Suzanne Moore – Baffled by Moore’s Law?

If you don’t want to be spied upon by the state, massively reduce the state. But do accept that terrorists will be more likely to kill you

Charles Crawford
On 7 July 2013 11:54

Over at the Guardian Suzanne Moore ponders the issues arising from the antics of Edward Snowden, and asks a lot of questions:

"But how did I come to accept that all this data gathered about me is just the way it is? Wasn't I once interested in civil liberties? Indeed, weren't the Lib Dems? Didn't freedom somehow incorporate the idea of individual privacy? When the state monitored all its citizens as though they were suspects – whether in East Germany or North Korea – we called it authoritarianism. Now we think it is what keeps us safe."

The fact that our state agencies scour the Internet for terrorist suspects and other malevolents does help keep us safe, as Charles Moore briskly explains:

"In order to find the needle of, say, terrorism, in the great haystack of human interaction, they need to winnow each blade of dried grass. Computers, not people, do that. People (intelligence officers) only come into play when the needle shows up. If you want to stop your citizens being bombed or beheaded, such methods of search are not optional; they are primary."

Back in real life, the modern state is much less inclined to keep you safe if, say, you get into difficulties in a shallow boating pond. We have achieved an insane state of affairs where a citizen is dying and the police and fire-fighters do not do what it takes to save him. In fact it’s worse than that. The state gives orders not to save him. How has this erosion of our liberties and elementary morality happened? Mainly because ideas propagated for decades by the Guardian have become mainstreamed by the state’s human resources departments.

Suzanne Moore genially admits that she has never given much thought to how much of modern life works:

"Maybe because I am a simpleton and sometimes can only process what I can see – the actual sky, rather than invisible cyberspace in which data blips through fibre-optic cables. Thus the everyday internet remains opaque to all but geeks. And that's where I think I have got it wrong…"

She’s right here. She seemingly has failed to understand what Moore’s Law (as far as I know it’s no relation) means.

Back in 1965 the founder of Intel Gordon Moore noted that “the complexity for minimum component costs has increased at a rate of roughly a factor of two per year” and that this phenomenon would continue if not accelerate. There are different ways of describing Moore’s ‘law’, but in essence it says that every two years or so we are doubling the computer power we get for each dollar spent.

The compound effects of this as the years tick by are indeed beyond ordinary imagination. It’s like the puzzle about the lily-pad that doubles in area every day. It takes 100 days to cover the pond completely. How many days does it take to cover half the pond? The answer is (of course) 99 days. On about the 90th day the lily-pad is so tiny as to be negligible, but it has a surging compound growth that appears spectacularly before our naked eye in the coming days.

Such is the juggernaut compounding momentum of computer power. Every second across the world sees gazillions of electronic transactions. E-information whizzes to and fro as we make almost free phone calls, buy groceries, check out the nearest sushi bar, use online flight check-in, and read Suzanne Moore in the Guardian. Every piece of data is recorded somewhere along the way – that’s how computers talk to each other. All this will be twice as big (and getting much cheaper) in two years’ time.

Suzanne Moore apparently thinks that state e-snooping is something relatively new:

"When did you surrender your freedom to communicate, something that was yours and yours alone, whether an email to a lover or a picture of your child? Ask yourself, do you feel safer now you know that you have no secrets?"

The answer to that first question is that we in the United Kingdom ‘surrendered’ these supposed freedoms many centuries ago, when the state asserted more or less monopoly control of sending messages by mail and later by telegraph. Right from the earliest days of mass communication the state has kept open its options to intercept our letters and telephone-calls for reasons of national security.

As for the second question, the fascinating and philosophically bewildering point now is not that the state can spy on us. It’s that we can spy on us. Not only is data generated at a dizzying compounding rate. The cost of scouring data for patterns falls at a dizzying compounding rate. Not too long ago only the state could afford the machines to explore these unfathomable data oceans. Now as the costs tumble many other private organisations are doing so too.

Back in the FCO a decade ago we could not have voice recognition software installed on our PCs, lest hostile intelligence agencies remotely activate them and listen to our secrets. Now that’s gone private too: we have Ratters, sneaky people who watch other unsuspecting people via their webcams.

This leaves the Guardianista elite (but also the rest of us) in a tricky spot. The compound consequences of Moore’s Law create vast new options for looking at the world that have never previously existed, because they were technically impossible. Many are helpful and liberating – see the way Africa is moving ahead as people get connected, and the way Twitter helps undermine dictators. Some are odious if not oppressive. The problem is that we necessarily get both. Data is just impossibly long lines of 1s and 0s. It doesn’t care.

One last question from Suzanne Moore:

"Fundamentally, your government does not trust you. Why therefore should you trust it?"

Ah, now you’re talking. Our key state institutions (health, education, tax, maybe Parliament itself, certainly the European Union) have a special problem now. They were created in and for conditions that no longer exist. They deliver social collaboration in a way that has a certain formal democratic legitimacy but fast diminishing efficacy/credibility. This in turn means that those like the Unite union and others throughout the Labour Party who have built their lives around hooting for "More State" are exposed as ridiculously old-fashioned, a point that even Ed Miliband dimly seems to grasp.

The future does not lie with this weary old rubbish. It lies with those who understand technology and identify new fluid but principled ways of helping people do things together.

Otherwise, if you don’t want to be spied upon by the state, massively reduce the state. But do accept that terrorists will be more likely to kill you. And in any case have fun looking out for tiny home-made solar-powered flying webcams made by the pervy fellow up the road who wants to find some topless sunbathing.

Charles Crawford is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. A former British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw, he is now a private consultant and writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter: @charlescrawford

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