In an essay I wrote in 2008, I discussed the vulnerability of computer network technology to hacking, calling it “the soft underbelly” of the Internet. I was referring to the “swinging door” operation of computer servers, that their “in/out” communication security depends upon a “lock and key” approach constantly under attack by entities seeking to gain entry to the server. The recent hacking by Russia of the U.S. Government’s computer networks proved me wrong; the soft belly of the Internet is government’s outsourcing of software to corporate America. Due to it, our nation’s critical computer networks now have digital “brain cancer.”
For those of you not paying attention, this recent incursion into government servers was accomplished through our government’s installation of third-party software, which itself had been hacked and compromised. Software developed by a company named Solar Winds was tampered with by the Russians, and to make matters worse, under the leadership of its accountant CEO, Solar Winds had engaged software developers in Eastern Europe to reduce costs. This made it easier for Russia to insert itself and its agents into the software development process itself. As upgrades to Solar Winds’ corrupted software were installed, America’s most secretive and sensitive server networks were infected; this began over nine months ago, and continued undiscovered until yet another third-party corporation, computer security firm FireEye, alerted authorities. For all its billions spent on security systems, the United States was hacked flat footed.
As professor Neil Postman noted in his 1992 book, Technopoly, our growing dependence on computer technology exposes our society to ever-increasing risk; “…those who cultivate competence in the use of a new technology become an elite group that are granted undeserved authority and prestige by those who have no such competence.” Like most of the rest of us, I am in service to technology’s demands while bereft of the competence and authority to control it.
Computers, it is said, are tools, but they are far more than that. Each new technology changes culture itself. This is highly evident when we look at the tools of war, which with every technological advance altered the nature of culture; today the supreme tool of war is the computer. Bombs and invading armies are unnecessary when the “brains” of computer networks are infected with corrupted software. As noted in the N.Y. Times, “Moscow long ago planted malware in the American electric grid, and the United States has done the same to Russia as a deterrent.”
When technology is all pervasive, as computer technology is today, it becomes “Technopoly,” which is totalitarian in nature. It changes everything it touches, and often so invisibly we don’t even know it’s happened. Language, habits, and beliefs are redefined or discarded; the very nature of culture undergoes transformation. Postman calls this “the deification of technology.”
What’s missing, he observes, is enough time and consideration given to the adoption of technology itself. “What problem is being solved?” he asks, and suggests we ask the same. Too often, the answer is about business efficiency: time equals money. “Who benefits and who loses?” is another inquiry that needs answering. Alas, Technopoly gives no quarter to the time such questions require, but races ahead on its own increasingly accelerated pace generating an information glut beyond control.
Qanon, Twitter, Donald Trump and the modern nation state are all creatures of Technopoly, and so are we all.