You can’t trust anybody anymore. A blithe enough cliche, but then, cliches don’t get to be cliches because they’re wrong. In a purely professional sense, this crops up in the concept of “zero trust” – the idea that in computing, you never trust and always verify. Credentials at every step, least required privilege, and the use of certificates to automate the authentication process so that you can be forced to prove who you are literally every step of the way. It doesn’t matter if you’re inside the company network: you still have to authenticate to a VPN to access internal resources, and must log into those resources individually, and and and. The key thing being identity access management – the ability to prove who you are and thus move along.
Which made me think about what a zero trust society looks like.
The story of the 21st century is the tale of how the Internet, filter bubbles, social media and a firm belief that you’re entitled not only to your own opinion but your own facts created a post-truth universe. Ultimately, there are people with whom you can no longer communicate because the ground rules for what constitutes reality no longer obtain. You have no recourse to authority, because there is no authority. Ironically, all those postmodern academics that were the bete noire of conservatives during my college years are now underpinning the entire project of the right. There is no meaning beyond whatever narrative you can enforce, and if people don’t believe that narrative, there are no grounds on which to correct them or even come to some sort of understanding. We already have the very notion of science being kicked to the curb, while Fogust in NorCal is suddenly hotter than a two dollar pistol at an Alabama flea market.
Part of it, I think, is because of the old line about not being able to get a man to believe something if his salary depends on not believing it. Only inverse. Fox News makes its money because people believe conspiracy theories are real. WeWork and Uber and AirBnB make money because investors believe they are tech companies and not real estate, taxi or hotel companies. Scientology makes its money because…who knows. But as long as you can sell people something they want to believe in, they’ll pony up the cash. Maybe talk show hosts and tech startups are what replaced televangelists. Trade your cash for salvation.
And I think part of it is because people want to believe a simple story, no matter how absurd it is. Ross Perot, all those years ago, had a simple story, and got 19% of the electorate to buy it, which should have been a fucking siren red alert to everybody: if one-fifth of the electorate can be convinced that platitudes and internally inconsistent bullshit will make the Presidency an entry-level political job, it’s no great leap to expand that to one-half over the course of twenty-five years, or close enough to make a disaster possible. People want to believe that you can magically get a cab from your phone without needing cash, or to tip, or to do anything at all, and that this money-losing service will somehow be sustainable and that the company behind it will be worth more than General Motors because [FILE NOT FOUND] – because, presumably, if you get in at the right time you can achieve jackpot wealth when it goes public. And we’re starting to see how well some of these companies survive first contact with a public market. It’s not pretty.
It annoys the shit out of me to have grown up in a world where imagination was suspect and only the hardest of reality was permissible six days a week (notwithstanding the premillenial dispensationalism fanfic of Sunday mornings in the 1980s Baptist church), only to find myself approaching age 50 in a world where it’s okay to believe whatever you like because there’s always someone on the internet or cable TV to validate it. Because…what do you do? You can’t shut down all the websites. You can’t shut down Twitter and Facebook, as much of a blessing as that would be on the world at large. You can lead that horse’s ass to water, but you can’t make him think.
Maybe that’s a big part of what makes me think about retirement away from Silly Con Valley. If you don’t much like or trust people these days, it doesn’t make the sense to plant yourself in the middle of three and a half million of them. My retirement dreams these days tend more toward Galway or Half Moon Bay or some even smaller possibly fictional seaside village on some Celtic coastline that won’t tumble into the sea before I turn 99. But then, I grew up in a town of three thousand, and below a certain threshold of population, it’s easy as pie for literally everyone to be in your business. Paradoxically you might have to move someplace with a million people to get some privacy, because there will inevitably be a social decision that you have to leave people alone in order to get on with your life. Which in a way, I suppose, is its own form of defense in depth.