Tuesday, February 3, 2015

no secrecy, no certainty

In late 1992 or early 1993 I sat with other faculty and students at the National War College as our geeky commandant, an Air Force Major General, displayed how he could use his personal computer to search around the globe and plug into computer sites and data bases -- discussion groups, weather data, library catalogs, and the like. Wow!

Other people have described some of their experiences in those early days. [How did I find these? Google, of course, today.]

The first search engines were coming on line about then, and the arrangement was about to be christened World Wide Web. [How nice to find a use for W, which doesn't exist in many non-English alphabets.]

My reaction that first day turned out to be prescient. With the Internet, I told my colleagues, there is no longer either secrecy or certainty.

What I meant was that the global linkages made it easy for people to share everything, including information governments wanted to keep secret. [Remember, the bad old Soviet Union had tight controls even on photocopiers to limit samizdat publications by dissidents.] Similarly, the Internet opened front and back doors to those we now call hackers, who could steal secrets faster than they could usually be protected.

As for certainty, I also feared that misinformation would proliferate and it would be hard ever to know what is accurate, what is true. The now-retracted   supposedly scientific study of the link between measles vaccines and autism is just the latest example of false information that takes on a life of its own and infects all corners of the Web.

The brave new world we have constructed in cyberspace has many benefits, but also the draws of no secrecy and no certainty.

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