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Much of recent debate and news articles on cyber security reflect the effort by governments to make cyber more malleable and manageable by the nation-state.

This strategy to tame unmanageable problems that may detract from the nation-state, its power and legitimacy is typical. Consider the taming of tribesman by Rome–conquest or co-option–and the drawing of lines on the maps of the Middle East and Africa by the British and French in the early twentieth century for the same purpose. Despite that, tribes and nomads remain resilient forms of human organisation.

The internet poses some very different challenges to the nation-state. Not only is it a competing form of organisation, but it enables other non-nation-state organisation to gain some of the attributes of nation-states. The internet may prove susceptible to nation-state dominance. But I doubt it. Moreover, its influence in generating competition, including through reinvigorated tribes, may prove a greater challenge to the efforts to strengthen weak or failed nation-states.

Ken MacLeod on surveillance in science fiction:

… we can identify three phases: pressing down, spreading out, and hacking back. In the first phase, pervasive surveillance is a feature of dystopia. In the second, it becomes a default feature of most imagined future industrial societies. In the third, the emphasis is on ways in which citizens can subvert rather than evade surveillance (the perfect example being Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother – I can’t remember whether I put Paul McAuley’s Whole Wide World, perhaps the most thorough recent SF exploration of surveillance, in the second or the third group). 

In the course of the talk I mentioned some relevant bits of my own work, for instance the significance of small cheap video cameras, referred to in The Star Fraction as making torture difficult to keep secret. I hadn’t, however, predicted that the torturers would use the cameras to make their own home movies.

It was only after I’d finished the presentation that I realised that the three phases could be neatly mapped to the increasing cheapness and availability of the technology of surveillance and data processing: from being only available to states, to being available to large companies, to being mass consumer items. 

The Star Fraction is a great book.

A reminder that cyber security is not all about the pipes, networks or software.

Good bureaucracy is a matter of doing small things well: reward ordinary competence and be wary of feats that come too easily.

A report from the UK Royal Academy of Engineering on synthetic biology:

“Many commentators now believe that synthetic biology has the potential for major wealth generation by means of the development of major new industries, much as, for example the semi-conductor did in the last century, coupled to positive effects for health and the environment.”

August 2020