Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Executable Speech: When Words and Action Are the Same Thing

Yesterday, Read Write Web asked the question a lot of other people are asking: What if Operation Anonymous Attacked City Infrastructures & Power Grids? The SCADA systems used by power grids have been known to be horribly insecure for over a decade, and yet many people agree that precious little has been done about it. Thankfully, Operation Anonymous only launched some irritating DDoS attacks at credit card networks and other targets.

Read Write Web is correct when they point out that the only people who really got hurt were innocent bystanders. But they hit the nail on the head when they start discussing the new forms of "civil disobedience" that are coming to life on the Net.

Is a DDoS attack really like a hippie-style sit-in at the front door of a bank? If it isn't, what is? Is a DDoS attack really "violent"? Nothing at all was broken or destroyed, and laptops are allowed through airport security, so it is hard to call them weapons.

If a large group of people wanted to get their point across in a non-violent way, how would they do it on the Internet? Creating a home page for your cause on Facebook and having a million people "like" it might be the rough equivalent of a petition, but probably doesn't qualify as civil disobedience.

One of the things that is so fascinating about computer technology is that computers really don't understand the difference between words and action. Most programmers like myself try to organize our software into "code" and "data", but the reality is that those distinctions are purely for our own convenience. The computer simply doesn't know the difference, or care.

Software code itself is simultaneously speech and action. The computer just stores bits and bytes. Some of those bytes are content, and the rest of those bytes are code that describes what to do with the content. If you add a few more bytes, you can even turn the content into code, too, by simply adding more instructions that tell the computer how to interpret it.

Software development technologies have continued to narrow the gap between the thoughts in your head and the actions of a computerized system. It is faster and easier than ever to write a computer program that does something useful. The better programming languages get and the faster computers become, the closer we get to the Star Trek scenario, where Geordi La Forge speaks aloud, "Computer...make me a ham sandwich," and one actually appears...automatically toasting it just the way he wants and adding a little Dijon mustard based on his preferences.

But if the words in a book are considered speech, and those words can become digitized and stored inside a computer, at what point does speech stop being speech? And how can speech be free if computers automatically start performing actions when words are uttered? Our legal system already recognizes the confusion by offering both copyright and patent rights to computer software. Unfortunately just about everybody agrees that our intellectual property laws are completely inadequate.

I'm awfully torn on this issue, myself. The power and convenience of computers is likely to keep this trend continuing, and I don't see how this can't someday end up being discussed in the Supreme Court. There are a few issues we'll need to figure out. In the very least, as the guy writing these words, I will need some way to identify that they're supposed to be just words. And there will have to be a legal test established for consistency and standardization purposes. That won't solve all the problems, but at least we'll have an agreed upon definition of "speech" to base the debate upon.

And if you really want to see where this is going, start contemplating how we'll deal with forms of "speech" that don't even involve writing or speaking.

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