The Ongoing War on Stupid Government

The web’s been talking about a talk given by Cory Doctorow titled The Coming War on General Purpose Computing. It’s an interesting idea; summarizing:

The DMCA and SOPA are the first shots of a larger battle to revoke and keep Turing-complete computers out of the hands of the average person.

The talk (54 minutes, embedded in the link above) elaborates on that premise, discussing at times trusted computing, 3D printing of sex toys, and some of the history like the infamous Sony Rootkit.

But it also doesn’t try to paint the target too big. There is plenty of discussion about how actually implementing an appliance to replace general computing will be riddled with problems. So the talk is warning more of the coming actions by governments and corporations to try to do something stupid. Which doesn’t seem different than the status quo.

Today we have governments that try (as Doctorow points out) to declare war on a small set of mostly harmless chemical compounds (ie, illegal drugs) with very little success. Today we have governments that make people suspend disbelief when boarding airplanes that have very little chance of calamity either intentional (ie, terrorism) or unintentional. And we have governments that try to ban incandescent bulbs rather than stop subsidizing energy.

So why call it a coming war on general computing when it’s really an ongoing war against stupid governance? That’s what we’ve got on our hands. Some have called it an information war. At its heart, it’s all just economics.

Regarding the incandescent bulbs, I’m in favor of moving toward more efficient solutions. But the way you encourage efficiency is two-fold:

  1. Let the economic factors obtain
  2. Encourage an emotional desire to be efficient

That’s how advertisers work, after all.  They tout the low price and try to draw on emotional desire.  The notion that the government should simply ban bottled water and plastic bags is just as insane as the notion that governments should pass SOPA, but people seem to ignore the fallacy of the trap when they’re supposed to catch the creatures they oppose.

In fact, there ought to be a ban on believing bans are effective!  I’m writing my congresscritter, who will reply about appreciating my input on this important matter.  The distortion of government is that the conservatives think it’s possible but economically dangerous to place bans on businesses.  They think it’s perfectly acceptable to ban gay rights, and the rights of women.  The same distortion happens with the liberals, but there it’s a ban on driving without a seatbelt, or it’s a ban on incandescent bulbs without the economics to back it up.

It may be the poison of game theory at work.  The prisoner’s dilemma is that both men can have a little pain if they keep silent, but both tend to rat and get maximum pain.  That seems to be the order of the day: instead of believing that their colleagues want good outcomes and are willing to find a good way to get them, the congresscritters simply revert to game theory on any given issue, which maximizes pain.

But if they try to attack general purpose computing, they will simply strike another blow against themselves, as they have in the war on drugs and war on terror.  Every kid will be telling his friends how to bypass the checksums.  Football Mothers will pass on the goods on how to regain control of the shopping carts and vans and stoves.  Fathers will have their daughters hack their wristwatches.  And so on.

Let’s talk about counterfeiting.  For years the major denominations of major currencies have had what’s called the EURion constellation on them.  It’s a particular configuration of dots, meant to tell scanners not to process the image if detected. It’s one among several heuristics that may be used, but none of them are effective if the person is dead set on scanning the bill.  They can simply cover the majority of the bill and scan it in very small patches, bypassing any sort of check.

And that’s the whole point of how dumb the war on GPC would end up being.  It would come down to a mixture of both technological and simple hacks to get devices to keep on doing what they have always been able to do.  Simple hacks like covering up most of a document to hide the intention would prevail for single-purpose uses.  The use of more traditional exploits, which have been employed against computers for decades, would prevail to jailbreak the devices.

There would also be a ton of old GPCs sitting around, ready to be used, not to mention new micro GPCs that would be created by bootleggers hacking up the trusted appliances.

The fact that the trusted appliances would still run arbitrary code based on user inputs (eg, general purpose calculators would still be included on the TPCs) would probably even mean that something akin to the acoustic couplers would be developed.  Acoustic couplers were used to let computers make data connections via a wired telephone’s handset.  The handset was removed from the cradle and placed on the coupler, with the speakers and the microphones of both the coupler and handset at opposite ends.

So, if you had an old, shoddy GPC and a new, shiny TPC, there would probably be some hacked way of interfacing the old with the new, letting the former control the latter, to its own ends.  Crazy dreams of using the output of simple image manipulations or error codes in response to malformed requests.  As we’ve seen with the history of computing, the combinations are too novel to entirely anticipate.

The biggest problem is that the universe functions on information.  That’s why stupid government doesn’t stand a chance.  The schemes to bottle information up inevitably lead to imbalances that inevitably lead to topplings.  It may take time, and it may be painful, but stupid government is doomed.  The tragedy is that stupid government does tend to be too stupid to recognize that fact.  Historically it had to fail outright, rather than be fixed.

The question for stupid government is whether the underpinnings in the Constitution are still smart enough to allow for a transition rather than a revolution.

I believe they are.  The economic drive that leads congresscritters to dare to stoop where men have stupided before also holds the key to their (and our) salvation.  The progress of technology will make clean energy cheaper despite the best efforts of dirty energy to stay cheap.  The progress of technology in education will make smart citizens despite the best efforts of church and state to keep them ignorant.

Bad ideas and stupid government are birds of a feather.  The rise of LCD monitors over CRT monitors is one of many good examples of superior technology dominating.  It’s long been the case that the higher cost of a LCD was offset by the lower cost of its energy use if used for a decent time per day, and it’s been at least a half-decade that LCDs have outpaced CRTs in sales.  While there are still CRTs in the wild, waiting to be replaced, their existence is due to inertia rather than any sort of sound business need.

The stupid governments sit atop sandstone, which erodes irregularly.  It has a constant erosion rate at the deepest levels, but an uncertain collapse rate.  We’ve seen the sudden collapse start in 2011 in a variety of countries.  It may take another decade for the larger systems (as those of the EU, USA, China, and Russia) reach their rebirths, but they are coming.  And the war on GPC?  It has as much chance as the CRT did.