Monday, February 23, 2015

Goodman's Digital Dystopia

Marc Goodman, Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It

It always bothers me when I concur with a book’s core assertions, and must recommend audiences not read it anyway. With nonfiction, this usually happens when an author draws our attention to neglected topics, especially those which have often unexamined implications, but the author doesn’t stage the argument well. Maybe it reflects my background in teaching composition, but nothing sours my appreciation like an undifferentiated firehose of information. Such is the case with Marc Goodman.

Ex-LAPD turned global digital security consultant, Marc Goodman has participated in increasing corporate and private security measures. This gives him boots-on-the-ground familiarity with how organized crime, espionage specialists, and crafty teenagers abuse today’s networked world. When ordinary citizens send credit card information across WiFi or smartphones, when social networks market access to private eyeballs, and when market trackers create massive profiles of everybody online, we’re unprecedentedly vulnerable. As Goodman puts it, “Mo’ Screens, Mo’ Problems.”

My problem isn’t anything Goodman says. Informed audiences should already understand his broad outline, though he helpfully provides clarifying details. Those Terms of Service agreements you accept without reading? The average American would need 76 eight-hour workdays annually to read them all. PayPal’s Terms of Service runs nearly 40,000 words—longer than Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground, without characters or motivations. Even if you read them, most include stipulations that “they” can change terms without notice.

Meanwhile, criminals have developed elaborate processes to circumvent security. Goodman notes, security specialists must anticipate every possible attack; lawbreakers need only find one liability. Meanwhile, thought leaders like Ben Horowitz recommend deliberately selling bug-ridden early drafts of software, using paying customers as uncompensated beta testers. This leaves consumers vulnerable to spiteful pranksters, the Mafia, and even China’s People’s Liberation Army, known to have deliberately hacked corporations and citizens to expropriate American and international trade secrets.

Marc Goodman
No, my problem isn’t what Goodman says, it’s how he says it. Goodman divides his text into three parts, and Part One, which consumes nearly half the book’s mass, unrelentingly dumps chilling crime data in readers’ laps. Between tales of deliberate crime, squicky corporate data hoarding, and actual malicious destruction, it mounts up. Goodman doesn’t break this litany of misery, except for the occasional half-page snippet of exposition, for over 150 pages, leaving readers tired.

This results in a phenomenon familiar to many professions, from government reformers to Christian missionaries: compassion fatigue. People reading narratives of poverty, oppression, or in this case crime, quickly become discouraged when statistics accumulate. With individual narratives, people feel moved to act; when patterns develop, people become discouraged and fatalistic. According to philanthropist Richard Stearns, that happens appallingly early: when naming actual victims of inequality or crime, people become discouraged when the pattern hits… two.

Thus Goodman says many right things in exactly the wrong way. I’d use exactly this strategy to discourage audiences about their ability to address current problems. Rather than keeping focus on one problem, or one constellation of problems, and appropriate correlating solutions, he completely segregates crisis from resolution. We get crushed by the weight of problems long before reaching the solutions, assuming we do reach the solutions: I frankly got tired and made tortoise-like progress.

Certainly, Goodman also discusses redresses to these problems. But he does this only so late that many readers have already either given into nihilism, or joins the Luddites. Perhaps Goodman thought the story arc from Hollywood dramas, where everything generally gets worse and worse until our white-hatted hero reverses things, would convey his message emotionally. But this isn’t some scripted drama. The answer isn’t Liam Neeson kicking everybody’s ass. This really happens to real people.

Goodman doesn’t trade in hypotheticals. He doesn’t invent threats that need addressed in the airy-fairy future, because he doesn’t need to (though he does sometimes extrapolate). Horror stories abound in nonfiction, from joshing teenagers hijacking municipal rail control networks, to massive data leaks at Symantec. Yes, that Symantec, which manufactures Norton security. Despite the “Future Crimes” title, Goodman details threats that exist right now, and risk becoming even more perilous as our networked technology increases.

I struggled to retain Goodman’s thread beneath the mass of techno-legal horror tales. I should be Goodman’s target audience, since I support his fundamental thesis about digital vulnerabilities. Just as most citizens cannot comprehend their investment portfolios, we also cannot manage our digital privacy individually. Goodman raises important questions for both private and regulatory consideration. These issues will increasingly color life in coming years. Goodman just stages his claims in ways that leave me despondent.

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