On The War On General Purpose Computing

The powers that be want to control your phones and your drones. And who can blame them? It was inevitable. Of course they’re upset that smartphones are making it hard to catch speeders. Of course manufacturers are hurrying to ensure that drones refuse to fly to certain locations, before they’re forced to do so by law. Those are the instruments of power in today’s and tomorrow’s world.

Meanwhile, the FBI–apparently so drunk on the power of arbitrary wiretapping that they have grown to think of it as their inalienable right, even when technology has made this utter nonsense–continue their demands to weaken messaging encryption so that they can listen in, despite the futility of these attempts.

It’s easy–but wrong–to look at these disconcerting data points, and the burgeoning Internet of Someone Else’s Things, and conclude that the inevitable endgame is, as Cory Doctorow puts it, “a war on general purpose computing“:

There’s no way to stop Americans — particularly those engaged in criminal activity and at risk from law enforcement — from running crypto without locking all computers, Ipad-style, so that they only run software from a government-approved “app-store.” […] Only by attacking the fundamental nature of computing itself can the NSA hope to limit its adversaries’ use of crypto. I predicted this in 2012, and I’m sad to see it coming true.

Wait, what?

I’m a Doctorow fan, but I fear he has fallen prey to a kind of gleeful apocalypticism to which science fiction writers are disproportionately prone (see also: Charles Stross) and forgotten a fundamental law of the Internet. That being: Never ascribe to malice what can be ascribed to technical incompetence. Especially when the government is involved.

Put another way, it’s true that the government’s statements make no logical sense unless they have a dastardly long-term plan of locking down all computers: but the correct conclusion to draw is not they have a dastardly long-term plan, it is simply they make no logical sense.

What would a so-called “war on general-purpose computing” actually look like? Its proponents tend to use Apple as an example, and I admit there’s something creepy about the near-total control Apple maintains over every facet of its ecosystem–but that doesn’t mean the Apple model could ever scale to an entire nation.

Would the notional Evil Government try to assert its control at a hardware level, ie in the microprocessors themselves? Of course not: even Apple, which designs its own chips and manufactures its own hardware, doesn’t attempt that. Would it mandate that all computers come with government-approved signed bootloaders, which in turn ensure that only hermetically sealed government-approved operating systems are loaded?

That’s theoretically technically possible…but it suffers from the small problem of requiring complete control over all manufacturers of all computing devices worldwide. Failing that, any kind of iron-fisted government control over any tech company would promptly drive that company into the ground, as innovation dies and every change has to be approved by two sets of bureaucrats…while international competitors reap the windfall.

Any attempt by some theoretical future fascist US government to impose this kind of iron-fisted control over the US tech industry would only kill the industry, not general-purpose computing. Technology moves too fast to be feasibly locked down by any one government. The attempt would only act as an ball and chain, quickly leaving the companies in question in their competitors’ dust.

As a thriller novelist myself, I appreciate the narrative appeal of a good dystopia, but barring some gargantuan global calamity, this one is never going to happen. You can’t get there from here. The NSA can go ahead “declare war on general purpose computing” if they want to; their loss is already foreordained…

…but it’s not even a battle they need to win. Most of our devices are already under remote control. Apple and Google control an overwhelming majority of the world’s smartphones. Companies like DJI and Airware will control most of the drones of the future. Car manufacturers increasingly control our cars. I would say “there are cameras and sensors everywhere” — except today’s world will seem like a vast wasteland of sensor deprivation compared to the world ten years from now.

The FBI and NSA and their international equivalents are upset that companies like Apple and WhatsApp have taken away their favorite toy, unrestricted wiretapping of any conversation. They may even require those companies to give it back where possible. But the genie of strong crypto is long out of the bottle, whether Apple giftwraps it for its users or not. We shouldn’t extrapolate from that to “a war on general purpose computing,” and waste our efforts fighting something that will never happen. Instead we should be worried about an oncoming future that is far more likely, and no less disturbing: the Panopticon of Things.