“Whatever you wish for, the genie will always be able to fulfil it in a way that you wish he hadn’t. The genie will always be able to hack your wish.”— Bruce Schneier’s “A Hacker’s Mind”
I’m always a fan of a good, caustic throw-way line. Bruce Schneier’s latest, “A Hacker’s Mind,” has a few of them. What caught me about that one, on page 233, is that it more eloquently describes the dilemma I’ve tried to clumsily articulate in the past: Technology is treacherous in that it does exactly what you ask it to.
I have a book habit. A problem, really. I’ve got a backlog of more than 30 of them, and am not reading at a fast enough clip. I also tend to impulse buy new ones. Tsundoku is the Japanese word for “the stack of books you’ve purchased but haven’t yet read.” Starting around this time last year I started a tsundoku thread on Mastodon. It was an attempt to developing a burn-down of about a book a week, but I don’t clock in enough reading time to maintain that pace. Mostly I do my book blogging in that thread, but now that I’ve got a WordPress blog that’s federated, I figure I’d make an exception this time.
A couple of week’s ago Bruce Schneier’s newes book arrived in the post and jumped the queue in my reading list. The book aims to broaden a reader’s understanding of hackers and hacking, and one of the things that makes this book a joy to read is how Schneier is able to communicate.Quickly moving through computers and networks, he builds up a case in how we can look at all the systems leveraged to run our civilisation through the lens of a hacker, for better and for words: banking and finance, political institutions, law, war, people. Hacking is not limited to technology. It can involve any activity that employs the rules of a system with the goal of subverting it. The most most prolific hackers are not the cliche teen-in-hoodie living in their mum’s house. History is packed with hacks, the most successful and resilient of them being carried out by rich and powerful people who are rarely penalised for them.
Every once in a while, it’s good to just dive into a book that takes the longer view. This one is one of those. The take away, for me, is that we’ve created a world based on hacks. The only way to continue to manage it is more hacks, each one layered on top of increasing complexity with the ability to have greater impacts across the scope of everything.
No one knows this better than the current system maintainers, themselves. This isn’t a technical book, but one about social, political and economic inequality. At the foundation of a book on hacking is an unmissable class awareness. The hackers are accountants, political consultants, lawyers, and lobbyists. Schneier doesn’t so much focus on how the elite maintain control of anything. Instead, he reveals how they dodge systems of governance that the rest of us are subjected to, with increasingly dire outcomes, which will only get worse the longer exploits remain unpatched.
Spoiler: in the final chapter we get to every tech pundits current favourite bogeyman, artificial intelligence. When AI arrives at the end we already have a built-up model about the kinds of things it will likely be used to exploit with greater speed and cleverness. AI isn’t the villain, though. Capitalism is. At least, that’s my reading of it.