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The feudal mode of computing (2): the resistance

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
9th November 2013


We exceptionally republish a full article, from Bruce Schneier, in two parts. Today we focus on how to re-dynamise the power of distributed networks:

3. A strategy for re-invigorating distributed power

“All isn’t lost for distributed power, though. For institutional power the Internet is a change in degree, but for distributed power it’s a change of kind. The Internet gives decentralized groups – for the first time – access to coordination. This can be incredibly empowering, as we saw in the SOPA/PIPA debate, Gezi, and Brazil. It can invert power dynamics, even in the presence of surveillance censorship and use control.

There’s another more subtle trend, one I discuss in my book Liars and Outliers. If you think of security as an arms race between attackers and defenders, technological advances – firearms, fingerprint identification, lockpicks, the radio – give one side or the other a temporary advantage. But most of the time, a new technology benefits the attackers first.

We saw this in the early days of the Internet. As soon as the Internet started being used for commerce, a new breed of cybercriminal emerged, immediately able to take advantage of the new technology. It took police a decade to catch up. And we saw it on social media, as political dissidents made quicker use of its organizational powers before totalitarian regimes were able to use it effectively as a surveillance and propaganda tool. The distributed are not hindered by bureaucracy, and sometimes not by laws or ethics. They can evolve faster.

This delay is what I call a “security gap”. It’s greater when there’s more technology, and in times of rapid technological change. And since our world is one in which there’s more technology than ever before, and a greater rate of technological change than ever before, we should expect to see a greater security gap than ever before. In other words, there will be an increasing time period where the nimble distributed power can make use of new technologies before the slow institutional power can make better use of those technologies.

It’s quick vs. strong. To return to medieval metaphors, you can think of a nimble distributed power – whether marginal, dissident, or criminal – as Robin Hood. And you can think of ponderous institutional power – both government and corporate – as the Sheriff of Nottingham.

So who wins? Which type of power dominates in the coming decades?

Right now, it looks like institutional power. Ubiquitous surveillance means that it’s easier for the government to round up dissidents than it is for the dissidents to anonymously organize. Data monitoring means it is easier for the Great Firewall of China to block data than it is to circumvent it. And as easy as it is to circumvent copy protection schemes, most users can’t do it.

This is largely because leveraging power on the Internet requires technical expertise, and most distributed power groups don’t have that expertise. Those with sufficient technical ability will be able to stay ahead of institutional power. Whether it’s setting up your own e-mail server, effectively using encryption and anonymity tools, or breaking copy protection, there will always be technologies that are one step ahead of institutional power. This is why cybercrime is still pervasive, even as institutional power increases, and why organizations like Anonymous are still a social and political force. If technology continues to advance – and there’s no reason to believe it won’t – there will always be a security gap in which technically savvy Robin Hoods can operate.

My main concern is for the rest of us: everyone in the middle. These are people who don’t have the technical ability to evade either the large governments and corporations that are controlling our Internet use, or the criminal and hacker groups who prey on us. These are the people who accept the default configuration options, arbitrary terms of service, NSA-installed back doors, and the occasional complete loss of their data. In the feudal world, these are the hapless peasants. And it’s even worse when the feudal lords – or any powers – fight each other. As anyone watching Game of Thrones knows, peasants get trampled when powers fight: when Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon fight it out in the market; when the US, EU, China, and Russia fight it out in geopolitics; or when it’s the US vs. the terrorists or China vs. its dissidents. The abuse will only get worse as technology continues to advance. In the battle between institutional power and distributed power, more technology means more damage. Cybercriminals can rob more people more quickly than criminals who have to physically visit everyone they rob. Digital pirates can make more copies of more things much more quickly than their analog forebears. And 3D printers mean that the data use restriction debate now involves guns, not movies. It’s the same problem as the “weapons of mass destruction” fear: terrorists with nuclear or biological weapons can do a lot more damage than terrorists with conventional explosives.

It’s a numbers game. Very broadly, assume there’s a particular crime rate society is willing to tolerate. With historically inefficient criminals, we were willing to live with some percentage of criminals in our society. As technology makes each individual criminal more powerful, the percentage we can tolerate decreases. This is essentially the “weapons of mass destruction” debate: as the amount of damage each individual terrorist can do increases, we need to do increasingly more to prevent even a single terrorist success.

The more destabilizing the technologies, the greater the rhetoric of fear, and the stronger institutional power will get. This means even more repressive security measures, even if the security gap means that such measures are increasingly ineffective. And it will squeeze the peasants in the middle even more.

Without the protection of feudal lords, we’re subject to abuse by criminals and other feudal lords. Also, there are often no other options but to align with someone. But both these corporations and the government – and sometimes the two in cahoots – are using their power to their own advantage, trampling on our rights in the process. And without the technical savvy to become Robin Hoods ourselves, we have no recourse but to submit to whatever institutional power wants.

So what happens as technology increases? Is a police state the only effective way to control distributed power and keep our society safe? Or do the fringe elements inevitably destroy society as technology increases their power? Probably neither doomsday scenario will come to pass, but figuring out a stable middle ground is hard. These questions are complicated, and dependent on future technological advances that we cannot predict. But they are primarily political questions, and any solutions will be political.”

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