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Tweakfest - Bruce Sterling

**Update: **The mp3 recording of the speech is online

Professor, Dr., Cyberpunk (What would William Gibson say) Bruce Sterling gave a speech called “The Hacker Crackdown”, a reference to his 15 year old book about “hackers” and how the ideas and ideals have changed over time.

Starting off by comparing the original motivations for “romantic computer hacker”

  1. Anonymity, Pseudonymity or a stolen identity.

  2. Took place in another space - cyberspace

  3. Hacking involved gangs. Loose, laterally organised networks, smart mobs.

  4. High-Tech

  5. Good way to make a lot of money illegally

All of these motivations have pervailed, but developed a certain “other” quality:

  1. Identity Theft. Organized stealing

  2. Cyberspaceness has faded into a no-mans land of warfare. A computer plugged into the net will be infected in 45 seconds

  3. Gangs and smart mobs have turned into things like Open Source communities, Wikipedia and to a certain extent Google. But it has also allowed other groups like Al-Quida to organize themselves. Non state

  4. The joy of breaking certain rules has become the “breaking of everybodies rules”

  5. Computer crime will become steadily worse

He then went on to describe the different types of mail he gets. The fan-mail from those people who have been hackers (in the criminal sense) in the “good old days” but have come clean and work sysadmin jobs. He proceeded to all those criminals who didn’t send him fan mail, but “the real stuff”: Phising mails, spam in its various incarnations (drugs, gambling)

The next part of his speech is about cultural and social norms in working with technology. This jives with what I felt at reboot7, earlier this year. Technology and social norms are totally out of sync and there is probably no way that social behavior will catch up to the constant technological innovation. He gives example from Japan (Cellphones on the train, where speaking is generally frowned upon - therefore the japanese have adapted to use text messaging instead) and a cross-cultural experience in Zurich where the ragged wood-cutter meets the global nomad (Sterling) meets the english man arguing with his wife about the household.

The US goverments doctrin on war is “shock and awe”: Take out the central infrastructure with little “collateral damage”, invade, re-build the key things destroyed, peace. While this seemingly is not working in Iraq, the doctrine holds. Furthermore, it is used as the way to assess threats to the own infrastructure. This leads to the core services of the US being fairly well protected. Unfortuntately, it’s near useless if terrorists just strike a civilian target (9/11) or if a hurricane devastates a city (Katrina in New Orleans).

The same fundamental paradigm is used in defense against cyber crime. Richard Clarke who wrote the doctrine on cybercrime about 15 years ago, defends against the same “shock and awe” cyber-terrorism. Government and financial networks end up being protected fairly well, while “the public internet” is left undefended. The current cyber crime waves take advantage of that: Phising, Denial of Service attacks are all directed at Joe Doe or public companies. Little is done to defend those.

There is hope in regards to terrorism though. Terrror organisations and organized crime have a difficult position, and are in general not able to sustain themselves over a long period of time. Sterling lists 6 reasons for this:

  • They are self-appointed. They have no legitmacy

  • There are no checks and balances in such an organisation. These work very well to keep an organisation honest

  • They run on charisma. As soon as the charismatic leader is gone, the organisation has a problem

  • Severe power transferal problem. There are no procedures in place to transfer power in the organisation to new leaders. Again - if the leader dies, the organisation has a problem

  • They are frightend not of the authorities but of similar groups. And they will fight between themselves

  • They have no history. And that leads to nothing new members can identify with. There is no “education” for being a bad guy with a proud history to look back on

  • States have the advantage of power through police / army

  • They have no physical strongholds. No place to go back to. Terrorist organizations destroy the infrastructure of the place they live in (leading to little support from the people living in the area)

So where are we going? Sterling has a suspicion that the future will see the birth of a “transnational, decent, structural organization that gan govern”. If an organization can promise that you can mary a virgin now, get a decent job, etc. this will attract more people, than the promise of 72 virgins in heaven, after you have blown yourself up. Building such an organization will take 10-12 years, but he thinks it is doable.

To be continued with:

  • a look into the future

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Jens-Christian Fischer

Maker. Musician