The City Of Stilts

“It’s a digital world,” he told me. “It’s going to be a wireless world.”

“Yes,” I replied. “But don’t you think we should tell everybody that their Enterphone isn’t going to have the same functionality anymore, unless they have the right sort of phone contract?”

At which point he made some polite noises, and — to all appearances — stopped caring. Because the right phone contract is the one that everybody already has, of course, and if they don’t have it there’s no justification for not having it: because what else was money made for?

Just a little scene from the inside of my building, Bloggers, where we recently replaced the old Enterphone with a new one — and blithely assumed it would work exactly the same way, which of course it doesn’t — but I run into this sort of thing all the time, actually. As a general rule: mechanisms get replaced with other mechanisms that aren’t the same, that don’t work on the same principles, but no one actually cares about the principles involved, so they just ignore them where they approach inconvenience. You have to pay for something that once was free, for no better reason than someone figured out how to charge for it…but so what? Banks refuse to honour their customer’s cheques, but no one cares to imagine a situation in which that could bite them in the ass…because who has the time? When it might as well be somebody else’s problem. Governmental certifications are mistaken for government-issued certificates (aha!), but no one cares to imagine a better kind of point-of-sale access to their permissions than the one they’re given…because that’s the one they’ve got, and anyway what’s all the fuss about? When having the right stuff, to many people, is identical to having the actual right…because it seems to them that it ought to be the same, otherwise you’re just feeding the lawyers. Trying to get away with something “on a technicality”, as the cop shows read it. And so it’s an increasingly insecure world in terms of individual political liberty, but no one cares about that, because they haven’t been given a reason to value it.

What they do care about, though, is not looking at the insecurity that was always there in the first place…and that’s a pretty instructive sort of not-care caring, as these things go. Down at the bottom of all our bureaucratic obligations and entitlements, the foundation is and always has been sand — the sand of simple trust and cooperation flowing between individuals on their own account, and for their own reasons. But, I can’t provoke any outrage in anyone by talking about the M2 money supply slowly turning into a big bubble; but I can provoke it, I can easily provoke it, by bringing up the hoary old cliche of the cheque written on a scrap of butcher’s paper. Or by bringing up how you can vote somewhere even if you don’t have ID, by bringing a couple of your neighbours into the polling place to vouch for you. I’m perhaps inordinately fond of the story of my mother getting her passport, and how since she didn’t have a birth certificate my grandfather had to go down to a government office and make a declaration that she was born in such-and-such a town on such-and-such a day — a declaration he knew for a fact to be true because he had been there when it happened, but what if his memory had been a little faulty that day? — and maybe I’m more than “just” inordinately fond of that story, because it gives me a little malicious thrill to tell it…

Because a lot of people hit the roof, when they hear it. They don’t like it one bit; they get angry at me personally, when I tell it. It drives ’em crazy.

Care to guess why?

Names are the funniest of things, I sometimes think; because they are our only truly inalienable possessions, and yet they’re absolutely indispensible as the possessions of a general public as well. Who gets to give a name, who gets to change it, who gets to defend it? One of the attractively weird things about Zen calligraphy. I’ve always thought, is that it’s an artform made of (if you will) both Being and Non-Being…of both real and imaginary components, of both the representational and the non-representational. And to comics fans, perhaps, this is not such a jarring realization as all that — not when we’re so acutely aware of the status of words as drawings, or parts of drawings — but then again maybe even we forget it sometimes, until we see the weird and spooky middle-ground of language, picture, and meaning hovering before our eyes…and a calligraphy exhibition is a darn good place to see it, if we do happen to have forgotten about it: the pictographic character for “mountain” having begun life as a representation of a mountain’s shape, but having long since decayed (or evolved?) into something simultaneously more than that, and less. It’s actually not unlike the way words accrete sensual connotations over time in any language — the seed of poetry being the mystery of how it all sounds like it sounds, the uttermost primal mystery of cognition that is how a word comes to stand for something outside itself at all, instead of merely standing for its own internal meta-associations, a handy summary term for places the mind has already travelled and things it has already seen. The evocative power of words and names, their heft and texture — if you go to the ends of reductionist thinking there’s a reason you hit the wall of the absurdum, and it’s because the mechanism by which the “total” meaning of a word becomes non-arbitrary or non-random eventually becomes so elusive to thought that it slips away entirely. And there’s a reason for it, of course; but it’s not the reason I came here to talk about today.

I’m just here to talk about the world that’s coming.

Although I’ll admit I may not have chosen the best angle of approach, for that. But oh well! Let’s shove it on forward, regardless: and see if we can’t get past the sanctity of the signature, and onto mightier matters. Hmm, although it actually is sort of tough to get past the sanctity of the signature…I mean, going around it is easy enough, but “around” is only easy because “past” is tough, if you see what I mean. The signature props up the entire edifice of Western civilization, after all — the name, and its stylized individual representation. People have been faking signatures for as long as there’s been such a thing as literacy in the first place, and we still made the signature our legal and bureaucratic bedrock, just as we still require it and we are still dependent on it. Because it is, simply, a thing we must believe in: a form of trust and cooperation that holds the rest of our lives up, like a city of stilts above the marshes. Before the antique apparatus of the law, names and signatures and the principles they operate on are the only offerings we can make, the only food we can supply to its furnace — these things are its only punch-cards, its only possible inputs: to be able to swear to something…without a name, you can’t even do it. Without a name, you can’t even lie.

So…time for the Huguenots, maybe? Although I don’t want to go too far afield in my digressions, I always thought the Huguenots were rather interesting, from a legal perspective. You see the problem with them, in the France of a few hundred years ago, was that you couldn’t spot a Huguenot when you were in church. You might be surrounded by them; a hundred heretics pretending to be good Catholics, taking communion falsely while they laughed up their sleeves at you. But if they said all the right things, if they acted the right way, how could you ever winkle them out? And more importantly, what would be the difference, anyway? In science, where you can’t test for a difference you have no cause to suppose a difference — that’s the foundation of every kind of materialism, even the good kinds; it’s why we’ve tossed out most of Descartes and why Stephen Hawking calls Einstein “wrong” on quantum mechanics. In science, ineffable entities are under a general ban, whether they be souls or merely intentions. But in culture and morality as in law, ineffable entities matter: the “why” of human behaviour is paramount in interpreting the hard facts, the “math” if you will, of the offences committed. Just eating the cookie and saying the prayer doesn’t make you a Catholic, outward appearances to the contrary; likewise, just having done something the law forbids doesn’t make you a criminal. And you can’t necessarily blame it all on the Huguenots — not by any means, can you blame it all on them! — but you can sure say they sharpened it up, in post-Reformation Europe. And so without them, we might not have been quite us

Which is to say: people for whom the complex of namedness and swearing is awfully important, and therefore also, at the same time, awfully vexed on occasion — because the city we’ve built from it all fills us with desire, but the stilts of its necessity fill us with dread. Trust: now there’s something we don’t care for, and would much rather do without…

And yet not all trust is of the same stripe.

Because: intentions. If only we could be free of ’em, free of their tiresomely backward needfulness! Another story I like to relate, if I can just slip another past you here, is the one about the Toronto lawyer who routinely disobeys posted No Parking signs downtown…and always gets ticketed, and always goes to court, and always wins, because what the sign says differs from what the law says. Because obviously the sign isn’t the law; therefore if the sign and the law disagree, then it’s the sign that must give way. And this really makes people mad, this story, especially when I get to the punchline: which is that Toronto’s City Council, rather than change all the incorrectly-posted signs, tried (or is trying, it’s been a while since I saw the report on TV) to change all the laws to bring them into alignment with the signs.

Nobody laughs at that one; they seem to think I’m some kind of radical revolutionary, even for finding it funny. Of course it is not me who’s the revolutionary here, but it’s them instead. They just don’t see it. To eliminate the most vexing constituent of an undesirable state of insecurity, that constituent we’d call “trust”, they’ve turned to its only possible solvent: trust that’s pointed in the other direction. Of course we’ve seen this before, in the history of the radical revolutionary: once upon a time, the one sort of trust was trust in people, and the other sort was trust in institutional authority, but that’s all hopelessly twentieth-century thinking, now. And if in fact we can cast our minds back through the mist of time to those long-ago millenial days, we can see how that pushme-pullyou dynamic of trust began to be made irrelevant…

…Back in the days of the Information Haves and the Information Have-Nots. Remember all that stuff, folks? How anyone caught without a computer was going to become a permanent underclass to the posthumans with the dial-up accounts, and how the Internet was going to be an invisible hand that brought democracy everywhere, to the farthest reaches of the world? It seems funny now, to me. Not just because it didn’t happen — not just because the world’s poor found their Internet access, or at least what form of it they really needed — but because what we thought it was going to be good for was so very off-base, that our ideas about what kind of access there would be to it proved off-base as well. It was just too, well, global a technology for us to reckon with; how could we add up what its value would be, when we were only ever going to be a small fraction of the number of people who would use it? Chomsky was right, of course, to point out that most of the world is in far more urgent need of lightbulbs than laptops — but be that as it may it’s still true, perhaps it’s even true for the very same reason, that the Internet didn’t end up dividing haves from have-nots after all. Because even though it didn’t cause the little flowers of democracy to spring up wherever it put its graceful foot, it did offer a cheaper and easier global communications channel, and most importantly it did put “information-having” much closer to many more people than had ever enjoyed it before. Despite the pop-cultural doomsaying, the Internet was never a small enough technology, in that it was never exclusive enough by its nature, to create any classes that weren’t already there before. The goat-herders of Djibouti still loops their arms through poles, and still lie down behind their low stone walls in the heat of the day…but the nearest uplink is still nearer than it once was, and if we “have” anything that they don’t — and of course we do, we do — it is still nothing more than we didn’t already have, and actually it is probably, at least, a bit less than we already had.

Meanwhile back in the Fortunate Lands, there ended up not being any significant new Information Class either — though there were absolutely more infrastructure specialists and home-repair people, more millionaires and more pirates too, it was still the average joe whose access to info-haveness drove that big economic machine. And if there are people who don’t use their Internet access in a very rich or complex way, if there are still people who don’t use it in a very informed or understanding way, still they have the access, and they could get better at using it very easily if they wanted to, and evil programmers didn’t take over the world like supervillains with their magical powers, they just did “ordinary” evil, perhaps, and nothing much changed. In the end, being an “info-have” was a lot like being someone with a high-school education. In other words, it was sorted: it was not a science-fiction-type scenario. Just having access to the Internet, that never became the barrier some had imagined. You can get Internet access for the price of a cup of herbal tea, where that access even exists. And laptops, as it turns out, can be come by — at least, access to physical machines that are capable of granting access to the Internet: that’s getting easier every day.

But as it turns out, while access to “machines that can bring you the Internet” in general is easy to come by, not all machines that can bring you the Internet are the same. And some of those don’t work the same in all countries. Come on, people, it’s twenty-first century time here, and something’s happening. There’s a new mega-industry on the horizon, and it’s shaping everything, and people don’t really want to see it, but it’s there. The Wireless World: surely you’ve noticed that people talk about it now like they talked about the almighty The Year 2000 for about twenty-five years back in old C-20. But the difference there is, that by the time The Year 2000 came along we’d all already lived through the years 1990-1999, so there was no leap, no vacuous jump, it actually did not take us by surprise, in fact we were absolutely ready for it…and so it was just a year like any other, in the end. But this won’t be like that…because the wireless world just isn’t that far away. And we actually do not know what the wireless world will look like.

Hey, if you liked Apple vs. Microsoft…then stay tuned, y’know? If you liked movies from the 90s about computers and hackers and virtual reality and all that stuff…then turn up the volume and sit back and prepare to drink it all in. We’re gonna be there in about ten minutes, and it’s gonna be bloody. It’s gonna be Scarface, I’m telling you.

Because: trust. It could be your enemy, here. In the wireless world, things are going to start moving fast, and trust will ensure that no one tells you what’s what, because they don’t see any reason to know. I’ve written before about the reluctance of cellphone-users to consider the future…and the present…but don’t think I’m a cellphone hater. I’m going to have to get one, too. We’re all going to have to get one. And we’re going to have to pay whatever it costs for their use, because we won’t have any choice. Enter the Haves and the Have-Nots, finally, after all this time: as there get to be more and more special capabilities associated with “phones”, than there ever were with “computers”. If you don’t have one, there will be more things you can’t do, than just book cheap airline tickets or write C-grade term papers. There are, in fact, more of these capabilities arising every day, than anybody can total up in the morning paper. Your phone can already function as a key to your house; your phone is already a trading account on the Minutes Market in the Philippines. You just don’t know it yet. I’m not saying this technology is the Devil…although since I’ve equipped my house with rotary-dial phones in beautiful black Bakelite, to me it sort of is, because one day very soon I will try to place an outgoing call and it won’t work

…But in the overwhelming majority of cases it is not the Devil at all, it’s just an ever-increasing and therefore ever-more-unknown functionality. And it could make one a Have-Not, as the Internet never did. A revolutionary? Hell, I’m not one…but when the wireless world finally Comes, then someone will have been one, and that’s for sure. Okay, it’s a little bit the Devil: no one is taking any steps to mitigate the damaging effects of these little telegizmos, and you can already mound them up and make islands out of them, build a toxic tower up to Heaven with them if you like, and surely the idea that it’s a bunch of wild talk to say it’s probably not a good idea to staple a microwave transmitter to your head is a transparent example of wilful sandbag-stacking…and the driving issues, and all the rest of it…but all these problems could be fixed if the wrong kind of trust didn’t get in the way, and probably they will be…I mean, I hope they will be, I hope it doesn’t turn out to be another Minamata, another Gulf Of Mexico, but very likely it’ll be reasonably okay by the time we all get another ten years under our belts. So: the Devil? No, not the Devil. The Wild West, yeah; but in all likelihood not the Devil.


Do not imagine you know how these things all work, or what will come of them, or how they will end up being used. As I’ve said before, this is the new Oil Economy, this is a HUGE technology and it’s really just starting to ramp up. I’m not joking about the Minutes Market, either; and even more importantly I’m not joking about my Enterphone. It works in a completely different way, now, and do you know that no one in my building realizes it? No one really has a sense of it, no one grasps it. Because even the most progressive ones among them, yea even the prophets of the Wireless World That’s Coming themselves, are hopelessly imprisoned by twentieth-century thinking. The only reason I myself know anything about it is that I had to figure out what happened when all my phone equipment suddenly, dramatically, went obsolete one day last month…but if I didn’t have the rotary-dial phone I would never have known how the mechanism had changed, rather than simply having been “replaced”. Because nobody thought about it for a second, they just all trusted it. How many changes does “it’s going to be a wireless world” cover, after all! No one yet living can write that history, nor draw that roadmap…so we just don’t know. No one knows. The technology is coming to life before our eyes, blossoming into affirmation as it were…but what it will be when it’s finally been what it was, is a very open question indeed.

And I know, I know…you don’t believe me. Why would you? When I told my brother that many of my neighbours can now use their cellphones as keys to the building, he only had one word to say about it: “Cool!” But it isn’t cool, because they don’t yet know they can do it. It wasn’t designed in as a feature, it just sort of happened.

“Cool!” he said again.

But it isn’t cool at all. Because no one is looking for it, and no one really knows it’s happening. “It’s going to be a wireless world.” Yes, yes it is, it most certainly is…but the wireless world is still an undiscovered country, even to its most fervent patriots. Take digital signatures: right now they’re not capable of replacing actual hand-made signatures in our daily lives, and the attempt to turn hand-scrawlings into data at the point-of-sale is problematic at best. But you see, that’s because the signature, as the prime symbol of intention, is also the prime symbol of identity…and vice versa!…at the same time that this intention/identity matrix cannot be made into a fully digital object. “Electronic” signatures, the kind you do on a screen with a light-pen, are routinely squashed and crunched and otherwise deformed by the unusual physical requirements of light-pen signing — even more than ordinary signatures, they don’t stay the same, they’re not verifiable (i.e. replicable: the two are the same) as a code is, as a string of numbers is. And yet that fact also makes them more secure than any digital object can be…which is a maddening paradox in itself, because (of course!) written signatures don’t stay the same from signing-incident to signing-incident anyway, and this is also precisely what makes them not casually automatable, and therefore more secure. As it makes them tremendously more intentional and particular.

Which is the whole basis for how they get faked, when they do: because no one but the signer could ever swear to a signature being their own rather than an “imperfect” copy…and then of course that’s just what we use signatures for, isn’t it? Swearing.

But the only thing that truly stays the same in any act of swearing is us!

Everything else about it changes!

Screwy, huh?

Of course the human brain — let’s call it a “biological computer” to distinguish it from a digital computer — is exceptionally good at hard recognition problems like determining whether or not a signature looks the same enough, or has changed enough, to be considered authentic. Part of this is down to time-frame, naturally: in the non-digitally-automated way of giving, accepting, and otherwise encountering signatures there are large gaps of human experience that separate such signature-moments, where the private artistic expression crosses the gap to the public world, and so the signature is expected to change in a way digital codes are not. But this time factor only throws the difference in competency between digital and biological computers into starker relief: the biological computer is great at doing things like recognizing people’s faces, lousy at reckoning pi to the 134,000th digit; the digital computer is great at numerical calculation but lousy at recognizing people, and in fact (to borrow a phrase from a lecture I recently attended) if you build a digital computer that is great at faces but lousy at differential equations, you’ve basically built it wrong. The heuristics of facial recognition are still a great problem in psychology, they smack of the non-polynomial if you like, and all the software we write to mimic that ability is actually very poor reverse-engineering: a kludge, even if a sophisticated one. If you work with digital signatures captured with a pad and light-pen, you are probably already applying new heuristics to the change-rate of signatures to determine what kind of new typical variations fall within the realm of “trustworthiness”, and perhaps you even know that you’re doing it, but you still don’t know how…and about the recognition of handwriting there are unproven beliefs that go far beyond simple questions like “does it work on templates” or “does it work on features” — handwriting analysis, for example, may not even work. A fact obvious to some; and yet because it’s about the signature it’s proved a more enduring sort of fortune-telling fiction than its more blatantly phrenological cousins. However, you can see how just holding that belief can have knock-on effects in the world of computer-administered security: all the post-9/11 funding that went to bogus biometrics like gait-analysis programs for airports is essentially no different from the institutional attention-resources some police departments still spend on psychics, but it’s harder to call the former as foolish as the latter, because we know perfectly well that such things as signatures, broadly speaking, do in fact exist. It’s just that we haven’t seen the difference between how we approach them, and how digital machines must approach them. We have never really needed to think about how we accomplish these computationally-bizarre tasks, and so heuristics for evaluating that, at any rate, are still out of our reach. What various factors does our invisible “trust” take in, and how does it process these? The signature is just like the calligraphy, only in reverse: something purely and arbitrarily symbolic at its root, that approaches a representational quality in its expression. To attempt to pin it down by the application of numerical codes is like confusing certifications with certificates — the right always lies elsewhere than with its proof, and even the proof is subject to change…because as they used to say about Java, “the network is the system”.

Which brings us back to the problem of replacing hand-made signatures with digital ID codes. Most of us already have one or two of these in the form of credit-card and PIN numbers…the holy trinity of security being “what you have, what you know, and who you are”, its logic makes it perfectly possible to transform a signature that satisfies the last requirement, into one that satisfies the second. Which leaves us with ID pictures and biometric fingerprints that actually work, to make up the “who you are” stuff. And yet what also happens in this extraction of the signature from the matter of identity, is that the thing that identifies intention becomes just a matter of “what you know”. Which all must sound just a little bit airy-fairy, I suppose?

But consider trust: and how we need more of it to make the essential numbers work for us, when who-you-are becomes what-you-know. Just as the lock on your front door keeps out no one but those who recognize it would be wrong to circumvent it, so where you can’t guard your identity from casual replication you must rely on others not wishing to take it from you. And indeed the security measures surrounding the input of all our secret codes are trivially easy to overcome, and the possession of a numerical identity-mark is no more natural, than the official date of my mother’s birth is “authentic”. It is, in fact, only as authentic as her name — seeing as how both her birthday and her name are ultimately my grandparents’ original inventions.

And so it is with the whole darn thing: we must trust what we can’t control. But when that trust becomes exposed as trust, we get nervous. We feel the ground shaking, and are reminded of the stilts. Every control mechanism put in place to serve as duct tape on the join between the old world and the new attempts to make trust unnecessary, but finds it can’t; so it does the only other thing it can do, which is to vest trust in processes of authentication that belong to someone else, that take trust out of our hands. The only problem being: it never is out of our hands, because the fact of it being there is all that holds the Venice or the Tyre of our social security up out of the water in the first place. The bank issues official cheques, but what empowers them is still the artistic signature, the mark of intention. The government issues official ID, but can’t make the ID itself the very fact of citizenship, residency, legal permission. If the lawyer in Toronto is obeying the law, he can’t be punished for ignoring the signs.


If I listen carefully, I think I can hear you saying, “But what does this have to do with cell phones?” Well thank goodness: I thought you’d never ask.

The answer is: the Wireless World That’s Coming has changed the dynamics of societal trust. Isn’t it curious that back in the Nineties the whole matter of Information Haves and Have-Nots was discussed at such length, but so rarely from any sort of ethical perspective? Did anyone really advance the notion of wiring the whole world, in order to avoid creating greater social and economic equalities? I don’t recall that they did, and in retrospect I think we’ve got to admit that was a pretty shameful example of ideological sandbag-stacking, a real acceptance of the zero-sum game and the “naturalness” of class divisions; but then, fortunately, a whole-world wiring turned out not to be necessary. In the Third World, wire’s just too expensive, and the Internet’s just too immediately, tangibly valuable: so wirelessness became the way for life to go forward. It saves money, and it makes money; it enables governments and people alike to shed infrastructure costs and overleap politically-based access barriers.

But here in the Fortunate Lands, where all the wealth lives and all the infrastructure’s already been built, that isn’t what’s happening. Oh, the Internet is the same…but the machinery isn’t, because it’s operating in a different social context. In the West uniquely (at least right now), it isn’t just what you can do that now depends on what and where you spend…but it’s what you can know about what can be done, that depends on it. It isn’t organized, you see: there are no bulletins being circulated about what’s now possible in the wireless world, that never was even imagined as possible in the wired one. And we are all operating on a kind of trust that’s becoming less and less applicable every day. We’ll take the difference between urban and rural economic capabilities for a start: as where cell phone coverage exists, there is industrialized urbanity, and where it doesn’t there it isn’t. This may seem rather straightforward: to geographers, communications and economic transactions are all a part of the construction of “distance” anyway. But there are relational changes going on that are less visible and more vital, too: because the network is also the system, and you can’t change one without the other. The signature, the personal declaration, witnessing and notarizing, the image and the word and the object are all losing their sanctity, because their sanctity is incompatible with the juggernaut of wireless digital technology…but we need those things so much that if we paid attention to how they were being devalued we would have to turn away from the wireless world, and there is no way we can afford to do that! So we must turn a blind eye to its implications, and learn to trust something else. Not people. Not institutional authority.


A wise man whose name I don’t recall once said that what we were witnessing in the computer age was the gradual addition of a microchip to everything: that this was the content of our new industrial revolution, simply figuring out how to computerize stuff that hadn’t yet been computerized, and that only after we’d done that would we start to see new activities based on what computers could do when they weren’t adapting the efficiency of old technologies. Some areas of human endeavour, even in commerce and science, have had a relatively slow uptake of the possiblities lying dormant in the microchip: libraries got onto the digital path long before real estate agents did, for example, and bioinformatics is a relative latecomer to biology. Stuff like that. But the last one to go will be my pattern of “societal trust”: as the floats inflate under the City, we will finally be able to demolish the stilts — there will be a tremor, and some crockery might be smashed, but nothing that can’t be replaced. Every other sphere of our lives will have gone through it before; it’ll be nothing new. Just the final step.

Well…not quite final.

What do we rely on, if not trust in people’s intentions, or trust in institutional authority that knows better than we do? Where are intention and identity to be located, once signatures and sworn declarations have been ignored? My brother knows the answer, even if he doesn’t know he knows it: money. That’s the only thing left that can be the Network that’s the System: purchases that are functionally identical with permissions, financial fingerprints left in the pattern of payments. In a paperless world there can be no paper trail, but there can still be accounting…and in accounting a name is spelled with letters made of numbers, each debit a loop, each credit a diacritic. And the M2 money supply is going the way of the dinosaur, as it happens — because money that can’t identify the user as he spends it is incompatible with a world where other signatures are obsolete and inadmissable. “Who you are” must become “what you can do”, and “what you know” must become “how you pay”…and “what you have” must just be that you’re anybody at all. If you have what everybody else has, you’re subject to identification. If you don’t, you’re not. That sounds a little bit extreme, perhaps, but consider: it’s not like we’ve never used money for that before.

It’s just that that old poll-tax technology didn’t work so well, without the microchip’s assistance.

Oh, now…I can hear you laughing, don’t think I can’t. But just a minute, did you really think science-fiction was all just supposed to be identical with whistling past a graveyard? No, no…it comes true, you know. And revolutions are happening all the time. It’s just that the SF versions of them are exaggerated and refractive. Well, those fictional revolutions always leap over the constraints that real revolutions must encounter, they scrupulously avoid showing how “here” becomes, by incremental steps, “there”…but it doesn’t mean they’re not showing us anything real, you know? This is not going to be a global phenomenon, this is just for us rich bastards in the West — because we’ve invested more heavily in industrial infrastructure than the rest of the world. Now it has to be replaced. There are going to be tremors. They’re starting now. That’s all I’m saying.


…Okay, not quite all I’m saying.

Ten pages of preamble, and now here comes the point: the difference between the mechanized existence SF has been warning us about for about a hundred years, and the real world in which we live, is simply that not all of the stilts under the City are capable of being demolished. Think of it as robustness vs. sensitivity, or call it a matter of the universal principle of limitation: to do away with the philosophy of (some especially ardent believers in the Wireless World might call it the cult of) signature that underlies all our Western social contexts, that we’ve sacrificed for and fought for in courts, colleges, and banks, we have to exert the effort it takes to set its value at naught. But the more of it we find we can set aside, the more energy we will find it takes to set the next thing aside…and in the end there will be at least one thing we cannot set aside.

The Huguenots, of course. The law.

The primacy of intention.

Within the next ten years, I confidently predict, if you have a cell phone and I do not you will not only be able to do a whole lot of things I once used to be able to do but now can’t, but you’ll also have so many new abilities I won’t be familiar with that to me it’ll seem like you can read minds and astral-project. As money and prestige was a century ago, so access to the wireless world will be, in places where wealth got concentrated. Open locked doors without keys, make a fortune texting Norway from Sweden, buy things I don’t even know are for sale though we stand in the middle of the same store. Access determining actions determining identity. But the one thing you won’t be able to do…

…Is write your name.

Well, you won’t think you have any reason to.

And so as I’m giving myself a warning about damn well getting off my ass and getting a fancy new phone, a warning to any out there who look forward to the wireless world — and the warning is: you’re right, it’s coming.

But not to the inside of any courtrooms, no matter what the Toronto City Council tries on for size.

And here, just as the ship of my argument is sinking, I think it might be a good idea if I got off of it.

Sorry about that, Bloggers: sometimes you just gotta type something, you know?


As you were, I guess.


12 responses to “The City Of Stilts

  1. The future of cellphones… I’m of two minds about it. Right now we have cellphones that are telephones and PDAs and text messagers and GPSs and cameras and music players and e-mail clients and internet connections and compasses and calculators and I don’t know what all. Almost everything, basically. But there are two things that they are not, yet, and I think that those are the last two hurdles for cellphones to clear before they’re, well, just short of a real-life Mother Box, I guess. And I’m sure that people are working on both of them.

    The first thing that cellphones are also going to become is a credit and/or debit card, where you just have to wave your phone at a cash register in order to buy stuff. This one’s probably going to happen pretty soon.

    The second thing that cellphones are also going to become is identification. You’ll have some kind of file, or app, or signal, or something, associated with your phone, that you’ll be able to use to prove you’re you in any situation where anyone might ask. This one could take quite a while, because governments quite properly aren’t going to put a lot of weight on it until just about everybody is in a position to make use of it.

    And it has not been lost on me that money and identity are two of the key points of your essay above.

    But the other thing I think about cellphones is this: the more elaborate, the more technological, the more abstract this stuff gets, the less of a chance there is that it’ll persist as a key part of human society. We’re animals living on a planet of earth and water and trees; we sleep every night and eat dead plants and animals every day. Cellphones just aren’t necessary to us on a fundamental enough level.

    More to the point, the kind of society we need in order to build, maintain, distribute, and use that many cellphones may not be sustainable. The resources to make the things may not be available. The farther we go in this direction, the steeper the hill gets, is what I suspect.

    Good blogpost.

  2. Just a quick note.

    This post is a beaut. It goes round marking concerns that, yes, I’ve been content to allow to be so arcane that I’ve pretended to be taking them on trust. A few glib mentions of “biometrics” and “freenets” won’t get me out of it either, or excuse me.

    XKCD has the banner illustration, though.

    It took me less than a minute to google; in the course of that I came across Using Chef for Automated Infrastructure in the Cloud
    , which now I have to watch, to have a clue what’s going on.

    Well. A slideshow on how to set up your own virtual computers on a computing cloud. Only two years old. Count the number of uses of “certify”, “authenticate”, “SSH”.

    It’s worth watching just for the sound of the dialect — pure sysadmin, easygoing, in control of the nomenclature (which the corporate people can only appropriate in order to sound authoritative), confident that with this software in hand …

    … you’re the one writing the small print.

  3. Thanks, guys!

    Matthew: the large matter of resources is something I’m planning to talk about in my next post, but as regards cell phones — oh yeah, we’re gonna run out of ways to make ’em cheaply, there’s no question about it. Constant upgrades are going to annihilate the current business model, one day if things keep going the way they are it’s going to be Numenorean technology…easy to envision a future in which lots of information’s been coded up in places that can only be accessed by machines no one can make anymore…

    But that’s SF too, I guess.

    But you’re right about the luxuriousness of cell phones, at least here in the West. The infrastructure already exists, to do everything necessary already. No one talks about junking any of it in the name of anything but “convenience” (modernity by another name?), which basically translates to “somebody could make a lot of money doing this, if it wasn’t already being done.” But unlike the folks in what we call the Third World, nobody here saves any money by junking/upgrading the existing infrastructure, so the potential profit inevitably comes at an equivalent cost. Hmm, this is actually turning out to be a good counterpoint to that next post, I didn’t plan that but it appears to be trending that way…

    The funny thing is, I’ve been saying for years now that phone service is verging on being Essential…and now not just any old phone will do, either. Has to be touch-tone. But when I think about the potential willingness of governments to consider making phones part of identification, for some reason it seems to smack me between the eyes that the argument would be it isn’t necessary to make phone service essential, just a matter of convenience…and I don’t think this point of view could survive a court challenge, should even one person be booted from a public building for not having “the right kind” of ID. Doubtless the argument would be that the government already makes people pay for their ID, but (I can hear it already) if some of those forms aren’t counted as ID then what the hell’s being paid for? I don’t think any federal government will ever want to get into a situation where provincial IDs aren’t considered “portable” — Liberal or Conservative, government or opposition, there’s just no way that position grids out for MPs, I think. And considering the most basic level of record-keeping and identification is already on Parliament, no matter what a driver’s licence or a stamp costs…then one can easily imagine cries of “fat-cutter, digitally integrate thine own records!” There only being one taxpayer and all, ha.

    But of course…that way lies a lot of political headaches too.

    Not that Harper wouldn’t try any of these on, if he only thought it’d cause the Liberals to sink a single point in the polls…!

    …But one wonders how far things could be taken, in protest of such a measure. Could we ever prevent Canadian citizens from (say) renouncing their citizenship, just because they didn’t have the correct ID? Bedrock legal foundations can always be gotten to. What do you do with a person whose citizenship can’t be renounced because they can’t provide proof of citizenship, deport them? …Aha, I was wondering where the third story in that trilogy was going to come from, thank you kindly, Matthew…

    Jonathan: ah yes, that xkcd, it’s music to the ears, ain’t it? I think I may’ve said recently, I think the Cloud’s necessity/utility is just another utopia no one needs, if I can wire up every damn thing in my house and store a 100 GB of data in each button on my shirt for two bucks a button — I only need the Cloud to store things I don’t want. But now that you mention it…yeah, there’s a connection to the e-book rant there as well. What I got from Sea’s helpful insight is that the e-book people are only interested in making money: they’re not interested in taking on any of the responsibilities of a publisher, to the point where they can’t make the leap to understanding the legal obligations publishers (and re-publishers!) have to their authors. A lot like a friend of mine who offered to clean my kitchen for me one day. Naturally, I said “Hey thanks! Sure!” But then he told me, very sternly, that I’d have to get rid of all the books in my living room too. So I told him “No thanks, then.”

    “WHAT’S YOUR PROBLEM?!” he demanded.

    That Cloud computing VM stuff must be something much the same (yes, it’s a sly Bowie reference!): “we could make a lot more money off a lot less work, with no perceptible difference to you unless something went wrong, if you people would only see reason…!

    I confess I did not watch the slideshow.

    But the hours of my building staff just got cut, and the letter I received today that told me so also told me it would be insensitive and disrespectful to discuss it with my strata council, management company, or staff themselves. So I don’t know who that leaves…

    Aha! Of course, the INTERNET!

    Sort of resent being put in the position of having to formulate an ethical stance on this very touchy topic…

    …Which is rather ironic, considering the origin and content of this post!!

  4. These issues are things I have to deal with every day, considering my career, and they just happen to be things that make me sound like a lunatic even to several colleagues. Information security, aside from being a broader field than most give it credit for, must allow itself to wander the same bottom-up path that the economic and social way forward is wandering, and it’s got some catching up to do. However, in the field we’re stuck in the position of having to negotiate between old-world, top-down organizational and authoritative structures on one side and real-world bottom up self-organizing and frankly better for non-authorities structures on the other. It’s very much feed vs. seed, and it’s happening now, and it’s progressing the only way that it can (which is why you see entrenched authority the world over acting in such desperation).

    Trust, identity, authentication–these things are part of the top-down world, or rather they’re the things that world uses to assert its primacy even as those assertions become more and more absurd. Because look, if entrenched powers can’t say with any certainty that you and only you are who you say you are, then not only can they not trust you, but you (holy shit, could this really be?)–you have no reason to trust them! And then what do they have that you don’t have? What can they offer you that you can’t simply obtain on your own more efficiently, cheaply, with lower risk? Well, the only thing they’ve ever really had to offer–not shooting you or putting you in a cage. But of course the key to the cage is swimming in your blood or sewn into your skin, so let them try. Nobody’s watching the cage anyway, and nobody’s going to hold the guns on behalf of entrenched powers anymore, because they don’t need to sell that service to the powers in order to survive like they used to.

    So trust can go away if it can be made irrelevant, which will have to happen. But in order for it to fully happen, then the “transaction” as we know it will also have to go away. Which will be fine.

    As for identity, well even now that in and of itself isn’t enough. It’s a pairing of identity and authentication that matters. And the thing about that is–and again, this is what it’s so hard to get people to come to terms with–is that the more robust the methods for binding identity to authentication become, the more (yes, more!) actual risk is introduced. Because you see it establishes more trust in the process. All points of data can be forged, and yet increasing the robustness of an authentication mechanism tends to just mean adding a couple more points of data to line up. But it’s not just the ease of forgery that we have to worry about; it’s the removal of human discretion. Because if too much trust is put in authoritative authentication mechanisms and those mechanisms are incorrect but can’t be overridden because of the associated risks (which are real, so I understand, but there are problems)–then you are no longer you even if you are, because the mechanism doesn’t think you are and can’t be convinced otherwise, and there is no human or other mechanism that has sufficient authority to intercede on your behalf and vouch for you, and the employee behind the counter who has known you for 20 years can’t do anything for you but express exasperation alongside you and hope to god there isn’t a scene about to be made.

    But we can avoid the unpleasantness by simply learning to live without trust, identity, and authentication. Why not start now?

  5. Wow, feeling great that I’ve elicited such a comment…that sort of makes my post look dillettantish…YesThat, just give me a few moments to collect my thoughts!

    And thank you very much for commenting!

  6. I should make it clear: cannot evaluate NUTTIN’ at the moment, but will soon be back in full armour. Please hold tight until I pull on those sleeves. Travel time, tomorrow!

  7. It fascinates me that people would get so angry over that story about your mother and her passport. I’ve been pondering it for two days now, and it just fascinates me. The idea that this would make anyone angry is so bizarre.

  8. Ah, you see RAB…it’s because they think it makes them look stupid!

    That’s my best guess, anyhow: basically that the way my mother got her passport threatens the coherence of the system that supplies rewards and punishments to the matter of social conformity. Which, of course…it does. Because the investments people make in their own social legitimacy, their ability to defend themselves against social criticism, are I think actually quite large…so who wants to be told they’re not necessary? Anyone can vote here, not just the hard-working; if you didn’t take care of business when you should have, you can make it up later on just by a formal assertion. I think that’s what people are reacting to in the passport story…offended by the Prodigal, basically. But, I think it goes a bit deeper as well, into the matter of being lied to: you were told this is necessary now, and then you find out it isn’t, that the safeguards you’ve accepted as required steps actually don’t keep anything safe, don’t guard anything at all….that the world still works by declarations and sworn oaths makes people who sacrifice…whatever, their time, their money…for the system’s securities, feel foolish.


    By the way, on a side note…today I found out I was very right about something I had no right to be right about. Evolutionary biology and neural architecture. I don’t have any formal training in these things, but lo and behold! What I’ve been saying for a couple of years, turns out to actually be The Way It Is.

    Damn, better leave on a high note…off to bed, then, and the Pogo Sunday Lunch.

    • So it’s as if people think she’s gotten away with something, as if having a parent show up and testify to her birth is some kind of unfair advantage, as if she’s somehow gaming the system? No fair, she cheated?

      By contrast, I can more easily imagine an American hearing the same anecdote and saying “Wow, I also need a passport…could your grandad come and vouch for me too?” Okay, a dumb American, but anyway.

      (At least that would have been the case before we turned into the land of Homeland Security. Who knows what the reaction would be today?)

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