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Letter sent on Jun 23, 2016

Future Imperfect #29: Unprepared for cyberwarfare

Welcome to Future Imperfect! This week I’ve been following American cyberattack scenarios, differential privacy, the merits of digital nationalism, and a vision of Earth 2200.

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Oh, and if you live in the United Kingdom, don’t forget to vote today! Not that you haven’t been thoroughly bombarded with reminders over the past few weeks. Score one unofficial vote for “remain” from me…


Unprepared for cyberwarfare

Is America ready for the next attack? Maybe, at least if we’re still talking about conventional military, or even terrorist, activity. If we’re talking about our cyber defense capabilities, however, don’t get your hopes up. New York Magazine’s Reeves Wiedeman unveils “a scenario that could happen based on what already has.”

At 12:30 p.m., the Times published a story reporting that “government officials” believed that the city was being hit with a wave of cyberattacks that appeared to be ongoing. A tipster claimed the hackers had caused at least a dozen car crashes and debilitated multiple hospitals and agencies — with more to come. If they could crash a car, could they crash a subway? The Times report included a line from a nurse at New York–Presbyterian who said that the initial message announcing that the network was blocked had included a link to a web page that was displaying a timer ticking down to 1 p.m. and text that read MORE PATIENTS WILL BE ARRIVING SOON.

Cue up crashing vehicles, disabled elevators, trapped subway cars, and hacked servers across hospitals, utilities, and residences city-wide. We see an American security apparatus that is overwhelmed and under-trained to respond, while American citizens have nowhere to turn for help, let alone answers.

Why does this matter? Internet-connected devices are the most critical vector through which enemies can hurt American interests, yet cybersecurity (or choose your own preferred buzzword) barely registers a blip in today’s policy agenda. I’ll let Wiedeman have the last word:

Americans suddenly realized that, although they had spent plenty of time anguishing about how to protect the country’s physical borders, with every device they bought, they had been letting more and more invaders into their cities, their homes, and their lives. They had moved everything they did online, thinking they were moving into the future; they woke up the morning after thinking they’d moved into a war zone instead. What frightened people most wasn’t the attack itself, but rather what it foreshadowed. The day after, the hackers had sent a drone flying over the city dropping leaflets with a simple message: WE’LL BE BACK. It almost didn’t matter whether they would.

Casting a differential shroud

You might have heard that Apple is trying out a new series of security and privacy initiatives, all centered around the concept of differential privacy. Matthew Green has a great synopsis of what this term means, and how it applies to your Apple devices.

To make a long story short, it sounds like Apple is going to be collecting a lot more data from your phone. They’re mainly doing this to make their services better, not to collect individual users’ usage habits. To guarantee this, Apple intends to apply sophisticated statistical techniques to ensure that this aggregate data — the statistical functions it computes over all your information — don’t leak your individual contributions. In principle this sounds pretty good. But of course, the devil is always in the details.

Why does this matter? So much of the current conversation around digital privacy makes it out to be a binary choice—either we can maintain a shroud over our personal data, or we can be safe/get relevant advertising/etc. Differential privacy (theoretically!) strikes a middle ground—if executed properly, it could allow for widespread use of large datasets of personal information without compromising the identity of any individual. Definitely, at minimum, worth keeping an eye on.


Nationalism by any other name

If Lyman Stone’s axiom, “The nation exists in the minds of its people, nowhere else,” is true, then what stops today’s self-selected communities from choosing their own nations? Not a whole lot, but don’t take my word for it—Stone’s article is well worth a read.

If the advent of social media, the Internet, and the deep integration of political content with everyday life has indeed created intensely-networked ideological communities of shared identity and experience, then we have a serious problem. These new Ideological Nations represent a threat to traditional nationalism, and ultimately a destabilizing force to the nation-state.
The fact that an Alt-Right troll and a BLM-SJW probably don’t view each other as having anything in common is more dangerous than either side’s policy preferences. The fact that these groups basically don’t see the other side as being part of the same community, means they see each other more like how Americans of 50 years ago saw the communists than how they saw the other party. And that is incredibly dangerous. That eats away at a nation-state. The festering sore of multinationalism destroys the fabric of liberal democracy, steadily chipping away at public willingness to sacrifice for one another and empathize with one another.
In other words, the old folks were wrong: the danger of the Internet isn’t that it destroys community, but that it creates community. It’s just that it creates communities that don’t always fit into the current structures of nation-states, which can lead to violence, instability, and extremism.

Why does this matter? It’s easy to imagine America (or any country) as exempt from serious threats to its existence. It’s been here for more than 200 years, so it’s not going anywhere, right? Perhaps lets not take that for granted.

Expect to see serious concepts for digital nationalism emerge in the coming years. Perhaps not in the form of, say, Sealand or Liberland, which are still at least somewhat dependent on geography to prove its sovereignty, but something that is truly tangible to people’s personal and community identities, yet lives solely in the digital space. Perhaps kind of like David Somerville’s OSNA in Anonymia, Part 1.


A world past the brink

Linda Marsa, via Aeon, provides a look at what Earth 2200 might look like on a world wrecked by unchecked climate change.

I stare out the window from my tiny flat on the 300th floor, hermetically sealed in a soaring, climate-controlled high-rise, honeycombed with hundreds of dwellings just like mine, and survey the breathtaking vistas from my lofty perch more than half a mile above ground: the craftsman cottages with their well-tended lawns, the emerald green golf courses, the sun-washed aquamarine swimming pools and the multimillion-dollar mansions that hug the sweeping sands from Malibu to Palos Verdes. These images evoke feelings of deep nostalgia for a Los Angeles that doesn’t exist anymore, back in the halcyon days before my great-grandparents were born, when procreation wasn’t strictly regulated and billions of people roamed freely on Earth.
What I ‘see’ outside my window is an illusion, a soothing virtual imitation of a world that once was, summoned by impulses from my brain. Yet the harsh reality is unsettling…
Before the seismic shocks of the great upheavals, people’s movements were unfettered, and they could breathe unfiltered air, roam in the woods or simply watch their kids play soccer outdoors. Today, the unprotected strips of land exposed to the elements are forbidden zones, plagued by drenching rains with howling 100-mile-an-hour winds, alternating with fierce dust storms, the deadly soil tsunamis that rumble up from the deserts that blanket what used to be the United States. When there is a break in the wild weather, the scorching sun relentlessly cooks the atmosphere to temperatures of 180 degrees or more by midday, making it impossible to step outside without body armour and oxygen tanks.

Why does this matter? This exact scenario might be a bit farfetched, but no matter where you draw the line, it’s time to stop waiting for deus ex machina to solve our climate issues for us.


The next frontier in healthcare

The future of end-of-life care? A manifestation of actual A.I.? At the very least, a heartwarming story of an android that became exactly what it’s owners needed it to be. From Martin L. Shoemaker, the 2015 Nebula Award Nominee for best short story, Today I am Paul.

“I” should not exist. Not as a conscious entity. There is a unit, Medical Care Android BRKCX-01932–217JH-98662, and that unit is recording these notes. It is an advanced android body with a sophisticated computer guiding its actions, backed by the leading medical knowledge base in the industry. For convenience, “I” call that unit “me.” But by itself, it has no awareness of its existence. It doesn’t get mad, it doesn’t get sad, it just runs programs.
But Mildred’s family, at great expense, added the emulation net: a sophisticated set of neural networks and sensory feedback systems that allow me to read Mildred’s moods, match them against my analyses of the people in her life, and emulate those people with extreme fidelity. As the MCA literature promises: “You can be there for your loved ones even when you’re not.” I have emulated Paul thoroughly enough to know that that slogan disgusts him, but he still agreed to emulation.
What the MCA literature never says, though, is that somewhere in that net, “I” emerge. The empathy net focuses mainly on Mildred and her needs, but it also analyzes visitors (when she has them) and staff. It builds psychological models, and then the emulation net builds on top of that to let me convincingly portray a person whom I’ve analyzed. But somewhere in the tension between these nets, between empathy and playing a character, there is a third element balancing the two, and that element is aware of its role and its responsibilities. That element, for lack of a better term, is me. When Mildred sleeps, when there’s no one around, that element grows silent. That unit is unaware of my existence. But when Mildred needs me, I am here.
Today, I am Anna.

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