James’s Musings

thoughts, photography, and geeky stuff
from an unrelentingly curious Silicon Valley entrepreneur

Truth in Fiction

by James G. Beldock on February 10, 2007

Recently, I’ve read two books, both clev­er­ly cam­ou­flaged as pop­u­lar nov­els, which joint­ly por­tend a world for which we are sim­ply not pre­pared. Much as the groundswell of an­ti-Communist books of the late ’40s and ’50s (Orwell‘s 1984 and Animal Farm per­haps the most mem­o­rable, and Huxley‘s more dystopi­an than an­ti-Communist Brave New World from a decade and a half pri­or) re­flect­ed the mid-century’s deeply para­noid zeit­geist, so too the­se two new nov­els present deeply thought­ful re­flec­tions on what the im­pact of un­bri­dled 21st cen­tu­ry tech­nol­o­gy.

Both nov­els come from un­like­ly sources: Michael Crichton, the well-known pop­u­lar nov­el­ist of bor­der­line sci­ence fic­tion thrillers and cre­ator of the long-run­ning ER, and Richard A. Clarke, the now-os­tra­cized Clinton and Bush Administration cy­bert­er­ror­ism ex­pert. Crichton’s Next is ac­tu­al­ly the sec­ond of his tech­nol­o­gy-gone-wild nov­els, the im­me­di­ate­ly pri­or one be­ing Prey, which failed for all the rea­sons Next doesn’t: where Prey was re­al­ly a “shoot ’em up” movie stuffed in­to a nov­el whose plot cen­tered around a com­pa­ny de­vel­op­ing au­tonomous nan­otech­nol­o­gy “bots,” Next is a col­lage of mul­ti­ple plots–almost de­void of action–gleefully in­ter­twin­ing one bio-en­gi­neered pro­tag­o­nist with an­oth­er. Next holds to­geth­er bet­ter than one might ex­pect it would with­out Crichton’s sig­na­ture ac­tion and ad­ven­ture: for all the ac­tion se­quences in Jurassic Park and Sphere, Crichton is a thought­ful and well ed­u­cat­ed man (M.D. from Harvard), and Next presents the dan­gers of hu­man-cre­at­ed in­ter­species gene mix­es (for ex­am­ple, pets which have glow-in-the-dark genes from fire­flies in­sert­ed in their DNA; par­rots who are smarter than most five-year-old hu­mans) clear­ly and con­vinc­ing­ly.

By con­trast, Richard Clarke’s Breakpoint is a nar­row­ly-fo­cused thriller in the clas­sic “se­cret gov­ern­ment agen­cy v. the world” gen­re. Unlike Crichton, Clarke is a bit clunky when he de­scribes his char­ac­ters: he just doesn’t have Crichton’s twen­ty years of prac­tice de­vel­op­ing a light and al­most comic de­scrip­tive touch. But he does a su­perb job of paint­ing our coun­tries vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties to cy­ber at­tack. The book opens with si­mul­ta­ne­ous at­tacks on sev­en of the eleven Internet fiber-op­tic beach­heads on the US East Coast. Not one of them is pro­tect­ed by any­thing oth­er than a fence. And in today’s just-in-time, ze­ro in­ven­to­ry world, no­body has the in­ven­to­ry to re­place the mil­lions of dol­lars in equip­ment hid­den in the­se ut­ter­ly un­guard­ed brick beach shacks scat­tered along the beach­es of re­mote ar­eas. Or con­sid­er the mil­lions of SCADA sen­sors placed through­out the pow­er grid sys­tem, most of which haven’t seen se­cu­ri­ty up­grades in 15 years. These are just the be­gin­nings of our vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties.

Both books are en­gag­ing, dis­tract­ing, and ul­ti­mate­ly fright­en­ing. Their in­tent is to wake us up to a stark re­al­i­ty: in the next fif­teen years, bio­engi­neer­ing and net­work soft­ware will both ma­ture as rapid­ly as com­put­er tech­nol­o­gy has over the past twen­ty years. We’re sim­ply not ready for the im­pli­ca­tions of those evo­lu­tions. The RIAA is still fight­ing its late ’90s bat­tle with Napster–and artists like MC Lars are pok­ing fun at them for still be­ing so far be­hind. Our so­ci­ety sim­ply isn’t ready for the on­slaught of eth­i­cal and en­vi­ron­men­tal dilem­mas. We’re still fo­cused on the bat­tles of the past (still de­bat­ing the ethics of abor­tion while GM crops are plant­ed with­out a sec­ond thought).

Although I se­ri­ous­ly doubt that ei­ther Crichton or Clarke will as­cend to the lit­er­ary pan­theon the way Orwell did af­ter 1984 (he died a year lat­er), the­se two mod­ern nov­el­ists are no less in­sight­ful. One would ex­pect this from a man like Clarke, who spent enough years in the White House to know that fic­tion of­ten car­ries the day over fact, but it is per­haps a bit sur­pris­ing com­ing from Crichton, who is cer­tain­ly smart, but oth­er­wise doesn’t have a rep­u­ta­tion as a se­ri­ous thinker. Regardless of their cre­den­tials, both Crichton’s and Clarke’s books raise is­sues we have to con­front be­fore the tech­nol­o­gy pro­gress­es be­yond our abil­i­ty to cope with its ram­i­fi­ca­tions.

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