• United States



by Richard Power

Red Pill? Blue Pill? Ruminations on the Intersection of Inner Space and Cyber Space

Oct 23, 20099 mins
Data and Information SecurityInternet Security

Richard Power looks beyond fear, doubt, and "broken" to cybersecurity's real connection to the evolving world.

For decades, cyber technologies brought forth from human genius have been radically transforming our society. Business, government, science and culture have changed swiftly and dramatically. Consequently, for decades, our collective psyche has been trying to work out its intense and complex relationship with these powerful cyber technologies. Just as Godzilla (1954), and its spin-offs, reflected the collective psyche’s attempts to come to grips with grief over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and anxieties over the threat of global nuclear war; the human race’s unconscious fears and doubts about cyberspace have been projected on to the big screen in numerous sci-fi epics, notably:

  • 2001: Space Odyssey (1968): This Stanley Kubrick masterpiece explored the powerful themes of human evolution, artificial intelligence and the mysteries of time and space. Much of the narrative revolved around the psychotic breakdown experienced by the HAL 9000, the on-board computer, which turns on the astronauts who rely on it for their safety and survival.
  • Blade Runner (1982): Set in 2019, against the backdrop of the teeming mega-slum of Los Angeles, specialist police detectives hunt down “replicants” (androids that are almost indistinguishable from humans) and “retires” them. Used as laborers on “off-world colonies,” the replicants have rebelled, asserting their sentience and desiring freedom.
  • War Games (1983): Thinking he has found a cool game, a juvenile hacker breaks into WOPR, a U.S. military supercomputer, which models the potential outcomes of nuclear war, and nearly starts World War III.
  • The Terminator (1984): The first of a series of film chronicling the human resistance to the Skynet AI machine network, led by John Connor and his mother.
  • The Matrix (1999): A trilogy of films about a future in which reality is supplanted with the Matrix, a virtual world created by AI machines that uses the human race as batteries, harnessing their body and electrical activity as an energy source.

Of course, the underlying morale of all these stories is that these technologies are not the source of danger, nor are they our salvation; the source of both the danger and the salvation lies within our own collective psyche.

In understanding cyber security, and influencing its future, the psychological and philosophical dimensions are as important as the technological dimension.

Several years ago, within the context of a series of articles co-authored with my friend and colleague Dario Forte for Computer Fraud and Security Journal, I did a retrospective on the evolution of cyber security from 2006 to 2008; the tale that revealed itself compelled me to entitle it “Ten Years in the Wilderness.”

Recently, three years on, and glancing back at the subsequent cycle from 1999 to 2009, I have speaking in terms of a “Lost Decade.”

By 1999, it was clear that we had serious problems on our hands, e.g., the vulnerability of critical infrastructure; and by 1999, we also had some momentum in the direction of dealing with some of these problems.

But here and now, I suggest in some ways we are in worse shape than before. As evidence, I suggest you consider two pressing critical infrastructure concerns: financial services systems, which ten years ago, benefitted from the most robust of security postures, are, in some ways, less secure today than then; and power grids, which, ten years ago, were the as yet unmolested object of concerned conjecture about theoretical cyber attacks, are now the actual targets of such attacks.

Technologies, careers, certifications, services, budget dollars and far too much so-called “conventional wisdom” have been hurled into the ever-widening breach, in a noble but in some important ways ineffectual effort.

Meanwhile, certain vital aspects of cyber security have received little if any consideration.

I have explored some of these in previous CSO articles:

Three recent stories elsewhere highlight the profound changes underway, and some of the numerous ways that our 21st Century reality is different from that of previous centuries:

  • Personas, a component of the Metropath(ologies) exhibit on display at the MIT Museum by the Sociable Media Group from the MIT Media Lab.Enter your name and this devlishly clever web crawler scours for information and attempts to characterize you… to fit you into a predetermined set of categories created by an algorithmic process from a massive corpus of data. The process is presented visually in a cool and dynamic way. it out. You get to be reduced to a pretty barcode.”

    Mother Jones, 9-10-09
  • “Twitter is the latest instance in this ongoing process of pouring the content of hundreds of millions of minds onto a global cyber-canvass, the commixture becoming something new and unpredictable. This outfolding is at an early stage, and eventually the various ways in which it is manifested — solipsistic profiles on Facebook and MySpace, instantaneous mass communication on Twitter, mind-melding on blogs, self-broadcasting on YouTube, virtual identities in Second Life — will merge. At that point, we’ll be wearing our brains on the outside, metaphorically. & something important is going on and though we’re too close to the beginning to know how it unfolds, we’re far enough along to realize it will reshape us.”

    Peter Daou, Huffington Post, 6-16-09
  • “Pelley was thinking of the letters of a word that only he knew. Every time the computer flashed the correct letter on the screen, he silently thought to himself, ‘That’s it, that’s the one.’ That feeling of recognition set off a unique electrical pattern in his brain, which the computer picked up.

    It worked the first time Pelley tried it, without a single mistake, spelling out “THOUGHT” with the help of BCI.

    You know, I can imagine some people watching this interview are thinking to themselves, ‘Wait a minute, they’re connecting the brain to a computer.’ Are we moving in the direction of reading people’s thoughts? Are we, is this mind control around the corner?’ Pelley asks.

    No, No it is not – it is certainly not mind control and it’s different from reading people’s thoughts. And it’s important to realize this requires the cooperation of the person,’ Wolpaw explains &”CBS Sixty Minutes, 8-9-09

A human life reduced to a bar code? A 24X7 current of countless tweets evolving into a collective stream of consciousness that not only reflects a myriad of individual views but also shapes a reality-shaping mass view? A direct mind to computer interface that swallows up the perimeter between the physical, the psychological and the virtual, just as the perimeter the network and the Internet was swallowed up?

What kind of vision could get our collective mind around such a radically different world, and what kind of transformative metaphors could be used to articulate that vision?

As I wrote, recently, in one of my bi-monthly Intelligence Briefings for CyLab’s corporate partners, leads can be drawn from mysticism and science.

For example, in Wisdom of Insecurity (1951), Beat Zen philosopher Alan Watts observed that when you hold on to water, it stagnates, but when you let it flow, it remains clean and life-giving.

“The desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing.” Watts wrote. “To hold your breath is to lose your breath. A society based on the quest for security is nothing but a breath-retention contest in which everyone is as taut as a drum and as purple as a beet.”

Watts’ Wisdom of Insecurity carries an important message for those who think deeply about security in the 21st Century.

There is a generational shift in regard to security and privacy. The young workers of today have grown up in a world of failed security and vanishing privacy. If you try to reach these 21st Century psyches with a 20th Century security message — you will not reach them, and you will not be heard.

And from the frontiers of physics and biology, there is much that can be drawn on to inform a new world-view that embraces the outer, the inner and the cyber.

For example, Robert Lansa‘s provocative theory of the Bio-Centric Universe:

“For centuries, scientists regarded Berkeley’s argument as a philosophical sideshow and continued to build physical models based on the assumption of a separate universe, ‘out there’ into which we have individually arrived. These models presume the existence of one essential reality that prevails with us or without us.”Discovery Magazine, 5-1-09

But this view of consciousness and the universe was blown wide open by breakthroughs in quantum physics, notably the “two slit experiment.”

“Biocentrism” holds that “the universe is created by life and not the other way around.”

Most researchers still believe they can build from one side of nature, the physical, without the other side, the living.”

“Biocentrism should unlock the cages in which Western science has unwittingly confined itself. Allowing the observer into the equation should open new approaches to understanding cognition, from unraveling the nature of consciousness to developing thinking machines that experience the world the same way we do.”

Robert Lansa,

Yes, it is, as Aldous Huxley foresaw: “A Brave, New World”. To deal with it, we need a brave new world-view; and none of us need it more than those of us engaged in developing the cyber security of the future. ##

Richard Power is a Distinguished Fellow at Carnegie Mellon CyLab and a frequent contributor to CSO Magazine. He writes, speaks and consults on security, risk and intelligence issues. He has conducted executive briefings and led professional training in forty countries. Power is the author of five books. Prior to joining Carnegie Mellon, Power served as Director of Security Management and Security Intelligence for the Global Security Office (GSO) of Deloitte Touche Tomatsu and Editorial Director of the Computer Security Institute.