/ 7 February 2010

Two futures of the internet: Cold War or up in the clouds

“THE FUTURE”, WROTE the novelist William Gibson in a justifiably famous aphorism, “is already here: it’s just not evenly distributed”.

The challenge is to spot those uneven­ly distributed peeks into our future. The Apple iPad launch provoked a storm of peeking: optimists saw it as a sign that the computer industry had finally got the message that most people can’t be bothered with the mysteries of operating systems and software updates and want an information appliance that “just works”; pessimists saw it as a glimpse into an authoritarian world dominated either by governments or a few powerful companies; sceptics saw it as just another product launch.

Last week provided yet another enigmatic glimpse of what may lie in store. The Washington Post said Google, still reeling from the sophisticated cyber-attack that allegedly prompted a rethink of its activities in China, had turned to the US National Security Agency for help. The Post reported that there are delicate talks on teaming up with the spooks with the goal of “fortifying Google’s defences against the kind of espionage-oriented hacking attacks launched from China against it and dozens of other US companies in December”.

If you think this is creepy, then join the club. In terms of collective IQ, Google is the smartest company in cyberspace: for five years it’s been taking the cleverest graduates from elite universities and the most experienced computer engineers. It’s been such a magnet for talent that even Microsoft is enraged. In 2005, for example, an ex-Microsoft engineer named Mark Lucovsky alleged in a sworn statement to a Washington state court that Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s chief executive, became so enraged on hearing that Lucovsky was about to leave Microsoft for Google, that he picked up his chair, and threw it across his office. (Ballmer called this a “gross exaggeration”.)

Next Cold War
So Google is unlikely to be turning to the NSA for technical advice. Why then is it calling in the spooks? One reason could be that the world’s dominant internet company is now in the crossfire of early skirmishes of the next Cold War.

This thought was reinforced by Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman. He’d been to the International Institute for Strategic Studies for a briefing on its annual survey, Military Balance. “The thing I found most interesting,” he said, “was the confirmation that cyber-security is the hot issue … John Chipman, the head of the IISS, says the institute is about to launch a study of cyber-security which raises all sorts of issues. What if a country’s infrastructure could be destroyed as effectively by a cyber-attack as by an invasion of tanks? How do you defend against that? How do you identify the culprits? What does international law have to say — might we have to revise our definitions of what constitutes an act of war?

“Chipman argues, plausibly, that we are now at an equivalent period to the early 1950s. Just as strategists had to devise whole new doctrines to cope with the nuclear age, so they will have to come up with new ideas to cope with the information age.”

Another glimpse of a possible future comes from the British Council. A surprising source of such insights, you might think: One used to associate the council with cultural imperialism and heritage-fuelled nostalgia. But things have changed. The British Council has got technology. “Learn, share, connect worldwide” is the slogan on its website. It commissioned Charles Leadbeater to think about the cultural implications of “cloud computing” — ie when the network, rather than the PC, becomes the computer.

Cloud culture
His report, Cloud Culture: the future of global cultural relations, is being launched on Monday with a debate at the ICA. It’s a well-informed, provocative sketch of a world in which most cultural products will be published online and held in the “cloud” enabled by the huge server farms of Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple etc. As a primer on the debate between optimists and pessimists about the cultural implications of ubiquitously available internet access, it’ll be hard to beat.

Leadbeater calls himself a “realistic optimist” and thinks a cloud-based approach to cultural relations will build communities of collaboration around shared interests and ideas on an unimaginable scale. As a realistic pessimist, I hope he’s right. But I keep coming back to the question: who controls the cloud? And where does the NSA fit into this? – guardian.co.uk