From “Halt and Catch Fire”
You Are Not Safe

The show is called Halt and Catch Fire.* It depicts the early days of what we now call “the tech industry,” first in Texas and then in Silicon Valley, in the early and-mid-1980s (when what we now call a “notebook” was known as a “luggable.”

I watched the first two seasons a couple of years ago.  I started to watch Season 3 last year, and have finally gone back and watched the entire season, and will soon start watching the fourth and final season which ended earlier this month.

One of the themes in the third season involves what can best be called “the pre-emergence” of the Internet. One of the characters has discovered ARPANET  and has contracted with a similar network hosted by the National Science Foundation.

[spoiler alert for H&CF S3 E8]

In the closing minutes of the 8th episode, one of the characters leaves a suicide note. He is in legal jeopardy for having released into the wild the source code for a valuable security software product. The Feds are closing in, and he has decided that going out a high window is better than prison. Before his departure, he leaves this warning on the dominant public BBS network of the day:

YOU ARE NOT SAFE

I, Ryan Ray, released the MacMillan Utility source code. I acted alone. No one helped me, and no one told me to do it. I did this because “security” is a myth. Contrary to what you might have heard, my friends, you are NOT safe.

Safety is a story. It’s something we teach our children, so they can sleep at night. But we know it’s not real.

Beware baffled humans. Beware of false prophets who will sell you a fake future – of bad teachers, corrupt leaders and dirty corporations. Beware of cops and robbers. The kind that rob your dreams. But most of all, beware of each other. Because everything’s about to change.

The world is going to crack wide open. There’s something on the horizon – a massive connectivity. The barriers between us will disappear. And we’re not ready.

We’ll hurt each other in new ways. We’ll sell and be sold. We’ll expose our most tender selves only to be mocked and destroyed. We’ll be so vulnerable and we’ll pay the price. We won’t be able to pretend that we can protect ourselves anymore. It’s a huge danger. A gigantic risk. But it’s worth it.

If only we can learn to take care of each other. Then this awesome, destructive new connection won’t isolate us. It won’t leave us in the end so… totally alone.

He says it will be worth it… and for the most part, it is.

But how much do we feel “connected” when in fact… we are alone?

And we are just beginning to get a sense what the Trojan Network has unleashed inside the city gates.

Ryan’s soliloquy sounds prophetic. It is “sent to us” from 1986 – but was probably written sometime last year.  The episode first aired on October 4, 2016 – before we had any real sense of what how the Russians had weaponized our “social media.”  So it actually seems even more prophetic, anticipating as it does the condition we find ourselves in just a year later – as we begin to learn of the vulnerabilities hidden in these networks.

The tech oligarchs who have brought us this “open and connected” environment have also unleashed the most pervasive surveillance system the world has ever seen, to which we willingly and gladly contribute.    Not even Orwell could have imagined…

And now begins “the tech backlash” – as leaders of all stripes try to get a rein on the beast.

The post and the  several that precede it are a part are probably part of that backlash.  Now I have to wonder if I’ve left one mob and joined another.

*

*The title “Halt and Catch Fire” refers to an early bit of code that could shut down a computer’s central processing unit.

 



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Paul Schatzkin