Книга: Code 2.0

East Coast and West Coast Codes

East Coast and West Coast Codes

Throughout this section, I’ve been speaking of two sorts of code. One is the “code” that Congress enacts (as in the tax code or “the U.S. Code”). Congress passes an endless array of statutes that say in words how to behave. Some statutes direct people; others direct companies; some direct bureaucrats. The technique is as old as government itself: using commands to control. In our country, it is a primarily East Coast (Washington, D.C.) activity. Call it “East Coast Code.”

The other is the code that code writers “enact” — the instructions imbedded in the software and hardware that make cyberspace work. This is code in its modern sense. It regulates in the ways I’ve begun to describe. The code of Net95, for example, regulated to disable centralized control; code that encrypts regulates to protect privacy. In our country (MIT excepted), this kind of code writing is increasingly a West Coast (Silicon Valley, Redmond) activity. We can call it “West Coast Code.”

West Coast and East Coast Code can get along perfectly when they’re not paying much attention to each other. Each, that is, can regulate within its own domain. But the story of this chapter is “When East Meets West”: what happens when East Coast Code recognizes how West Coast Code affects regulability, and when East Coast Code sees how it might interact with West Coast Code to induce it to regulate differently.

This interaction has changed. The power of East Coast Code over West Coast Code has increased. When software was the product of hackers and individuals located outside of any institution of effective control (for example, the University of Illinois or MIT), East Coast Code could do little to control West Coast Code.[34] But as code has become the product of companies, the power of East Coast Code has increased. When commerce writes code, then code can be controlled, because commercial entities can be controlled. Thus, the power of East over West increases as West Coast Code becomes increasingly commercial.

There is a long history of power moving west. It tells of the clash of ways between the old and the new. The pattern is familiar. The East reaches out to control the West; the West resists. But that resistance is never complete. Values from the East become integrated with the West. The new takes on a bit of the old.

That is precisely what is happening on the Internet. When West Coast Code was born, there was little in its DNA that cared at all about East Coast Code concerns. The Internet’s aim was end-to-end communication. Regulation at the middle was simply disabled.

Over time, the concerns of East Coast Coders have become much more salient. Everyone hates the pathologies of the Internet — viruses, ID theft, and spam, to pick the least controversial. That universal hatred has warmed West Coast Coders to finding a remedy. They are now primed for the influence East Coast Code requires: adding complements to the Internet architecture that will bring regulability to the Net.

Now, some will continue to resist my claim that the government can effect a regulable Net. This resistance has a common form: Even if architectures of identification emerge, and even if they become common, there is nothing to show that they will become universal, and nothing to show that at any one time they could not be evaded. Individuals can always work around these technologies of identity. No control that they could effect would ever be perfect.

True. The control of an ID-rich Internet would never be complete. There will always be ways to escape.

But there is an important fallacy lurking in the argument: Just because perfect control is not possible does not mean that effective control is not possible. Locks can be picked, but that does not mean locks are useless. In the context of the Internet, even partial control would have powerful effects.

A fundamental principle of bovinity is operating here and elsewhere. Tiny controls, consistently enforced, are enough to direct very large animals. The controls of a certificate-rich Internet are tiny, I agree. But we are large animals. I think it is as likely that the majority of people would resist these small but efficient regulators of the Net as it is that cows would resist wire fences. This is who we are, and this is why these regulations work.

So imagine the world in which we all could simply establish our credentials simply by looking into a camera or swiping our finger on a thumbprint reader. In a second, without easily forgotten passwords, or easily forged authentication, we get access to the Net, with all of the attributes that are ours, reliably and simply assertable.

What will happen then? When you can choose between remembering a pass-phrase, typing it every time you want access to your computer, and simply using your thumb to authenticate who you are? Or if not your thumb, then your iris, or whatever body part turns out to be cheapest to certify? When it is easiest simply to give identity up, will anyone resist?

If this is selling your soul, then trust that there are truly wonderful benefits to be had. Imagine a world where all your documents exist on the Internet in a “virtual private network”, accessible by you from any machine on the Net and perfectly secured by a biometric key.[35] You could sit at any machine, call up your documents, do your work, answer your e-mail, and move on — everything perfectly secure and safe, locked up by a key certified by the markings in your eye.

This is the easiest and most efficient architecture to imagine. And it comes at (what some think) is a very low price — authentication. Just say who you are, plug into an architecture that certifies facts about you, give your identity away, and all this could be yours.

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