Times and Measures

What is Imperative

Nov 10, 2016

I’m currently in Amsterdam, speaking at O’Reilly Security, so I watched the election happen very late at night. (Yes, I voted, in advance, by mail (as does everyone in Washington state).)

I read a lot of science fiction. A lot of what I read isn’t very positive about the future; even excellent writing with incredible implications, such as Pattern Recognition by William Gibson, or Halting State by Charles Stross, tends toward the dark (if not pitch black). There are some exceptions, though, and after the election, I decided to reread Rapture of the Nerds, by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross. Near the beginning of the book, this line appears:

There’s always someone who unaccountably carries the let’s-lick-the-frozen-fence-post gene. There’s always a fucking geek who’ll do it because it’s a historical goddamned technical fucking imperative.

I think this needs to be the response of the collective geek community to the challenges with which we are now presented. Let me explain:

I am a geek. I have been since I was very young. The geeks I know face down impossible tasks the same way they meet any challenge: they build their tools, change the parameters of the problem when necessary, and make things better. They do so even when their approach looks insane at first (like licking the frozen fence post). Groups like Telecomix CMB do this for communications during national blackouts (with dial-up modems and ham radios); other groups like WikiHouse are making CNC-routable open source emergency housing. This approach (“we’re looking for a few good nerds”) works. Heck, Let’s Encrypt figured out how to end the extraordinary expense (and abysmal security) of the CA system, implemented their solution, and now have millions of live hosts protected by their efforts in a very short timeframe.

So: find a problem. Talk with the people who have it (actually talk to them! People skip this bit, and it hurts the utility of their solution, as Scout Brody pointed out at O’Reilly Security NYC (and I believe that video of her talk will be online soon)). Design a solution, and get it into the hands of the people who need it. Then find the issues in your solution, iterate, and keep going. Build technology designed to meet the needs of people who need need help, to protect them, keep them safe, and to meet the trust that users will place in your solution. (If you do security, we especially need you; we need your help to design technology to protect users and privacy from the first principles, not just as an add-on!) Build things to make the world better.

As a community, we now face down several years of living in (or merely with) a country that may cause significant international turmoil. What we have the ability to do is find areas in which we can build the technology to enable the change we need. We have the opportunity to make our tech be the shining beacon to everyone that our government may not be. We must, in other words, be the geeks we wish to see in the world–because the alternatives suck.

It truly is a historical goddamned technical fucking imperative. I hope you’ll join me.

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