but that’s where in any real sense knowledge lives. And it has value because it includes not just the original paper but all of the responses to it, all of which are different from, and in many cases disagree with that original paper. Knowledge lives in networks; these networks have value because of the differences and disagreements among the pieces — which is an inversion of how knowledge used to work.”

David Weinberger on how the new knowledge networks of Arxiv.org invert the old models of scientific discussion.

We’re speaking also of gaps in the transformation — gaps, as it seems to me, in empathy, “wisdom” and the applied power of the new information. In the potentially universal “social web,” we can all feel the tendency to “stay local,” not to leap boundaries. I’m wondering if we’ll ever look to the Web for anything like the pleasures of deep reading. And I’m complaining that the Web is a political tool of uncertain utility. The SOPA restrictions on Internet freedoms died in the Congress as soon as Internet took notice and rose up against it. On the other hand, the glib (and to my mind insane) rationales we read for a US and/or Israeli preemptive attack on Iran have not been confronted in any systematic way by the “wisdom of crowds” online around the world.

Podcast • June 7, 2011

Joi Ito: How to Save the Internet from its Success

If the Internet dream could take human form, it might look and sound a lot like cheerful, boyish, 44-year-old Joi Ito, the new director of the fantasy factory known as the MIT Media Lab. Like ...

fl20061105x1aIf the Internet dream could take human form, it might look and sound a lot like cheerful, boyish, 44-year-old Joi Ito, the new director of the fantasy factory known as the MIT Media Lab. Like the Web, he’s everywhere and nowhere — often, in fact, 30,000 feet in the air, circumnavigating the planet every couple of weeks, but wrapped always in a digital cloud of conversation and omnidirectional exploration.

Joi Ito draws on Japanese roots and American experience. Born and continually tutored by his grandmother in the old cultural capital, Kyoto, he was raised also by his parents in surburban Detroit. But his air seems less East-West hybrid than a spirit of self-consciously detribalized human energy. His home airport now is Dubai, because he wanted to cultivate a Middle Eastern perspective on events, investments, social turmoil.

Joi Ito is as complexly “global” a citizen as Pico Iyer, the English-Indian writer who went to university in the States and now bases himself at TIME magazine and in Japan. But the effects, and the affect, are entirely different. Pico Iyer’s passions are literary; his oldest best friend is the Dalai Lama. Joi Ito’s issues — applied urgently to technology, culture, teaching and learning — are innovation, openness, connectedness. His passions — which seem to be engaged serially — have evolved from experimental “industrial” music, which he transported from Chicago to Tokyo, to start-up investments (early into Twitter, Kickstarter, Flickr). Then came on-line games, and scuba diving. In conversation, he might impel you to join his advanced World of Warcraft guild; but then he might make others scream “Only disconnect!” and go home to a Victorian novel.

Like the Web, Joi Ito is a natural-born connector — cherished by fellow futurists for giving them courage. Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the Media Lab 25 years ago and author of Being Digital says of his heir: “Joi got the job because he is the most selfless young person I know who has made his short life-time one of enablement. This is so key. The Media Lab is now much broader than I ever knew it, where the ‘media’ du jour is the mind.” Joi’s job, Negroponte adds, “is to make the Lab crazy again.”

We are talking about wrinkles in the Internet dream — about the self-cancelling possibility, for example, that digital tech has leveraged the surveillance state as much as it has linked up the social-justice crowds. I’m asking Joi Ito about Doc Searls‘ dread, that “our commons is being enclosed” by phone companies, the entertainment industry and regulators who see the Net essentially as “a better way to get TV on your mobile device, delivered for subscription and usage fees.” And I’m venting some of my own latter-day anxiety about the damage the Internet has done to the old-media institutions we miss more and more, and maybe didn’t cherish enough — the late great New York Times, to name just one.

Podcast • September 21, 2010

Daniel Kehlmann’s Fame: The Self in the Cyber Century

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Daniel Kehlmann (40 minutes, 19 mb mp3) Daniel Kehlmann is a very funny, very philosophical young fictionist from Germany who will make you want more like him — ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Daniel Kehlmann (40 minutes, 19 mb mp3)

Daniel Kehlmann is a very funny, very philosophical young fictionist from Germany who will make you want more like him — and more playfully engaging books like his Fame, a novel in nine linked short stories, or “episodes.” A number of reviewers who seem not to have read the book suggest that Fame is all about celebrity, which it’s not at all. It’s an imaginative probe into the YouTube universe and the always-online feel of our emergent cyber-humanity — into cell-phone effects on our self-hood, or Facebook effects on our fantasies. It is also a storyteller’s bright-eyed rumination on what the digital range and speed of our lives have made possible, or impossible, in stories themselves. The new taken-for-granted info tech has realized the yearning in endless fairy tales, for example, for telepathy: if only I could whisper a word to the lost beloved… It has enabled double-lives and resurrections that used to happen only in dreams and miracles. At the same time, the ways we connect now have collapsed, among other things, the “big goodbye” scene in prose or on the movie screen. How could we summon a surge of tears nowadays hearing Ilsa tells Rick, “We’ll always have Paris…,” when we know that two minutes later, in today’s world, would come the first text message?

Flickering in the Kehlmann background are deeper, more delightful riddles. One of the central stories in Fame introduces Rosalie, an older woman with terminal cancer, making her way to an assisted-suicide clinic in Zurich. En route she rebukes the author of her story and pleads with him to save her: “Is there no chance, she asks me. It’s all in your hands. Let me live.” To which the author replies: “This isn’t a life-affirming story. If anything, it’s a theological one.”

Kehlmann’s theology, in our conversation, is richer than what we’ve often heard about authors playing God with their characters:

Any story puts me, as the writer of the story, into the godlike position of creating people to make their life difficult, to make them suffer because I have a plan for them. The plan is just to get the story as good as possible. There is a kind of teleology in getting the story right, because all the things happening to a character, causing pain to the character, ruining the life of this character, they are there for the greater good of getting a good story. And so this is exactly the same position in classical theology where the theologian tries to justify god: we are told that yes, you are suffering, but you are suffering because there is a plan. You might not understand this plan, maybe you never will, but you should trust that there is such a plan and that’s why you should accept your suffering.

When I made Rosalie protest against this, and tell the writer “don’t do this to me. I don’t care about your plan,” it wasn’t just a metafictional game. It was a very real point that in the face of basic human suffering the whole idea of a bigger plan justifying all that seems ridiculous. To me this was a very serious theologically, philosophically charged story which also had a very personal twist because Rosalie is also telling the writer “one day all this will happen to you, you will be in pain, you will be dying, you will hope that somebody, against the plan, will just save you and it will not happen.” It’s true, and she was not just talking to some abstract writer, at this moment she was talking about me and the fact that it will happen to me too.

… Even when I started the story, I had always intended the ending that the writer interferes and ruins the story and saves the character. Then the writer also says “I hope someday somebody will do the same for me.” I think, well, as you say in English, “fat chance!”

Daniel Kehlmann with Chris Lydon at the Harvard Bookstore, Cambridge, September 20, 2010