The battle for Ring Zero
The esoteric argument I have been having with myself since 2002.
In Bruce Sterling’s Locus review of my novel Walkaway, he describes the book as “advancing and demolishing potential political arguments that have never been made by anybody but [me].” That is a fair cop. I spend a lot of time worrying about esoteric risks that no one else seems to care about.
For example: for twenty years now, I have been worrying about the shifting political, technical and social frameworks that govern our fundamental relationships to the computers that are now woven into every aspect of our civil, personal, work and family lives.
Specifically, I’m worried that as computers proliferate, so too do the harms in which computers are implicated, from cyberattacks to fraud to abuse to blackmail to harassment to theft. That’s partly because when a computer is in your door-lock, burglaries will increasingly become cybercrimes. But it’s also partly because of something fundamental to the nature of computers: their infinite configurability.
At its very foundational level, the modern computer is “general purpose.” Every computer we know how to make can run every program we know how to write. That’s why computers are so powerful and so salient: computers can do so many things, and any advance in computing power and efficiency ripples out to all the things computers can do. Investment in improvements to computers used in cars result in advances to computers used in fitness trackers, thermostats and CCTV cameras.
That general-purposeness is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it means that we don’t have to invent a whole new kind of computers to power an appliance like a printer. On the other hand, it means that our printers can all run malware:
On balance, and without minimizing their harms and risks, I am in favor general-purpose computers. Partly, that’s because I think general-purpose computers’ contributions to our lives and civilization outweigh the problems of general-purposeness. But, even more importantly, I think that the collateral damage of trying to remove…