Life on the Forked Road


We are analog and digital. One is old, the other new. Civilizing the latter will take some work.

On a panel at the last LinuxCon, Linus was asked if the US government ever wanted a backdoor added to Linux. He nodded "yes" while saying "no".

While we're sure Linus meant what he said, his answer calls to mind the immortal words of Yogi Berra: "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."

We are at that fork now. We arrived when Edward Snowden began revealing to muggles what the wizards among us always knew, or at least suspected: that government spying on ordinary data communications among private individuals was not only possible, but happening.

I was talking the other day to a high-ranking US military officer who referred to our new collective condition as "post-Snowden". It is a permanent state. We aren't going back.

The central problem of post-Snowden life is that our lives are now both analog and digital. Snowden revealed the forked road we had already taken and made clear how hard it is to travel both at once.

The difference between the two sides of the fork is binary. The analog and the digital are as different and complementary as zero and one, which are also the only numbers we need for binary math. For better and worse, we now cohabitate a world that is both analog and base-2.

Today's use of base-2 mathematics traces back to Gottfried Leibniz, who wrote, "Now one can say that nothing in the world can better present and demonstrate this power than the origin of numbers, as it is presented here through the simple and unadorned presentation of one and zero or nothing." The thing "presented here" was the Chinese I Ching, which is wrapped around the more ancient notion of yin and yang, drawn by Taoists as the familiar symbol shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. I Ching

Berra-ists might prefer another Eastern symbol, theendless knot shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Endless Knot

Both convey embrasure of irony: one in a state, the other in a path.

I'd love to see a symbol for this: embodied and disembodied. The symbol shown in Figure 3 will have to do for now.

Figure 3. Embodied and Disembodied

Our analog selves are embodied. Our digital ones aren't. Yet we manifest both ways to each other.

As fleshy creatures, being analog is our permanent fate. Being digital isn't, but it's what we also are now. We need to learn what that is and how to deal with it. And we have a long way to go before being digital comes as naturally as being analog. If it ever does.

In Philosophy in the Flesh, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson say, "The mind is inherently embodied." Because of this, they continue, our bodies supply the primary metaphors we use to make sense of the world. For example, we say good is up and bad is down because we walk upright. We say good is light and bad is dark because we are diurnal. If we were nocturnal, those might be reversed. We speak of life in terms of travel (birth is arrival, death is departure or passing on, careers are paths) because we are ambulatory animals. To live is to move.

It is also fairly easy to own things in the analog world, or at least to claim them as our own. "Possession is nine-tenths of the law" because it is nine-tenths of the three-year-old. She says "It's mine!", because she has mastery of her opposable thumbs. Possession is holding.

Our senses also extend outward beyond our bodies through a capacity called indwelling. When a carpenter speaks of "my hammer", and drivers speak of "my engine", it is because their senses dwell in those things as extensions of their bodies.

But how do we dwell in the disembodied place we call the Internet? It isn't a place, even though it has sites, locations and domains that we visit and browse. Our bodies, even in public places, tend to be clothed, with things we call "privates" concealed. On the Net—so far—we are exposed in ways that are foreign to our bodily experience. Even the muggles among us knew that, to some degree, in pre-Snowden time. Now just about all of us know our degrees of personal exposure could be...anything, to a degree that is incalculable in the limited terms of our analog experience.

This near-absolute range of possibility on the disembodied digital side of our forked road is encapsulated in this single line from Kevin Kelly: "The Internet is a copy machine". When you send me a digital document over the Net, you don't yield it, as you would in the analog way. Instead, you contribute to the proliferation of everything.

T.Rob says the difference ("is one of atoms versus bits". He goes on to explain:

When surveillance was physical Newtonian physics limited what could be done. We didn't need laws or policies stating that you couldn't surveil all of the people all of the time because to do so wasn't physically possible. Because we have never had that capability before, we do not have any experience with it from a policy-making standpoint.

Having always been constrained along that boundary by what was possible, it was difficult to overstep the line of what was ethical. Today we have the reverse. The line of possibility has withdrawn so far that it no longer constrains us from crossing the line of what is ethical. But we are so unused to having to exercise self-restraint along this boundary that many are not recognizing the ethical line when they cross it. Many are in fact treating it like a land rush, grabbing all the territory between the ethical line and the possible line before policy and legislation can step in to claim it.

I suspect in the end it will come down to manners. There will be things that we do not do, even though we can. I see hope in the word protocol, which is well understood in technical circles, as well as among diplomatic and other practices back in the analog world.

But I don't have faith. Not yet. Not while the land rush is still on for marketers and government agencies, trampling our analog sensibilities. Snowden's revelations may have marked Peak Surveillance, but they also marked the point at which we start to work seriously on civilizing our digital selves.


Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal


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Life on the Forked Road

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i have enjoyed this life on the forked road article. This was really very interesting and helpful to read.

Forked Road

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I have read this Forked Road article. I really like your way of writing.

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The lost opportunity of security

Mike Warot's picture

Doc, I don't have faith either, because I know that we've lost a key opportunity to build a better future. It's very tempting to look back and point the finger at 4 key men: Gates, Jobs, Torvalds and Stallman, but that wouldn't be fair to them. They had their own battles and fog of war to overcome.

Nobody seems to really understand how truly fucked up things now stand. We could have computers on our desks, and in our hands which are honestly secure. No virus scanners, no constant need to live in fear of something taking them out at random just because you looked at the wrong document, email, or web page.

We don't have that... instead we have layers of scanners trying to quantify evil before it gets executed. We're locked into a future of having devices we can never trust. Devices which will always be a possible tool of oppression.

There is only a narrow window left, while there are still enough desktops and developers to use them to develop something new. An honestly secure operating system, which can be the foundation of honest and trustworthy computing for the masses.

I've explained capability based security so many times, and so many places... your first instinct is to say I'm calling for a silver bullet... but it's not magic, it is just common sense when you think about the really big picture. It's also not a bullet, as it's going to take epic amounts of work to get everything ported to it, years of work.

But... if we can turn this ship, just a bit, we can have computers we can trust. Computers that could then be trusted to talk to other systems. We can end the persistently insecure end-node issue, and start building an internet we can control and govern ourselves.

I hope this makes sense, and catches hold in your psyche... the stakes are huge, and I think you, dear reader, are the only hope left.

Thank you for your time and attention.

Studying linux, and looking

Dwayne Roark's picture

Studying linux, and looking for facts and fictions about it. I am enjoying it a lot yet I think I wont be ablt to achive anything. Thanks for the writing.