By Rick Sutcliffe

The biggest change to the society of the Fourth Civilization will not be pervasive computing technology per se. Certainly, the compound, sliding, dual bevel mitre saw we call the computing appliance, whether in big iron, small iron, desktop, laptop, pocket, or embedded form, is already ubiquitous. 

One assumes the embedded form will soon also be so. Indeed, to the younger of our world, computing technology is such an integral of the physical, social, and intellectual landscape that they cannot wrap their imaginations around the ancient world we older crocs have lived through without it.

Hey, they don’t know what a telephone operator, a typewriter, a tape recorder or a keypunch machine was and their younger siblings won’t recognize a CD a DVD, or a postage stamp.

But we’re all used to that. And, at some level, we all know where automation will take us: most jobs involving repetitive or routine actions will be automated and done robotically. This is already true of manufacturing; it will soon become true in transportation (“Daddy, what’s a truck driver? What’s a steering wheel?”) and it will also become true in the manual aspects of health care such as dentistry and surgery. Robots are more precise, less error prone, and can work three eight hour shifts a day seven days a week.

There’s a more important issue. The reader of this and others of the Spy’s columns back in the 80s may have scoffed when the Spy announced the eventual cessation of the concept of individual privacy–not just as a right, but even as a possibility. Get this right. He does not  speak solely of the intrusive nature of government–the Orwellian big brother syndrome–but of the parallel rise of the little sister one. In short, it has become virtually (sic) impossible to keep secrets. 

Almost everything a person does, has ever done, and especially will ever do is discoverable. Priests who shredded their vows to God and society by abusing children decades ago are outed; a politician is excoriated for donning blackface or groping a reporter in his distant misspent youth when his misdeeds are thrown in his face decades later; a head of state or candidate’s questionable past business dealings, old speeches or writings, or sleazy political maneuverings are unearthed and publicized; a teacher’s fling with her student becomes public knowledge; everyone learns where a silver screen star buys her face and body and learns the name of her divorce lawyer and next beau before a much touted marriage is months old. There are no longer any secrets. 

Part of the above fallout is of course due to the constant re-invention of what are deemed by the social drivers to be correct social moral norms. Actions once thought harmless are outed as hateful, racist, or sexist; modern values are read back into (or in criticism of) what was once thought great literature and is now condemned; the moral becomes the immoral and vice versa. Speech and even actions become not merely constrained but forcibly corrected to meet the demands of rapidly altering modern norms. All just so, but some of those outcomes are partially enabled (for good or ill according to your ox and your current values) by the main issue here–the vanishment of privacy.

As the Spy has so often noted, email and web browsing are not private (despite some services claiming to make them so), any computer can be broken into by someone sufficiently knowledgeable, and any database or connected device or system can be breeched by the skilled and patient. Indeed there are people who could bring the entire Internet down and keep it so for a considerable time if they ever donned a dark hat instead of a light one.

Hey, don’t blame computers. A hammer, a screwdriver or a literal compound sliding dual bevel mitre saw are also just tools, not possessive of intentionality and therefore neither good nor bad in themselves. Any moral, political or social implications or outcomes are exclusively attributable to the users, not the tool. Any tool can be used for legal or illegal, moral or immoral, righteous or evil, ends, in service to God and other people, or solely for greed and self aggrandizement.

“Ah,” you may say, “but I can at least encrypt my programs and files, whether stored or transmitted. At least that kind of privacy is secure.”

Programs? Any code has to be loaded as a clear copy to be run. It can therefore be saved as such. The Spy well recalls how he used to amuse himself by cracking the “protection” of commercial software and mailing back to the manufacturer an unprotected diskette. The point was never to distribute such copies to others, but to demonstrate the futility of the whole exercise and the need to spend time and energy more productively. Most of the time, removing copy protection occupied but a few minutes. 

Data? A like comment could be made, though lacking the loader, the task is harder, but it has never been impossible, and any encryption scheme not embedded in hardware can be cracked in time. “Too much time to be worth it,” you riposte?

Perhaps till now, but not for long. Google recently accidentally leaked the draft of a joint NASA paper claiming they had achieved quantum supremacy–that is, the performance of tasks by a quantum computer that cannot be done by any conventional type of computing device in any practical time frame (say, millions of years or more).

What has quantum computing to do with encryption? Merely that any known encryption scheme could in theory be broken in seconds by a quantum computer, thus destroying the last vestiges of privacy to which some still cling. And, there are other consequences. Cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin are utterly dependent on encryption technology. Such an advance in computing capabilities would render all forms of this medium of exchange obsolete, would allow any connected computer to be breached in seconds, and any file or transmission to be read in nearly real time.

Security cameras and other such appliances are already notorious for their poor security. They would have none. Anyone could watch, listen, or operate any connected device. Will there a way to restore some trappings of privacy? Not in practice a yet. Not in theory either. Hmmm. Privacy gone altogether? A good thing or a bad one? Food for thought.

On the more mundane side of the record the Spy notes some perhaps overly optimistic rumors that the 16-inch MacBook Pro may be released this fall rather than waiting till next year. If it does, one could be even more optimistic and hope that Cupertino has learned enough recently to design and produce a machine that corrects its errors and repairs its reputation to a degree. The Spy goes on record (wait, what’s  a record? Oh, yes. Vinyl is making a comeback) with his own wish list (and probabilities of them coming true):

Comes with Catalina installed (pretty much certain, be nice if simultaneously issued), no bezel for the screen (likely), make the silly and nearly useless touch bar an option (not a chance against an apparent fixation), make it easily upgradable with third party memory and SSD (seems improbable for both given Apple’s love affair with solder), incorporate a quality keyboard (better finally happen or it’s a dead dud), get the battery right (long standing multiple issues across the product spectrum), include in the box a Thunderbird three to Thunderbird two dongle (you’re on your own buddy), sell a Thunderbird three dock (we’ve got a third party opportunity for you), include a MagSafe charger (not going to happen), start the line off with the latest generation of Intel chips (more likely subtract one), build in a very significant performance upgrade (delete one or both adjectives), offer a 4K screen (subtract one again), and beat the over-under of $2,995 (nope).

Will the Spy get one anyway? Yup. Gotta be able to board an airplane without his computer being sent home in an envelope. Still, a few positive surprises in the above laundry list would be nice. See yah next month.

–The Northern Spy

Opinions expressed here are entirely the author’s own, and no endorsement is implied by any community or organization to which he may be attached. Rick Sutcliffe, (a. k. a. The Northern Spy) is professor of Computing Science and Mathematics, Interim Dean of Science, and Chair of the University Senate at Canada’s Trinity Western University. He has been involved as a member of or consultant with the boards of several organizations, and participated in developing industry standards at the national and international level. He is a co-author of the Modula-2 programming language R10 dialect. He is a long time technology author and has written two textbooks and 10 alternate history SF novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (paper and online), and he’s a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce just celebrated their fiftieth anniversary and have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of B.C. since 1972. 

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