Posts Tagged ‘Information Security’

The backblog at The Spiral Staircase includes numerous book reviews and three book-blogging projects — one completed and two others either abandoned or on semi-permanent hiatus. I’m launching a new project on Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (1982), which comes highly recommended and appears quite interesting given my preoccupations with language, literacy, and consciousness. To keep my thinking fresh, I have not consulted any online reviews or synopses.

Early on, Ong provides curious (but unsurprising) definitions I suspect will contribute to the book’s main thesis. Here is one from the intro:

It is useful to approach orality and literacy synchronically, by comparing oral cultures and chirographic (i.e., writing) cultures that coexist at a given period of time. But it is absolutely essential to approach them also diachronically or historically, by comparing successive periods with one another. [p. 2]

I don’t recall reading the word chirographic before, but I blogged about the typographic mind (in which Ong’s analyses are discussed) and lamented that the modern world is moving away from literacy, back toward orality, which feels (to me at least) like retrogression and retreat. (Someone is certain to argue return to orality is actually progress.) As a result, Western institutions such as the independent press are decaying. Moreover, it’s probably fair to say that democracy in the West is by now only a remnant fiction, replaced by oligarchic rule and popular subscription to a variety of fantasy narratives easily dispelled by modest inventory of what exists in actuality.

Here is another passage and definition:

A grapholect is a transdialectal language formed by deep commitment to writing. Writing gives a grapholect a power far exceeding that of any purely oral dialect. The grapholect known as standard English has accessible for use a recorded vocabulary of at least a million and a half words, of which not only the present meanings but also hundreds of thousands of past meanings are known. A simply oral dialect will commonly have resources of only a few thousand words, and its users will have virtually no knowledge of the real semantic history of any of these words. [p. 8]

My finding is that terms such as democracy, liberalism, social justice, etc. fail to mean anything (except perhaps to academics and committed readers) precisely because their consensus usage has shifted so wildly over time that common historical points of reference are impossible to establish in a culture heavily dominated by contemporary memes, slang, talking heads, and talking points — components of orality rather than literacy. And as part of a wider epistemological crisis, one can no longer rely on critical thinking to sort out competing truth claims because the modifier critical now bandied about recklessly in academia, now infecting the workplace and politics, has unironically reversed its meaning and requires uncritical doublethink to swallow what’s taught and argued. Let me stress, too, that playing word games (such as dissembling what is means) is a commonplace tactic to put off criticism by distorting word meanings beyond recognition.

Although it’s unclear just yet (to me, obviously) what Ong argues in his book beyond the preliminary comparison and contrast of oral and chirographic cultures (or in terms of the title of the book, orality and literacy), I rather doubt he argues as I do that the modern world has swung around to rejection of literacy and the style of thought that flows from deep engagement with the written word. Frankly, it would surprise me if his did; the book predates the Internet, social media, and what’s now become omnimedia. The last decade in particular has demonstrated that by placing a cheap, personal, 24/7/365 communications device in the hands of every individual from the age of 12 or so, a radical social experiment was launched that no one in particular designed — except that once the outlines of the experiment began to clarify, those most responsible (i.e., social media platforms in particular but also biased journalists and activist academics) have refused to admit that they are major contributors to the derangement of society. Cynics learned long ago to expect that advertisers, PR hacks, and politicians should be discounted, which requires ongoing skepticism and resistance to omnipresent lures, cons, and propaganda. Call it waking up to reality or simply growing up and behaving responsibly in an information environment designed to be disorienting. Accordingly, the existence of counterweights — information networks derived from truth, authority, and integrity — has always been, um, well, critical. Their extinction presages much graver losses as information structures and even the memory of mental habits that society needs to function are simply swept aside.

Caveat: this post is uncharacteristically long and perhaps a bit disjointed. Or perhaps an emerging blogging style is being forged. Be forewarned.

Sam Harris has been the subject of or mentioned in numerous previous blog posts. His podcast Making Sense (formerly, Waking Up), partially behind a paywall but generously offered for free (no questions asked) to those claiming financial hardship, used to be among those I would tune in regularly. Like the Joe Rogan Experience (soon moving to Spotify — does that mean its disappearance from YouTube?), the diversity of guests and reliable intellectual stimulation have been attractive. Calling his podcast Making Sense aligns with my earnest concern over actually making sense of things as the world spins out of control and our epistemological crisis deepens. Yet Harris has been a controversial figure since coming to prominence as a militant atheist. I really want to like what Harris offers, but regrettably, he has lost (most of) my attention. Others reaching the same conclusion have written or vlogged their reasons, e.g., “Why I’m no longer a fan of ….” Do a search.

Having already ranted over specific issues Harris has raised, let me instead register three general complaints. First, once a subject is open for discussion, it’s flogged to death, often without reaching any sort of conclusion, or frankly, helping to make sense. For instance, Harris’ solo discussion (no link) regarding facets of the killing of George Floyd in May 2020, which event sparked still unabated civil unrest, did more to confuse than clarify. It was as though Harris were trying the court case by himself, without a judge, jury, or opposing counsel. My second complaint is that Harris’ verbosity, while impressive in many respects, leads to interviews marred by long-winded, one-sided speeches where the thread is hopelessly lost, blocking an interlocutor from tracking and responding effectively. Whether Harris intends to bury others under an avalanche of argument or does so uncontrollably doesn’t matter. It’s still a Gish gallop. Third is his over-emphasis on hypotheticals and thought experiments. Extrapolation is a useful but limited rhetorical technique, as is distillation. However, treating prospective events as certainties is tantamount to building arguments on poor foundations, namely, abstractions. Much as I admire Harris’ ambition to carve out a space within the public sphere to get paid for thinking and discussing topics of significant political and philosophical currency, he frustrates me enough that I rarely tune in anymore.

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Much ado over nothing was made this past week regarding a technical glitch (or control room error) during the first of two televised Democratic presidential debates where one pair of moderators’ mics was accidentally left on and extraneous, unintended speech leaked into the broadcast. It distracted the other pair of moderators enough to cause a modest procedural disruption. Big deal. This was not the modal case of a hot mic where someone, e.g., a politician, swears (a big no-no despite the shock value being almost completely erased in today’s media landscape) or accidentally reveals callous attitudes (or worse) thinking that no one important was listening or recording. Hot mics in the past have led to public outrage and criminal investigations. One recent example that still sticks in everyone’s craw was a novice political candidate who revealed he could use his fame and impudent nerve to “grab ’em by the pussy.” Turned out not to be the career killer everyone thought it would be.

The latest minor furor over a hot mic got me thinking, however, about inadvertent revelation of matters of genuine public interest. Three genres spring to mind: documentary films, whistle-blowing, and investigative journalism, that last including category outliers such as Wikileaks. Whereas a gaffe on a hot mic usually means the leaker/speaker exposes him- or herself and thus has no one else to blame, disclosures occurring in the other three categories are often against the will of those exposed. It’s obviously in the public interest to know about corruption, misbehavior, and malfeasance in corporate and political life, but the manner in which such information is made public is controversial. Those who expose others suffer harassment and persecution. Documentarians probably fare the best with respect to being left alone following release of information. Michael Moore, for all his absurd though entertaining theatrics, is free (so far as I know) to go about his business and do as he pleases. However, gestures to protect whistle-blowers are just that: gestures. Those who have leaked classified government information in particular, because they gained access to such information through security clearances and signed nondisclosure agreements (before knowing what secrets they were obliged to keep, which is frankly the way such obligations work), are especially prone to reprisal and prosecution. Such information is literally not theirs to disclose, but when keeping others’ secrets is heinous enough, some people feel their conscience and moral duty are superior to job security and other risks involved. Opinions vary, sometimes passionately. And now even journalists who uncover or merely come into possession of evidence of wrongdoing and later publish it — again, decidedly in the public interest — are subject to (malicious?) prosecution. Julian Assange is the current test case.

The free speech aspect of revealing someone else’s amoral and criminal acts is a fraught argument. However, it’s clear that as soon as damaging information comes to light, focus shifts away from the acts and their perpetrators to those who publish the information. Shifting the focus is a miserable yet well-established precedent by now, the result being that most folks who might consider coming forward to speak up now keep things to themselves rather than suffer entirely foreseeable consequences. In that light, when someone comes forward anyway, knowing that they will be hounded, vilified, arrested, and worse, he or she deserved more respect for courage and self-sacrifice than generally occurs in the aftermath of disclosure. The flip side — condemnation, prosecution, and death threats — are already abundant in the public sphere.

Some time after reports of torture at Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, and Bagram went public, a handful of low-level servicemen (“bad apples” used to deflect attention down the command hierarchy) were prosecuted, but high-level officials (e.g., former U.S. presidents Bush and Obama, anyone in their respective administrations, and commanding officers on site) were essentially immunized from prosecution. That example is not quite the same as going after truth-tellers, but it’s a rather egregious instance of bad actors going unprosecuted. I’m still incensed by it. And that’s why I’m blogging about the hot mic. Lots of awful things go on behind the scenes without public knowledge or sanction. Those who commit high crimes (including war crimes) clearly know what they’re doing is wrong. Claims of national security are often invoked and gag laws are legislated into existence on behalf of private industry. When leaks do inevitably occur, those accused immediately attack the accuser, often with the aid of others in the media. Denials may also be issued (sometimes not — why bother?), but most bad actors hide successfully behind the deflecting shift of focus. When will those acting in the shadows against the public interest and in defiance of domestic and international law ever be brought to justice? I daresay the soul of the nation is at stake, and as long as officialdom escapes all but temporary public relations problems to be spun, the pride everyone wants to take as Americans eludes us. In the meantime, there’s a lot to answer for, and it keeps piling up.

The Internets/webs/tubes have been awfully active spinning out theories and conspiracies with respect to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton (are those modifiers even necessary?) and the shoe ready to drop if and when Julian Assange releases information in his possession reputed to spell the end of her candidacy and political career. Assange has been unaccountably coy: either he has the goods or he doesn’t. There’s no reason to tease and hype. Hillary has been the subject of intense scrutiny for 25+ years. With so much smoke billowing in her wake, one might conclude burning embers must exist. But our current political culture demonstrates that one can get away with unthinkably heinous improprieties, evasions, and crimes so long as one trudges steadfastly through all the muck. Some even make a virtue out of intransigence. Go figure.

If I were charitable, I would say that Hillary has been unfairly maligned and that her 2010 remark “Can’t we just drone this guy?” is either a fabrication or taken out of context. Maybe it was a throwaway joke, uttered in a closed meeting and forgotten except for someone who believed it might be useful later. Who can ever know? But I’m not so charitable. No one in a position of authority can afford to be flip about targeting political irritants. Hillary impresses as someone who, underneath all the noise, would not lose any sleep over droning her detractors.

There is scarcely anything on the political landscape as divisive as when someone blows the whistle on illicit government actions and programs. For instance, some are absolutely convinced that Edward Snowden is a traitor and ought to receive a death sentence (presumably after a trial, but not necessarily). Others understand his disclosures as the act of a patriot of the highest order, motivated not by self-interest but by love of country and the sincere belief in the public’s right to know. The middle ground between these extremes is a veritable wasteland — one I happen to occupy. Julian Assange is similarly divisive, and like Snowden, he appears to believe that the truth will eventually come out and indeed must. What I can’t quite reconcile is the need for secrecy and the willingness of the general public to accept leaders who habitually operate behind such veils. Talk of transparency is usually just subterfuge. If we’re truly the good guys and our ideals are superior to those of our detractors, why not simply trust in those strengths?

This xkcd comic bugged me when I first saw it, but I didn’t give it too much thought at first because its dismissive approach to media is quite familiar and a bit tiresome:

On reflections, however, and in combination with other nonsense I’ve been reading, the irksome joke/not joke hasn’t faded from my thinking. So I’ll be very unhip and respond without the appropriate ironic detachment that modern life demands of us, where everything is cool and chill and like, dude, whatever ….

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“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” –Arthur C. Clarke

/rant on

Jon Evans at TechCrunch has an idiot opinion article titled “Technology Is Magic, Just Ask The Washington Post” that has gotten under my skin. His risible assertion that the WaPo editorial board uses magical thinking misframes the issue whether police and other security agencies ought to have backdoor or golden-key access to end-users’ communications carried over electronic networks. He marshals a few experts in the field of encryption and information security (shortened to “infosec” — my, how hep) who insist that even if such a thing (security that is porous to select people or agencies only) were possible, that demand is incompatible with the whole idea of security and indeed privacy. The whole business strikes me as a straw man argument. Here is Evans’ final paragraph:

If you don’t understand how technology works — especially a technical subgenre as complex and dense as encryption and information security — then don’t write about it. Don’t even have an opinion about what is and isn’t possible; just accept that you don’t know. But if you must opine, then please, at least don’t pretend technology is magic. That attitude isn’t just wrong, it’s actually dangerous.

Evans is pushing on a string, making the issue seem as though agencies that simply want what they want believe in turn that those things come into existence by the snap of one’s fingers, or magically. But in reality beyond hyperbole, absolutely no one believes that science and technology are magic. Rather, software and human-engineered tools are plainly understood as mechanisms we design and fabricate through our own effort even if we don’t understand the complexity of the mechanism under the hood. Further, everyone beyond the age of 5 or 6 loses faith in magical entities such as the Tooth Fairy, unicorns, Fairy God Mothers, etc. at about the same time that Santa Claus is revealed to be a cruel hoax. A sizable segment of the population for whom the Reality Principle takes firm root goes on to lose faith in progress, humanity, religion, and god (which version becomes irrelevant at that point). Ironically, the typically unchallenged thinking that technology delivers, among other things, knowledge, productivity, leisure, and other wholly salutary effects — the very thinking a writer for TechCrunch might exhibit — falls under the same category.

Who are these magical creatures who believe their smartphones, laptops, TVs, vehicles, etc. are themselves magical simply because their now routine operations lie beyond the typical end-user’s technical knowledge? And who besides Arthur C. Clarke is prone to calling out the bogus substitution of magic for mechanism besides ideologues? No one, really. Jon Evans does no one any favors by raising this argument — presumably just to puncture it.

If one were to observe how people actually use the technology now available in, say, handheld devices with 24/7/365 connection to the Internet (so long as the batteries hold out, anyway), it’s not the device that seems magical but the feeling of being connected, knowledgeable, and at the center of activity, with a constant barrage of information (noise, mostly) barreling at them and defying them to turn attention away lest something important be missed. People are so dialed into their devices, they often lose touch with reality, much like the politicians who no longer relate to or empathize with voters, preferring to live in their heads with all the chatter, noise, news, and entertainment fed to them like an endorphin drip. Who cares how the mechanism delivers, so long as supply is maintained? Similarly, who cares how vaporware delivers unjust access? Just give us what we want! Evans would do better to argue against the unjust desire for circumvention of security rather than its presumed magical mechanism. But I guess that idea wouldn’t occur to a technophiliac.

/rant off