Living in a World Without Walls

by rthieme on December 1, 2012

Living in a World Without Walls


Published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel    September 16 2012


“You have zero privacy,” Scott McNealey, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems, said in 1999. “Get over it!”

He wasn’t kidding.  Privacy is gone.  But ordinary people do not yet “get”  the full implications. We still live as if it’s the middle of the twentieth century.

McNealey’s statement was made in the middle of an IT revolution that transformed our lives. In a way, that revolution is over. Information technologies will not stop advancing – the internet is disappearing into cars, homes, clothing, even inside us –  but more important, that revolution is accelerating revolutions in all other areas -–  biotechnology, nanotechnology, materials science, neuroscience, space exploration, and more.

It is embedded in every domain and accelerating progress in all of them. And because IT is transparent, because computers are in more and more things the way the electric grid is the power behind appliances,  users are not conscious of the consequences of their day-to-day transactions.

Those who gather massive amounts of data and and analyze it gain the ability to manipulate our lives in ways we don’t see, feel, or understand. They analyze transactions on a meta-level, using billions of transactions to find patterns and respond to them in real time. They store the details of individual lives. They aggregate that data with a click.

The patterns of our lives make us predictable. Those who know what we buy, what or where we eat, how or where we travel, how we vote, can capture us all like real birds in a digital cage, then move the cage, and we won’t even know it.

I have worked closely with experts in information security, hacking, and professional intelligence for twenty years. The world they inhabit is not the world experienced by most people.

A friend who has worked at the National Security Agency for decades says, “People are not asking the right questions,. They need to ask, how do we live in a world without walls? How can we live vibrantly? How can we free our minds [from the constraints of the past]?

The ways we think and behave, he is saying, are framed by technologies which become the context of our lives and disappear into background noise.

Older people still speak of “going on the internet” and “making telephone calls.” Younger generations do not see the internet or think of handheld computers as “telephones.” Global connectivity 24/7 is just what’s so. That they broadcast everything about their lives is also just what’s so.

In addition, since 9/11, our interpretation of the Constitution and how it applies has also changed radically. Warrentless wiretaps and collection and storage of the data of our lives by governments is another fact of life. It doesn’t matter which administration is in the White House. Intrusion and surveillance, from linked pubic and private networks, from cameras to massive databases, are now embedded deeply.

When meta-data from, say, cellphone transactions, is analyzed, the analysts know more about us than we know about ourselves.  Researchers at MIT, for example, detected flu symptoms before students knew they were sick, using patterns of movement and duration, They knew when two people were talking about politics, despite not knowing the content of the conversation.

And when you read a book on your sexy new “pad,” the publishers know what books you finish, how long it took, and what you immediately download next (this is why more trilogies are being published; addicted readers of melodramatic formulaic fiction tend to order the next installment right away).

“People look like little particles that move in space and occasionally communicate with each other,” says Northwestern University physicist Albert-Laszlo Barabast in a Wall Street Journal feature on smart phones

It’s hard to worry about privacy or other ethical issues from that God’s-eye perspective.

Software to monitor online activity has become so inexpensive and the means of implementing technologies of surveillance so universal that every country in the world  today can observe every single electronic transaction that takes place inside its borders.

A friend works with telecom companies to develop policies that will enable them to cooperate with governments to intercept communications. “Will we ever be free from this level of intrusion?” I asked.

Oh Richard, she said, her voice suggesting I was a naive child. Of course not.

Can we, then, prevent misuse or abuse? Can we establish levels of accountability that protect us?

The answer to that question, based on human history, is not good. Every technology is dual use, and humans will employ them across the entire spectrum of possibilities.

That leaves on the table only the question posed by my friend at NSA: how do we free our minds from the past? How do we live in a world without walls?



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