Computers have been a game changer and I, for one, have been slow to appreciate the implications. I’m catching on.
One change has been the death of any expectation of privacy. See my March 16 blog On the Death of Privacy., As I noted, if the CIA’s most protected documents can be hacked and then released through Wikileaks, we can throw in the towel on being assured that our information is secure. Any information that has shown up on a computer somewhere is fair game. Forewarned is forewarned, if nothing else. It is a reality of current life – our primary protection being that most of us are not targets most of the time.
We are now also learning that the new access to information and the ability of computers to crunch that information can be, and has been, effectively weaponized. In the stock market, computer innovator Robert Mercer made billions by developing algorithms that allowed him to game future prices. Since the total value of the market depends on its underlying dynamics, someone who has a house edge is taking more than his share of the pie from the rest of us – much as happens with insider trading. You might reflect on that before you start your day-trading.
What is worse, it now appears, is that Mercer took his computer expertise into the realm of politics. Computers had already increased the effectiveness of gerrymandering. Mercer, through a company called Cambridge Analytics, appears to have leveraged his computer algorithms, together with hacked information on the electorate from voting rolls and social media, into stealing the 2016 election. That mechanism may have targeted anti-Clinton rants and misinformation through social media to suppress the Clinton vote.
None of this, of course, is the “fault” of the computer itself. This new and evolving technology also provides wonderful tools for understanding our world – for scientific research on health and climate change. Similarly, the evolving social media has enabled keeping up with friends and forming social networks in ways that many of us never would have dreamed possible. The ability to video chat in real time with someone on the other side of the world still feels like science fiction. The simple physics – the virtually instantaneous transmission of the necessary electrical impulses – how is that even possible? I suppose my grandparents said the same thing when they first heard radio.
And finally, I am beginning to appreciate how the blogging and social networking is impacting, and speeding up, the availability of news and of investigative reporting. In particular, my Twitter account – which I have tended to scorn for its character limitations – has the ability to instantly disseminate evolving threads of news . That dynamic is now playing out, in real time, with the investigations into the misdeeds of Trump and his associates. Because Twitter allows one to post links, the character limitation serves to keep each individual post concise – allowing one to quickly scan what is new. These new tools, combined with a rising class of investigative journalists, are going to bring Mr. Trump down. The sooner the better.