Author: Danny Hillis
Presentation: “The Internet Could Crash. We Need a Plan B.”
Review By: Rebecca Fil
Date: 10 April 2013
So the fact is that there’s a lot of bad guys on the Internet these days, and so we dealt with that by making walled communities, secure subnetworks, VPNs, little things that aren’t really the Internet but are made out of the same building blocks, but we’re still basically building it out of those same building blocks with those same assumptions of trust. And that means that it’s vulnerable to certain kinds of mistakes that can happen, or certain kinds of deliberate attacks, but even the mistakes can be bad.
At first glance, Danny Hillis’ presentation seems a bit like Chicken Little, but he’s really more like Martin Brody commenting on the need for a bigger boat after Jaws pops up briefly to say hello.
Hillis was there in the internet’s childhood. In fact, he was the third person register a domain name on the internet. “The basic idea of I.P, or Internet protocol, the way that the routing algorithm that used it, were fundamentally ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.’…And so, if you had some extra bandwidth, you’d deliver a message for someone…. You’d kind of depend on people to do that, and that was the building block,” Hillia says. He goes on to describe several points in the history of the Internet—twenty years to twelve months ago—where the Internet failed. Granted, it only showed up in the form of clogging up traffic or redirecting it to China, but still it exposed vulnerabilities in Internet protocol. That’s fine, except the Internet is being used for way more than originally intended.
According Hillis, it was never supposed to go as far as banks, hospitals, rockets, and gasp pumps relying almost completely on the Internet to work. Hillis isn’t saying that the problem with the Internet getting so big is that our computers will explode and we’ll be in some kind of Dr. Strangelove situation, but making the Internet completely unavailable to us could possibly pose as much of a threat:
So if somebody really wanted to attack the United States or Western civilization these days, they’re not going to do it with tanks. That will not succeed. What they’ll probably do is something very much like the attack that happened on the Iranian nuclear facility. Nobody has claimed credit for that. There was basically a factory of industrial machines. It didn’t think of itself as being on the Internet. It thought of itself as being disconnected from the Internet, but it was possible for somebody to smuggle a USB drive in there, or something like that, and software got in there that causes the centrifuges, in that case, to actually destroy themselves. Now that same kind of software could destroy an oil refinery or a pharmaceutical factory or a semiconductor plant.
But it’s too tempting to think about a Plan B, when Plan A is going so well. The Internet “building blocks” Hillis is talking about are so cheap and so easily repeatable. Plan B doesn’t require completely rebuilding the Internet; Hillis is mostly concerned about communication. If the Internet is down, banks, rocket ships, and gas pumps ought to have a backup plan in order to communicate with one another, and it can be used from an “existing wireless infrastructure.” It would be cheaply and easily done; it’s just a matter of the public seeing the need for it.
For the most part, I found Hillis’ talk intriguing. My cynical nature gets the best of me, however, so first I have to discuss my main problem with his Plan B conclusion. Hillis says: “What we need is something that doesn’t necessarily have to have the performance of the Internet, but the police department has to be able to call up the fire department even without the Internet, or the hospitals have to order fuel.” Are land lines still in the mix? Can we just use regular telephones? The Internet is magnificent, but it’s only a little bit older than I am. We’re still at a point where we haven’t forgotten how to write things down on that thing called paper; I think we’ll be fine.
Hillis compares the Internet to the inflated financial system, “where we’ve designed all the parts but nobody really exactly understands how it operates and all the little details of it and what kinds of emergent behaviors it can have.” And then, I don’t know if he meant to do this, but he kind of makes a dig a digital humanists: “And so if you hear an expert talking about the Internet and saying it can do this, or it does do this, or it will do that, you should treat it with the same skepticism that you might treat the comments of an economist about the economy or a weatherman about the weather, or something like that.” But Hillis himself is a digital humanist, I mean he’s a TED Speaker, so he’s kind of subverting his whole argument, but in another way he’s not. His argument points to human nature. If the Internet—or at least Internet protocol—was founded on a trust system, it should not inflate without limits. Someone, at some point, is going to figure out how to take advantage of the system, and do something very bad. I know it sounds pandering, but there it is. And it’s important to remember human nature in these talks, and it should be easy for us to do, since what is humanities but the cataloguing of human nature?
The Internet is Like a Boat: What it Means for Academia
Hillis himself calls the Internet (Internet protocol, anyway) a communist idea, and later goes on to say that idea got way too inflated for its intended purpose. It’s funny he didn’t make the connection between the Internet being established on “communist” principles and the Internet being in danger of USSR-like collapse. In any case, it seems that what academia is going through with the digital humanities—privatizing scholarly journals online in a system where information is free.
Hillis really throws a wrench into our discussions of digital humanities: here we are, imagining this fabulous Titanic starship that can carry the population of the earth; we’ve stepped off our antiquated sloop of print, and we’re considering tying it to the starship itself like an inner tube (digital archives?), and here comes Hillis saying that the starship Titanic could sink at any moment, or float off into space. Either way, information will be lost; and we academics are in the business of information. We have the upper-hand, in the humanities, of still having one foot on the dock. If the Internet collapses tomorrow, we’ll still have our printed copies of Hamlet. Of course, in the situation Hillis is talking about, if a denial-of-service attack on the Internet happened, it could mean economic collapse—like a real Great Depression, where people wake up and don’t have any money except for what they’ve stored under their mattresses—or even fatal consequences, but hey, we’ll still have our Shakespeare.
The Internet is Like an Apartment Complex: What it Means for Digital Humanities
When Hillis finally comes to what his idea of Plan B would be—his talk kind of fizzles. He said earlier that he had been dealing with VPNs (virtual private networks), secure subnetworks, and walled communities to protect the Internet from itself, but he said it still posed a threat because these things are built of the same building blocks as the Internet (the trust system) as have the same vulnerabilities.
In other words, if you register a domain name on the Internet, it’s like you’re renting an apartment from a giant complex, a building that is so big, they have to build a new floor every hour to house all the people inside. This apartment complex holds almost all of the population of the earth. Except for, you know, the San-Bushmen people, but it’s only a matter of time. Because a person couldn’t possibly climb a flight of stairs to their 23,000th floor apartment (although in Hillis’ day you could), a system of elevators was installed for expedient travelling between floors. Things have never been better.
Hillis says that, if a self-interested, malicious person were to introduce a bug into the elevators, it would be catastrophic. Best case scenario, people would be locked in their apartments, unable to communicate with the outside world, and would eventually die from starvation (in this metaphor, that’s banks collapsing and a real Great Depression). Worst case scenario, the very apartment complex itself would topple over (that’s if someone caused a nuclear reactor facility to destroy itself).
And all Hillis has to offer us for his Plan B is that we should privatize our internet, or do something with Ethernet? He says it could be done cheaply by using what’s already in the ground. Great, now isn’t that sort of like what he said was the problem with VPNs and secure subnetworks? If you see problems with the infrastructure of a system, will building a replica of the system as backup really solve problem?
What it means for the digital humanities is let’s not forget our roots, and the fact that, in the humanities, nothing is meant to live forever. We communicated with oral tradition, and when we were afraid of forgetting words, we invented cave drawings. When we were afraid of cave drawings crumbling, we invented paper, books, printing presses, and libraries. When we were afraid of documents being lost, we invented the internet. We have a choice: either we can preemptively search for a new medium of documentation, or we could stop running from our shadow and accept that the human retention of information—humanities—is not a limitless thing.