If the digital economy is really the economy then it’s high time we moved beyond hoping that we can simply train users to be safe online. Is the real economy only for heros who can protect themselves in the jungle, writing their own code. As if they’re carrying their own guns? Or do we as a community build structures and standards and insist on technologies that work for all?
For most people, the World Wide Web experience still a lot like watching cartoons on TV. The human-machine interface is almost the same. The images and actions are just as synthetic; crucially, nothing on a web browser is real. Almost anything goes — just as the Roadrunner defies gravity in besting Coyote, there are no laws of physics that temper the way one bit of multimedia leads to the next. Yes, there is a modicum of user feedback in the way we direct some of the action when browsing and e-shopping, but it’s quite illusory; for the most part all we’re really doing is flicking channels across a billion pages.
It’s the suspension of disbelief when browsing that lies at the heart of many of the safety problems we’re now seeing. Inevitably we lose our bearings in the totally synthetic World Wide Web. We don’t even realise it, we’re taken in by a virtual reality, and we become captive to social engineering.
But I don’t think it’s possible to tackle online safety by merely countering users’ credulity. Education is not the silver bullet, because the Internet is really so technologically complex and abstract that it lies beyond the comprehension of most lay people.
Using the Internet ‘safely’ today requires deep technical skills, comparable to the level of expertise needed to operate an automobile circa 1900. Back then you needed to be able to do all your own mechanics [roughly akin to the mysteries of maintaining anti-virus software], look after the engine [i.e. configure the operating system and firewall], navigate the chaotic emerging road network [there’s yet no trusted directory for the Internet, nor any road rules], and even figure out how to fuel the contraption [consumer IT supply chains is about as primitive as the gasoline industry was 100 years ago]. The analogy with the early car industry becomes especially sharp for me when I hear utopian open source proponents argue that writing ones own software is the best way to be safe online.
The Internet is so critical (I’d have thought this was needless to say) that we need ways of working online that don’t require us to all be DIY experts.
I wrote a first draft of this blog six years ago, and at that time I called for patience in building digital literacy and sophistication. “It took decades for safe car and road technologies to evolve, and the Internet is still really in its infancy” I said in 2009. But I’m less relaxed about his now, on the brink of the Internet of Things. It’s great that the policy makers like the US FTC are calling on connected device makers to build in security and privacy, but I suspect the Internet of Things will require the same degree of activist oversight and regulation as does the auto industry, for the sake of public order and the economy. Do we have the appetite to temper breakneck innovation with safety rules?