Monday, December 23, 2019

Tech the Troublemaker

A colleague recently circulated a news story that police in Longmont, CO decided to keep radio traffic encrypted after the completion of a pilot program. Discussion ensued about the pros and cons of encrypting police channels, including First Amendment concerns. I decided to take a mythological tangent.

Encryption is a useful tool for thinking about tech as a meta-human force, i.e. mythologically. I can really see tech operating as a deity of discord, particularly incarnated as crypto. It goes blithely on its way, leaving argument and disagreement in its wake. In the police comms case, it sets law enforcement against civil liberty advocates (though, frankly, they have such a bad enough history they don’t need anything to get them going). There are other antagonists, too: in a recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing (see Ars Technica), it was the state against high tech companies. Senators from both parties tried to browbeat the companies into giving law enforcement access to smartphones without somehow (magically, IMHO) endangering security; Apple and Google just shrugged.

Technology in general – or is it just novelty? – is good at sowing strife, but crypto is striking because it appears so neutral and faceless. Unlike social media, say, it seems unconnected to the animal passions, operating in a pure Platonic realm. It doesn’t seem to have any motive or agenda; “it’s just maths.” The tumult it engenders seems to be none of its business; a side effect the querulous little humans brought upon themselves. Encryption looks down its nose at us, pretending it has no role in how society is structured.

Of course, we don’t need tech to make us argue.* I just have a hunch that tech has a knack for it, and particularly for starting an argument and then walking away. One isn’t surprised when there’s disagreement in law and policy, given that it’s set up to be adversarial, whereas maths and poetry is much less so (in theory, at least).

It’s always fun (and perhaps obligatory ;-) to invoke the Greeks. Various authors had different takes on Eris; this from Wikipedia:
In Works and Days, Hesiod distinguishes two: one who is the bringer of misfortune, and the other who inspires effort: “For one fosters evil war and battle, being cruel: her no man loves; … [The other] is far kinder to men. She stirs up even the shiftless to toil; for a man grows eager to work when he considers his neighbour, a rich man who hastens to plough and plant and put his house in good order; and neighbour vies with his neighbour as he hurries after wealth. This Strife is wholesome for men.”
In the Theogony, he takes a much less positive view; her offspring include Hardship, Starvation, Wars, Murders, Quarrels, Lies, Anarchy, Ruin, etc.
Homer (Iliad Book 4) describes how she grows: “… she who is only a little thing at the first, but thereafter grows until she strides on the earth with her head striking heaven. She then hurled down bitterness equally between both sides as she walked through the onslaught making men's pain heavier.” 
And, of course, Eris triggered the Trojan War, on one account (the Cypria) by tossing a golden apple inscribed “To the Fairest One” among a party of gods, provoking a quarrel about the appropriate recipient.
This sense of arousing bitterness seems particularly relevant in the case at hand: between law enforcement and civil society, and between Congress and Silicon Valley. I can just see encryption as an Apple of Discord, engraved with the words, “To the Most Deserving One.”

* Especially now; cf. J.J. Abrams’ remarks the other day after an LA screening of The Rise of Skywalker: “We live in a moment where everything immediately seems to default to outrage. There’s a kind of M.O. of either it’s exactly how I see it, or you’re my enemy.”

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