Aug 29, 2010

Too many secrets

Did you see Sneakers? In this 1992 movie, Robert Redford plays the head of a private security company. He and his team are brainstorming to figure out whether the name of a firm they are investigating, Seatec Astronomy, has some hidden significance.

They spread out some Scrabble tiles and start anagramming the company's name, stopping when they are able to rearrange the letters to spell "too many secrets." I'll leave the significance of the decrypted name to your viewing of the movie, along with a warning that the IMDB site and several others blithely give away way too much of the plot.

I will reveal, however, that the movie centers on whether a device that can automatically decrypt classified government secrets should be allowed to exist. This seems more relevant than ever all these years after the film's release, with the WikiLeaks controversy in the news. Leaving aside the movie's focus on cryptography, the question remains as to what legitmate function secrecy plays in government, and how much should be considered secret.

Some weeks before I became aware of WikiLeaks, I came across a book called Code Names, by William M. Arkin of The Washington Post. I was surprised to learn that a book with such content could be published, but on looking further I found that this was not even Arkin's debut foray into uncovering supposedly classified information. His previous books gave locations of US nuclear weapons installations, which I would have thought was so highly sensitive that it could not possibly have appeared.

What I learned was that everything in both Arkin books was in the public record. I also read his assertion that even though it was all publicly available, he considered what to include and what to omit with painstaking care.

My shot at Code Names was too brief for me to read more than the introduction and the first couple of chapters. This is oddly parallel to a more recent experience with a book by Ray Kurzweil, described in the post just ahead of this one. What I read turned out to be plenty, as most of the rest of the book was simply a reference list of code names as they have been used.

The first part summed it up nicely, however, and my own summary of the summary would be that since 9/11, our government and its intelligence agencies have used that terrible tragedy as pretext to classify everything and anything. This has gone to extremes that would be ridiculous except that since real life and real issues are involved, outrageous is the better word.

I hadn't paid enough attention to Arkin's bio on the flyleaf but with a little online research quickly discovered that books are only part of his real work as investigative reporter for the Post. My take is that he is more a bulldog and journeyman than an ideologue, which I find a good thing. I naturally suspect people who take on causes with excessive zeal, much preferring a dogged determination to report what is there to the fervor that produces slanted coverage. Fair and balanced, forsooth!

To get to the point, where Arkin started plowing in 2005 with Code Names, a dozen The Washington Post journalists headed by Dana Priest harvested the crop in July 2010 with a series entitled Top Secret America. This investigative journalism project was two years in the making. The main link leads to many, many other links, including a list of articles and a summary of methodology.

Too many secrets? Even though the information is in the public record, mostly online, it is so insanely complicated that Arkin says he couldn't do what he does without help from the inside. We can safely conclude that these are people outraged by what has happened in their workplace since 9/11.

A letter to the editor from a retired intelligence professional says the current state of affairs bears little resemblance to the intelligence community he remembers. He seems outraged that these excesses have been allowed to flourish, but not upset at all that The Post is bringing them to light.

There is a real concern underlying all this outrage and zeal, and that is the enormous expense incurred when too much is made too secret. The money wasted in this process is breathtaking even by government standards. Even if you think you don't especially care whether government is using secrecy excessively, once you get a glimpse of how much money is being flushed down this particular gold-plated toilet you may be reminded of the historic advice from Deep Throat to Post reporters of an earlier time, "follow the money."

History of the future

Somewhere along the breadcrumb trail I must have decided I didn't need to keep my copy of Marshall McLuhan's book The Medium Is the Massage, because it's no longer on my shelves. I would have liked to consult it today when I came home from a weekend jaunt visiting a friend who introduced me to a book I had never heard of by a writer I thought I knew.

The writer is Ray Kurzweil. I knew him as the inventor of the Kurzweil keyboard, regarded as an ultra-high-quality electronic musical instrument since its introduction in 1984. What I didn't know was that this was only one of many inventions by a man who has been compared to Thomas Edison, nor that his writings on the future of technology and society put him in the exalted ranks of McLuhan, Alvin Toffler, and the like.

The book was The Singularity Is Near. It's fantastic to visit a friend and discover a book so unexpected and so profound, a long way from the beach fodder one might be content to find.

I knew "singularity" as the term used by physicists to denote the collapse of gravity at the center of a black hole. I learned that futurists have adopted it to mean a period of cultural change so rapid and so deep that human society will be irreversibly altered. They see technological advances as the agency of this change.

The rate of technological change is exponential, the way gravity increases exponentially as one gets closer to the center of a black hole. To demonstrate, Kurzweil plots crucial events in human history according to lists from 13 sources. These are an assortment of fellow futurists as well as traditional references like The Encyclopedia Britannica. The events vary somewhat, but most include the big bang, the first cells, the demise of dinosaurs, and the successive rise of railroads, telephones, computers, and the Internet.

Linear x-y plots of these events over time are too compressed to be useful, appearing as nearly-horizontal lines for most of the chart followed by multiple events crammed into a near-vertical section at the extreme right. Logarithmic plots, however, consistently appear as 45-degree lines for each of the sources and their varying lists. This is what one would expect from events occuring at exponentially increasing rates of change.

This was just a two-day house visit so I didn't get much past the introduction and the first chapter, but it was enough to give me the picture as Ray Kurzweil laid it out in this 2005 book. I'll get a copy so I can finish it, and rustle up McLuhan's book from 1967 for comparison.

Meanwhile I did find Our Posthuman Future on my shelves, which was to be expected since I only read it in the past year or two. Author Francis Fukuyama was famous for his 1989 pronouncement that history as we know it had reached its end, but it seems that he found more to think about and write about by the time Posthuman was published in 2002. The subtitle, Consequences of the Biotechnical Revolution, is an accurate summary of what the book contains, and utterly consistent with what Kurzweil would be publishing three years later.

I realized that I've been fascinated by futurism for a long time without realizing there was such a thing. I Googled "futurism" and found a good summary on the Wikipedia page. This explained that the term in its current use didn't really arise until the 1940s, with 50s and 60s writers like Toffler and McLuhan giving us plenty to think about. I followed a link to a Wikipedia list of futurists, and recommend it highly. I found Toffler, McLuhan and Kurzweil there as well as architect Buckminster Fuller, astronomer Carl Sagan, and a host of people cited by Kurzweil in Singularity.

Curiously, the list omits novelist Wiiliam Gibson (Neuromancer) as well as Fukuyama, but it's a terrific start on the subject. Michael Crichton is there, and so is Gene Roddenberry. Wikipedia critics may find plenty to chew on from those included or omitted, but we'll leave the strengths and weaknesses of Wikipedia for another time.

For now, I'll be busy thinking about the prospect of nanobots in my brain, the merging of virtual and real realities, and other possibilities I find somewhat disturbing but which may be inevitable just the same.