Everything is (even more) broken

Tech journalist Quinn Norton believes Everything is Broken in computing and in computer security. And so do I. But I’ve rarely disagreed so strongly with someone over something we both ostensibly agree on.

Part of the problem is that Norton’s essay is a bit of a pointless sprawl. I agree completely that the “average piece-of-shit Windows desktop is so complex that no one person on Earth really knows what all of it is doing, or how.” And that this complacency is a bad thing. However, Norton then goes on to list a bunch of government-led security attacks, such as the NSA-Snowden revelations and Stuxnet, in such a way that her message is inescapably, “Windows is bad because the government wants it so.” Or, as Norton puts it, “The NSA is doing so well because software is bullshit.”

Or, maybe the NSA (yes, the same NSA that hired someone who very publicly flouted government surveillance to be their systems admin) is “doing so well” because our political status quo chooses to fund and enable it, and exploiting weaknesses in software is just one tool in the NSA’s politically-supported mission? In which case, improving your software is a very indirect, and mostly ineffective way (including for reasons inherent to software), if you wanted to diminish the NSA’s surveillance power.

This conflating of cause and effect is reflected in how Norton obviously understands how and why software is flawed, but somehow manages to draw the wrong conclusions. For me, the most disagreeable part of Norton’s essay is at the end:

Computers don’t serve the needs of both privacy and coordination not because it’s somehow mathematically impossible. There are plenty of schemes that could federate or safely encrypt our data, plenty of ways we could regain privacy and make our computers work better by default. It isn’t happening now because we haven’t demanded that it should, not because no one is clever enough to make that happen.

This notion that “if only those programmers got their priorities in order, things would be good” is so ass-backwards that I believe Norton’s well-intentioned essay ends up being unintentionally harmful. Even a Manhattan Project of the world’s most diligent and ethical programmers would still be bound by the thesis from of Alan Turing and Alonzo Church, that some computational problems basically are “mathematically impossible.” While I don’t have the computer science chops or patience to write out a proof, but I would humbly submit that the kind of program needed to provide predictable security for all the kinds of wondrous, but unpredictable things humans want to communicate, could be reduced to a Entscheidungsproblem.

So not only is “everything broken”, but there are things broken in such a way that they can’t be fixed in the way we want them to be fixed, just like the proverbial cake we want to eat and have. We’re never going to get a Facebook that makes it possible to find, within milliseconds, 5 select friends, out of a userbase of 1 billion spread out across the world, and share with them an intimately personal photo in such a way that only those five friends will see it and ensure that they never share it in such a way that a potential employer, 5 years from now, might come across it — and to provide such privacy that doesn’t severely impede the convenience and power of social sharing.

The problem is not a horde of incompetent, inhuman programmers at Facebook. It’s not the NSA that pulling the levers here. It’s not the corporate-industrial complex that seeks to strip away our privacy for commercial greed. The problem is us — and by us, I mean what Norton describes as the “ the normal people living their lives under all this insanity” — and our natural desire to wield this amazing power. But unless the range of human thought, action, and desire becomes so limited that it can be summed by a Turing machine, then we must accept that power and privacy involve trade-offs that not just software companies, but that we, “the normals”,  have to make. We have to choose to limit our dependance on systems that are never truly “fixed” in the way humans want them to be.

There’s a whole essay’s worth of tangental argument about how we, “the normals,” have to raise our standard of computing literacy, that we must teach the computer, and not the other way around, but I don’t think it’s fair for me to critique Norton’s essay for being sprawling by writing an even more sprawling piece of my own. But what I find most ironic in Norton’s piece is the distorted concept of agency; her notion that Facebook and Google are not all-powerful, and in fact, “live about a week from total ruin all the time” if only “the normals” would rise up and protest so that those otherwise clever software developers would prove old man Turing wrong.

To put it another way, imagine a literary critic writing an essay about how the state of society’s literacy is “just fucked” because look at how well such Tom Clancy and the Twilight series have sold, despite their derivative, formulaic content. And that publishers and authors would produce more intellectually-edifying books, if only readers everywhere would rise up and demand those intellectually-edifying books to be written. Yes, those very same readers who caused those popular bestsellers to be bestsellers in the first place.

This begging the question is obviously not Norton’s intent. And again, I can’t argue against the notion that “everything is broken” and that everyone needs to be much more aware of it. But I think Norton’s need to cram every hot-tech issue into her critique, that we are all getting hacked because NSA/Stuxnet, ends up conveying a solution that is even less useful than had it been your typical angry, non-actionable essay.


I'm a programmer journalist, currently teaching computational journalism at Stanford University. I'm trying to do my new blogging at blog.danwin.com.