Check Against Delivery. My speech to the IAAC.
Last night I gave a speech to a meeting of the Information Assurance Advisory Council, the UK’s talking shop for government, law enforcement, security services, and private companies around the issues of cybersecurity and the like. The whole thing was under the Chatham House rule, so it’s hard to write about, and most of the audience could have me killed. But here’s the speech I gave. As I say at the beginning, it’s very rare that I give a speech verbatim like this, but I had some very specific points to make.
“This evening I am going to be break a habit of a lifetime, and use a prepared speech. Ordinarily, I come up on stage and have slides, and videos, and talk about geopolitics and killer robots and the future of the web.
But tonight I’ve brought a written speech because I want to make a lot of points very carefully, and because you’re all rather scary. The Q&A afterwards will be more relaxed.
So, Hi. As Sir Edmund said, I’m a journalist, and technologist, and a writer and advisor to people. I’m a knowledge worker. I manipulate symbols for a living. To use the old phrase, I’m a futurist, and as the Californian thinker on such things, Kevin Kelly, recently wrote, Futurists have a dilemma, he said, as “Any believable prediction will be wrong. Any correct prediction will be unbelievable.”
So I won’t be making that many predictions tonight. You’d never believe me. Instead I’ll try to describe the world as I see it from my own experience. In the words of the author William Gibson, “the future is already here, just not evenly distributed”. I’m going to try to fix that a little before the dinner gets cold.
Now, earlier this year I give a speech in Geneva, where I painted a picture – perhaps an unfair one – of the world being split down the middle. Those who grew up before the cold war, and those who grew up after.
My theme that day was that the world is currently run by a generation whose upbringing has left them intellectually unable to be deal with modernity.
This isn’t their fault. For someone to be in charge today, they’re more than likely to be in their 50s or 60s. Which means that when the Berlin Wall fell they were most likely already steeped in an intellectual tradition that had bedded in quite far.
But what happened after 1989 was, as we all know, devastating to that tradition. The end of the bipolar world – the end of history as Fukuyama had it – and the end of the relevance of 50 years of political and military planning.
Instead, things got weird. Germany was reunited in 1990, and a few weeks later, on Christmas Day, the first web server was turned on. Nearly 21 years later, and the internet has destroyed and rebuilt everything it has touched. Hierarchies have been under attack from networks for 20 years now. History certainly didn’t end, much to everyone’s disappointment.
We all know this. Everyone in this room has seen it happen, and from beautiful vantagepoints. Indeed, everyone in this room is probably of the generation of the people I’m talking about.
You’re all the same age, and upbringing, as the people that the digital generations are so upset with. Don’t take it personally, but your peers are the sorts of baby-boomers that have been entrusted with the future, while they are obviously so deeply confused by the present.
That’s fighting talk, I know, but looking around, I think I might be ok this evening. You’re all quite smart.
Now, personally, I’m one of those terrible half-breeds. I’m 35, and so sort of third-digital-native, third-pathfinder. And despite the silly moustache and the tattoos, I’m also third-establishment – The Times, the Guardian, the BBC, Downing Street this afternoon, the FCO next week. UN fellowship, and the odd visiting lectureship, RSA, RGS and Chatham House. I may not look like, or even be, a good establishment man, but I can fake it.
So, I’ve given myself a job. I’ve taken it upon myself to be the translation layer. The guy who tells the older guys what’s going on with the younger guys, and explains to the younger guys why the weird decisions the older guys are coming up with are being made.
And I look around here and I see people who do the same thing. This is good.
In the time of revolution, and believe me this is a revolution – easily on a par with the renaissance, or the Enlightenment – the translator has a very important role to play. The communicator, the person who makes the facts palatable to all sides, is the only conduit through which real change can be made.
And in this room today, there are nearly 100 of us.
So this evening, let me help us remind ourselves of the facts at hand: As it’s only through remembering the fundamental truths that we can really do our jobs.
So let’s start at the basics, and work on up.
First. Moore’s law. You all know it: the rule of the thumb that has computing power doubling for the same price every 18 months. It makes planning really difficult. Mostly because people don’t see its relentlessness.
For example, a two term Prime Minister today would end his term of office with an iPhone 64 times as powerful as the one he won the election with. (Or the same thing, but 1/64th of the price.) His policies, therefore, need to written with that future in mind, not the present. Good luck with that.
Another example: a civil servant only gets to do really good stuff in their 40s. If they’d joined up straight out of Oxford, by the time they get a big chair, their desktop machine will be 1000s of times as powerful as when they joined.
The same goes for storage, for network speed, and so on, as you know.
This is all obvious for us, yes, but Truth Number One, is that anything that is dismissed on the grounds of the technology-not-being-good-enough-yet is going to happen. We have to tell people this.
Fundamental Truth Number two is that the internet is the dominant platform for life in the 21st century.
We can bitch about it, but Facebook, Twitter, Google and all the rest are, in many ways the very definition of modern life in the democratic west. For many, a functioning internet with freedom of speech, and a good connection to the social networks of our choice is a sign not just of modernity, but of civilisation itself.
This is not because people are “addicted to the video screen”, or have some other patronising psychological diagnosis. But because the internet is where we live. It’s where we do business, where we meet, where we fall in love. It is the central platform for business, culture, and personal relationships. There’s not much else left.
To misunderstand the centrality of these services to today’s society is to make a fundamental error. The internet isn’t a luxury addition to life; for most people, knowingly or not, it is life.
And this way we live online brings us to the Fundamental Truth Number Three: That technology changes our expectations of each other.
I collect these changes. I really like them. There are lots. A good example is about phone numbers. You might remember a time – I kinda do myself – where a phone number represented a place. That might be a hallway in a house, or a desk in an office, but it was a place – and there was a understanding that someone might not be at that place when you called.
Weirdly, you used to be able to call people and find them in a strange state of being “not in”. Schrödinger would have proud.
Now, of course, a phone number is a person. If you call my number, whereever I am on the planet, more or less, I will answer the phone. Tomorrow I’ll be in Amsterdam, and Friday I’ll be in Athens, but that doesn’t matter.
Call me. I’ll answer, partly because you all seem nice, but also because not answering one’s phone has gained a completely new social significance over the past few years. If you’re “not in” now, something may well be up.
The point is that this switch of the meaning of phone numbers, from place to person, has created a complete change in social behaviour. New technology does that. It creates new norms.
A newer example is that young children consider televisions to be broken. Why doesn’t the touchscreen work? Why can’t you pause things? Where, if we’re being old fashioned, is the mouse? No Angry Birds means it’s broken.
These are gross examples, but there are more subtle ones.
Let’s take opinion. In about ten short years, we’ve gone from there being only a specialist class of people who could have opinions, to it being a standard feature of modern life.
Ten years ago, your verdict about the meal in front of us could only have been shared with a few – your neighbours, your friends, your partner. The only opinion that mattered, that would have travelled, would be the professional critic’s, distributed in print.
The same goes for theatre, or television, music, or our views on the Prime Minister. Now, of course, there is a place to review everything.
We assume that every meal we eat, every hotel bed we sleep in, every piece of culture we consume, is something we can have an opinion on, and have it be given the same importance as an opinion from anyone else. There are rating sites online for you to rate just about anything, legal or not, and the sheer weight of amateur reviews outdoes the professionals for authority most of the time.
It’s another example of a network beating a hierachy, and it’s all pervasive in the national discourse. We are used to having our opinions matter, and so now, at the one end, politics is more shrill – more rabble-like – and at the other end, we have rioting.
Indeed, a small part of the trigger for the London riots can be understood as the gap between the respect given to peoples’s opinions by the internet, and the complete disrespect given by the government and the ruling elites.
In this way, we are undergoing a renegotiation of the social contract because of the internet, and the data up on it. We have become more empowered, more self-actualised. We know what we create simply by existing, and we know its value.
So, more than our opinions, we are used to, in fact, having our data matter.
Don’t be surprised at my meaning of “the social contract” here. People are more sophisticated in their understanding of media than you may think. We know what it means when a service is given to us for free: it means we’re the ones who are being sold. And that’s cool.
The handwringing about teenagers exposing themselves on Facebook is based on the idea that they don’t know why Facebook is so keen on that happening. Far from it.
We understand the value of our data, we have done the sums and we judged ourselves in profit. If advertisers want to know my preferred brand of whisky, or be allowed access to my travel schedule, and these disclosures gets me Facebook for free, with all its associated social utility and delights, then fine. Fair play.
The same for Tesco Clubcard, or Amazon recommendations, or whatever. We sell our data in return for a better world, and we do understand what we’re doing.
But this leads us to the next big social change. Just as we expect to be able to express an opinion – there is a growing expectation of being able to access all the other data in our world.
Let’s take architecture and public transport. I can easily monitor the public transport in London from my phone – and it actively changes the way I use the city. I make routing decisions in realtime, based on realtime data from public services.
This is not just simply cool. It’s a expectation I have to be able to do it. After all, I’m entirely used to giving people my data to improve their systems. I’m simply now expecting people to give me their data to improve my life. The freeing of public data over the past ten years has been driven by geeks, it’s true, but their arguments were merely foreshadowing a general shift in the mindset of the population at large.
The you-show-me-yours-I’m-already-showing-you-mine deal is the next big movement. Nevermind government league tables: we want everything.
We expect everything. And we expect it on our own terms.
I’ve been working through the social evolution of these technologies in this humanistic way for a simple reason. I need to make the point that this technology isn’t a removable part of life. It is ever more interwoven both into the practicalities of our lives, as well as our very mindsets.
Mindsets are good to talk about. You’re all security people, and next week is the anniversary of the event which made security people completely lose their minds: 9/11.
– Well, just as I’m empowered by the internet to be a restaurant critic, I’m also empowered to be critic of national security. So bear with me –
The government, and the security industry, in this country and elsewhere, have spent the past ten years really blowing it. Time and time again there has been a demonstration of security theatre, or overreaction, or overstatement of the risks in hand. From liquids in airports to invading Iraq, no one believes this stuff any more.
While there is no doubt that religious extremism, whatever the religion, has presented a risk to life, that threat has been so overstated as to render any other warnings, on any other subject – including the one in hand today – completely impotent.
A world where Al-Qaeda can be described by the government as an existential threat to the UK, when it is patently not, is a world where warnings about updating your virus scanner because of Chinese cyberwarriors or Russian mafia will be ignored as yet more paranoid security bullshit.
Despite the fact that it probably isn’t.
What’s worse, is that the phrase “security precautions” has become a synonym for “pointless annoying thing to do because politicians are either stupid or oppresive”.
This is bad. But it’s a very common belief. The speeches given after the London riots, about closing social networks down in times of national emergency were triply stupid in this respect.
1. They disregarded the centrality of those services in people’s lives, which made people look out of touch with modernity.
2. They were technically dubious (which pretty much everyone who would have been affected well knew),
3. They reinforced the impression you get when you go through an airport, that this is all self-justification.
In total it both makes one both feel less secure, and be less secure.
Your challenge, then – your challenge as an industry – is to communicate the risks and threats we face, and the measures and trade-offs we can make, in a way that removes yourselves entirely from the framing of the past ten years. The internet equivalent of making everyone take our shoes off at the airport won’t work.
In fact, given that the efficacy of Richard Reid as a terrorist didn’t depend on his being able to detonate his shoe at all – as arguably the downing of that flight would not have lead to the years of airport hassle and distress for millions of people – and simply in using our own overreaction against us, I’d be willing to take a bet that this sort of judo move would be something Anonymous would do, as they say, simply for the lulz.
So we need to work on ways to communicate these issues both up and down. It’s a design problem. A branding problem. It needs skills you find in advertising, or luxury goods, or pop music, not in politics or the military or espionage. And we need to educate. Not only in schools – though as Eric Schmidt of Google pointed out last week in Edinburgh, the state of IT education in this country, from primary school on up, is shameful – but also our political class. How many policy debates have you heard, from security to copyright reform, that have been predicated on technical ignorance? This is a threat to national prosperity itself far more severe than any terrorist organisation could ever be.
It remains, in too many circles, a matter of pride not to be able to programme the video recorder. That’s pathetic.
But more to the point, we have to decide what sort of country we want to live in.
As the 21st century sees us move every aspect of our lives onto the internet, the need for robust security measures is very great. But those security measures come with their own risks, and we need to draw a line in the sand.
What are we protecting, if the protection itself means we become, in some small way, a police state?
Despite the 9/11 anniversary, AQ isn’t an existential threat. Neither, really, are the Chinese.
But your industry, and the authorities you advise, might be. Not through malice, but simply through not understanding the place in society that data has taken.
So my message to you this evening, is simple. While we have Q&A over pudding, while you have your day tomorrow, and every day from then on, remember that we are living through the greatest revolution ever seen in the potential for human achievement and human connection. We can ruin it at birth, or we can nurture it. And one day, in decades to come, we’ll be asked about these years, and what we did at the birth of the internet era. The decisions you make today and tomorrow, will be the answer you will give to your grandchildren. Make it an answer you can be proud of.
I look forward to your questions. Thank you.