Code Is Law


The Staatstrojaner (literally "state trojan", colloquial German term for the government malware) whose self-destruct function obviously failed, was discovered, reverse-engineered and analyzed by Chaos Computer Club hackers. The findings, if the CCC's analysis is correct, are conclusive and alarming: The government surveillance software not only contains illegal functionality, it also appears to be so significantly flawed, that anyone who can encrypt the key can also hack all similar versions and control them remotely. Should evidence captured this way have any legitimacy in a court of law? And, first and foremost: What does it mean when, as demonstrated by the CCC, anyone that knows the IP address of the infected computer can install fake "evidence" without leaving so much as a trace or little chance of acquittal?... 

But there's more: Computers are not only instruments of communication, they are instruments of thought. A series of screenshots taken every second (forwarded to the United States and from there back to Germany) of someone creating a text – never emails or digital monologues – shadows the thought process itself. What is happening here makes your hair stand on end.

by John Brockman

Every few years Frank Schirrmacher, co-publisher and Feuilleton editor of the German national newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, startles Germany with an audacious piece of publishing. Last month, he devoted the entire of the Sunday Feuilleton to an expose that included page after page of malware software code reverse-engineered by computer hackers from "the Staatstrojaner surveillance program" code that the German government has been illegally inserting into users' computer system. "The findings are alarming," notes FAZ. "The trojan can read our thoughts and remote control our computers." 

Such trojan-horse key-logging software, known as a RAT (remote administration tool) is hardly new. The FBI, supposedly with legal search warrants, has been doing this since at least 2000.  In 2009, John Markoff broke the story in The New York Times about "Ghostnet", a vast electronic spying operation that infiltrated computers and stole documents from hundreds of government and private offices in 103 countries. The system was controlled from computers based almost exclusively on a Chinese offshore island, although there was no conclusive evidence that the Chinese government was involved. Adding to the still unsolved mystery is the fact that the only major country not a victim of the infiltration was the United States.

What is unique in the case of German State Trojan horse is that the center-right national newspaper, with the aid of the German hacker community, has caught the government red-handed in the illegal activity of spying on, and as some might say, controlling their own citizens. 

So here we are, a month away from celebrating the centenary of Alan Turing, the man who is identified with the idea of computation itself, and what do we have?

"I think it is an amazing piece that opens entire 55-gallon drums of worms," says George Dyson, author of the forthcoming Turing's Cathedral, a history of the birth of the digital age. "It reminds me of the scene in The Lives of Others where you get to see inside the Stazi's secret bunker that held the thousands of glass jars with the captured scent of all suspicious people—and you know this is just the tip of the iceberg. Can you imagine what's going on in China, or the USA? Not just "reading our thoughts" but, as we do more and more of our thinking with our devices, getting closer and closer to writing our thoughts as well.  Do we want to continue to live in a world where we're completely comfortable with cameras everywhere, all the time, and all our e-mail is retrievable forever? It's becoming the new normal now and Schirrmacher's piece is a wake up call." 

While most of the Turing Centenary celebrations already in the works will no doubt paint a rosy picture of the impact of the computational idea, Schirrmacher reminds us of a much darker side to what Turing has wrought. There's more to consider—much more—than Steve Jobs's personality, Facebook privacy settings, Arab springs, Google search algorithms, Amazon ebook pricing, Twitter revolutions, smartphone patent wars.

Click here to download the English-language pdf of the FAZ Feuilleton edition.


— JB

Conversation: John Markoff, Douglas Rushkoff, Clay Shirky, Nicholas Carr, Evgeny Morozov

WHO GETS TO KEEP SECRETS? Hillis's Question: An EdgeSpecial Event!


The question of secrecy in the information age is clearly a deep social (and mathematical) problem, and well worth paying attention to.

When does my right to privacy trump your need for security? Should a democratic government be allowed to practice secret diplomacy? Would we rather live in a world with guaranteed privacy or a world in which there are no secrets? If the answer is somewhere in between, how do we draw the line?

I am interested in hearing what the Edge community has to say in this regard that's new and original, and goes beyond the political. Here's my question:




I hope to hear from you.

— Danny Hillis

W. DANIEL (Danny) HILLIS is an inventor, scientist, engineer, author, and visionary. Hillis pioneered the concept of parallel computers that is now the basis for most supercomputers, as well as the RAID disk array technology used to store large databases. He holds over 150 U.S. patents, covering parallel computers, disk arrays, forgery prevention methods, and various electronic and mechanical devices. He is also the designer of a 10,000-year mechanical clock.

Presently, he is Chairman and Chief Technology Officer of Applied Minds, Inc., a research and development company in Los Angeles, creating a range of new products and services in software, entertainment, electronics, biotechnology security, and mechanical design. The company also provides advanced technology, creative design, and security and cryptography consulting services to a variety of clients.

W. Daniel Hillis's Edge Bio Page



An Idea Whose Time Has Come

In retrospect the key idea in the "Aristotle" essay was this: if humans could contribute their knowledge to a database that could be read by computers, then the computers could present that knowledge to humans in the time, place and format that would be most useful to them. The missing link to make the idea work was a universal database containing all human knowledge, represented in a form that could be accessed, filtered and interpreted by computers.

One might reasonably ask: Why isn't that database the Wikipedia or even the World Wide Web? The answer is that these depositories of knowledge are designed to be read directly by humans, not interpreted by computers. They confound the presentation of information with the information itself. The crucial difference of the knowledge web is that the information is represented in the database, while the presentation is generated dynamically. Like Neal Stephenson's storybook, the information is filtered, selected and presented according to the specific needs of the viewer.



Will computers be able to think again? And what Sigmund Freud would have to do with cyberspace? Internet pioneer David Gelernter predicts the next stage of development of artificial intelligence.


By John Brockman

[This is the second in a series of essays commissioned by Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. The German translation was published on June 22nd. ("Ein Geist aus Software").

David Gelernter is a professor of computer science at Yale and chief scientist at Mirror Worlds Technologies (New Haven). His research centers on information management, parallel programming, and artificial intelligence. The "tuple spaces" introduced in Nicholas Carriero and Gelernter's Linda system (1983) are the basis of many computer communication systems worldwide. He is the author of Mirror Worlds, and Drawing a Life: Surviving the Unabomber.

David Gelernter's Edge Bio Page




An afterword blurs a book in time. My final draft of April 2009 is here made unfinal. And what you have here is only a sample of the time smear I'm attempting with the online version of the book at, where the text (much of it) dwells in a living thicket of its origins and implications. Instead of static footnotes there are live links to my sources, including some better ones that turned up after the writing. You should be able to follow my quotes upstream to the articles and Google Books pages they come from. There you can conduct your own version of my research and perhaps draw different conclusions. I continue to add updates in the margins of the text, along with pages of photographs, diagrams, and videos, plus the kind of additions that usually go in an appendix. I'll try to maintain the service as long as it has traffic. Maybe all nonfiction books will soon offer such online immersive versions of their material.

Foreword to Afterword 
by Kevin Kelly

Information wants to be free, but it doesn't want to be final. The merry superconductivity of a bit of information means that updates, corrections, additions, deletions, re-interpretations, misinterpretations, anti-information, and denials of that same bit quickly follow.

The blessings, and curse, of a printed paper book are that its words, once stamped in ink, are fixed. But the rest of our fast-forward lives, and the slippery digital universe we swim in, tear at that fixity and demand that books keep improving, just like our iPhones do. Can books be upgraded?

Many readers of Stewart Brand's recent book, Whole Earth Discipline, praise it for its heretical synthesis of "edgy" ideas on a wide range of frontiers. And that it is. But I found Brand's book far more interesting as case study on how one can use information to adopt a permanent, mindful stance of flexibility. On every vector within his book Brand traced how his thinking was changed by a steady stream of informational evidence. Sometimes he altered his position more than once. The thrill of the book was watching how a top-notch thinker kept upgrading his views.

Whole Earth Discipline was published in the autumn of 2009. Nine months later whole worlds of science have lurched forward, digital news accelerated, and "what we know" is now different. If information wants to change, shouldn't an author have different ideas from the now frozen book he previously wrote?

Someday keeping a text constantly fresh will become both routinely possible and a chore for all of us. While a few authors/publishers have created successfully eternal ebooks, Brand has written a marvelous Afterwood to his book which does several things. First, in great detail it updates the news he first reported. This update is so well written that it can be appreciated even if you have not read the original book. But more importantly, and most remarkably, Brand courageously indicates how this news has changed his mind since he wrote the book.

When the liquid containers of electronic texts demand that we revise them yet again, I hope we can use Stewart Brand's "Afterword" as an inspiration to not only upgrade our facts, but also upgrade our made-up minds.

— Kevin Kelly

STEWART BRAND is cofounder and co-chairman of The Long Now Foundation. He is the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, cofounder of The Well, and cofounder of Global Business Network.

He is the original editor of The Whole Earth Catalog, (Winner of the National Book Award). The Afterword is written for the paperback edition of latest book, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, which will be published in September.

Stewart Brand's Edge Bio Page
Kevin Kelly's Edge Bio Page

A Big Question


[EDITOR'S NOTE: Last month I received an email from Melissa Ludtke, editor of Nieman Reports:

Writing to you as the editor of Nieman Reports,, certainly not the most trendy Web site you've ever seen, but we hope one offering something of value, primarily I suspect for journalists, though a few others venture our way, too.

Heading toward our Summer 2010 issue — in the planning stage now, and so I'd welcome the chance to talk with you. Topic: your 2010 "big question" -- many of the answers to which I've read on your Web site — which draws a direct line to the core of what we are going to be exploring —-through the voices and experiences of journalists and others — in the Summer 2010 issue of our magazine, to be published in June.

The edition has been published, and my essay on the Edge Question, along with pieces by Nicholas Carr, Douglas Rushkoff, Sherry Turkle, and Esther Wojcicki, are available at the link below in the Summer 2010 issue of Nieman Reports, a lively, timely, and interesting publication. — JB]



[Our sister publication Nieman Reports is out with its latest issue, and its focus is the new digital landscape of journalism. There are lots of interesting articles, and we'll be highlighting a few here over the next few days. Here, John Brockman writes about how he came to ask a passel of intellectual luminaries how the Internet is changing how they think. —Josh]

[Keep reading at Nieman Reports »]


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