Not With a Bang But a Twitter: Interwebs Bring New Dark Ages


If you already feel that you're getting your pocket picked online, if you fear that someday you'll follow a "you shhould see this picture of you" link and download a virus that reprograms your washing machine to rape and murder you, if you suspect this whole hyperindividualized disintermediated dream of gigareinvention at tera-velocity is going to end badly, Quentin Hardy is your man.

The elegantly named Forbesman falls under the spell of Joseph Menn's new book Fatal System Error, a study of what they used to call "cybercrime." In all those DOS attacks and phishing mails, Hardy sees chaos rising:

For most people over most of man's time…history is more like a mob movie than a courtroom drama: The Vikings burn the village, the Huns or Mongols ride through with swords, child soldiers arrive in pickup trucks. Violence is the only argument. That is history, too chaotic and reactive for any organized telling.

The mayhem Menn portrays is not that stark, but it seems closer to that than to a world of rules and order. Cybergangs rise and fall in varying degrees of anonymity and alliances with Russian, Chinese and other governments that are more ad hoc than understood. Norms of behavior among individuals and governments are a moving target. Crimes are not solved as much as controlled, through informal alliances of small agencies within and outside the state, or when there is publicity of the crimes that embarrasses higher ups in government. It is crime and crime fighting within a massive, illicit social network, fueled on greed, speed and reputation

Much of the structure is similar to a legitimate social network–fast changing and adaptive, and hard for outsiders to locate or control…

That means that governments become more like gangs. On both sides of the struggle, informal pressure has as much force as codified law. With both good guys and bad, it is hard to tell an army from a gang, or either from a business.


You know what I'll bet somebody's inventing right now? A Mydoom virus for smartphones that will reprogram your phone to make endless robocalls. (Why aren't there more mobile viruses anyway? Has there ever been a more tempting avenue for hepatitis than the iPod Bump app?)

As for the dark ages Hardy envisions, well, if Decade Zero taught us anything, it's that things can always get worse. But I'd look at the history that has actually happened as a guide to the history that's going to happen, and note that most of the world's governments are less gang-like and thuggish today than they were 50 years ago. Maybe the existence of digital communication changes everything, but in fact many governments are tamer now than they were even 20 years ago, when people were already talking about "cyberspace." And I would say speed of information is the primary reason government as a concept has been losing credibility around the world.

The example Hardy cites is of a government that is actually worse (and more popular) now than it was 20 years ago in the 1990s: Russia, where in 2008 hackers beat up Georgian communications while the Russian army was demolishing the Georgian army. Maybe this seems new because the Russian hackers were loosely organized, but it's a pretty old phenomenon: warring countries using every means to destroy each other. Meanwhile there are fewer warring countries and less destruction than at any point in history. That's a good trend, one that makes it worth enduring some crimes that are hard to "locate and control." (That includes non-crimes that are nevertheless against the law, by the way. This excerpt from FSE details the highly nonapocalyptic takedown of some online gaming operators.)

Meanwhile, change your passwords often and make sure to destroy all paper mail with identifying information about you.