Life in an online world

The intersection of man and machine


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 "retire" 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 US 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 use the human race as batteries, harnessing their body and electrical activity as an energy source.

Of course, the underlying moral 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 the Computer Fraud and Security Journal, I did a retrospective on the evolution of cyber security; 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 been 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.

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