Engineers & Terrorism: On Modern Digital-Warfare

Thu, 04 Jun 2020 02:03:01 GMT

Originally published on July 29, 2018

An article by the American Conservative argues, "War Doesn't Make Sense Anymore" in the 21st century.

I reject this notion on the basis: War absolutely still makes sense, warfare is just fought very differently today than 50 years ago. The basis of this argument spawns from, among other things, the sentiments that: "Law can't keep up with new tech."[1]

This essay provides (probably unpopular) hypotheses on:
(a) Why So Many Terrorists are Men & Technologists[2]
(b) Why Men Predominate Tech[3]
(c) Why Technology is the Stage of Modern-Day Warfare

I want to begin with a disclaimer: I think women are every bit as capable as men. The intent of this essay is not to compare the abilities of women, men, and or those identifying as other. My objective is to establish that there are reasons for the number of men v. women in tech that are not entirely explained by e.g. discrimination. Social re-enforcement is no doubt a large culprit. Society hasn't normalized an image of women, for instance, as military figures. However, I think there's something more systemic, rooted in our biology. I ask you to question with me, why 88% of homicides in the United States between 2003 and 2012 were committed by males?[4]

My hypothesis for (a, b) is that men are, by mean, more intrinsically egotistical and violent than women are. i.e. Put simply, more men want to dominate the world than women.

This claim is important because my hypothesis for (a, c) is that technology is not just a career / profession -- it is a way of scaling one's impact to reach millions of people and impose changes on their life. And, apologies if I am projecting, but both data and anecdotes lead me to believe this image appeals more, on average, to males and their testosterone-leaning hormones.

I'd like to pivot beyond this aside and address the core of my claim, that technology is (and will play an increasingly important role as) the essence of modern-day warfare. And that we're already in the thick of it: With the stock market, Cryptocurrency, artificial intelligence, and our fundamental digital rights.


Many people see programming or engineering or "Technology" (writ large) as a profession or career track one enters in order to get a job. Once upon a time, people would have similarly referred to those privileged enough to read or write as "scribes". In fact, before "computers" were machines we programmed, they were a (women-dominated) profession. Eventually these things became ubiquitous. Those who entered these disciplines early on found themselves with the rare opportunity to move (increasingly) faster than policy/law and to determine the rules of the new world they were creating.

Plain and simple, technology is the creation, mastery, or advancement of tools to solve problems. Assuming we're able to avoid existential or global catastrophic circumstances (e.g. nuclear or guerrilla warfare, unstoppable AI) risks, it's reasonable to assume technology will continue to improve over time, and that it confers to its wielders a strict competitive advantage.

From this perspective, the reason to become proficient with technology is not just to get a job. It's the same reason one might reserve their right to own a gun and becoming a marksperson. It's because one's freedom of speech -- one's ability to speak code and manifest action -- is becoming farther reaching than firing a shot.

Today, over half of the world has and relies on Internet Access[5]. A well placed strategic offensive could leave millions of people without access to critical communication channels. Tens of thousands of engineers throughout silicon valley and the rest of the world find themselves in positions capable of instantly installing / deploying changes carrying the potential to impacts the lives of millions of people, without firing a shot.

Revolution used to be a monumental problem of collective action. Getting people to uproot a political party often meant putting their lives on the line. Organizing strategy, distributing supplies, coordinating movement and communication all required massive efforts. During the US civil war, 620k of the 31M population died (2%) died fighting slavery. The battle took four years.

Today, revolution can be coordinated and catalyzed in a viral episode of 24 hours. The "Cryptocurrency / decentralization / blockchain revolution". The "artificial intelligence revolution". In ostensibly one night, Protocol Labs can ICO (international coin offering) FileCoin and raise $250M. This number pales in comparison to the amount generated between December and January 2017 through bitcoin and ethereum.

And "technical entrepreneurs" (those well versed in both the technical how-to and the strategic why-to create a new technology) understand this dynamic well. As programming continues to establish itself as our next evolution of basic literacy, opportunists come out of the woodwork to capitalize; to catalyze and to take part in a revolution. Some come selling shovels. Some jump on board the Oregon trail for their chance to usher in a new age / paradigm of technology and be at the forefront of policy and decision making which emerges with it.

Many of the "revolutionist" engineers (and their sometimes cult-like followers) believe they can advance and popularize their technology faster than those with greed or competing visions can understand the landscape, and thus win the race. In one line, they are banking that: "Law can't keep up with tech". That they have more sophistication to upgrade society to a new system and then install their rules on top of it than others have to prevent it. And (probably, naively) to deprecate out existing system into obsolescence*. I claim capitalism is rather effective at collective action, intrinsically well funded and incentivized to undermine such efforts, and thus should be subject to some basic controls and rules to prevent unfair play.

* Many sufficiently strategic/cunning Machiavellian technical entrepreneurs probably[6] aren't thinking this way. They are either selling the shovels, waiting for the right time to collude and bet against these technologies, vulture-ing and trying to raise as much money in the "now" while these technologies have hype around them, and/or are more interested in ensuring a revolution comes about which lets them retain control (by any means) so they can then install their laws on the new firmware (rather than caring specifically which technology actually wins). You wouldn't know it by listening to them. And it might be the case that you *couldn't* tell by listening to them, because these pressures are driven by VCs or other nameless forces which utilize indirection[7] to achieve these ends which most benefit their shareholders.

To date, bitcoin came closer than most shifts to seeing something which resembles an escape velocity. What happened -- instead of a new class of millionaires emerging and a revolutionary radical shift of power and wealth occurring -- was that billions of dollars of changed hands back to the wealthy as established players applied pressure and colluded to bet against (in a self-fulfilling prophecy) bitcoin's success. This is a prime example of the critical importance of collective action. But there are hundreds of other efforts gaining momentum, all looking to spark the winning revolution which lets them implant the world they envision.

Which of these digital-wars are being fought today? What protects us?

In part, regulations are supposed to protect us. Regulations are pretty much the government's only real purpose[8] -- to do things like guarantee our freedom of speech and e.g. declare things like internet access to be important enough to be considered a public utility, like water. Regulations tend to *admit* policy can't keep up and so they put protections in place to protect the People so they don't get completely screwed until we figure out what works and what doesn't.

But if the People aren't getting screwed, corporations claim they're getting screwed. Corporations would be just find competing each other away to oblivion until there's just a single monopoly serving everyone. And so capitalists often [conveniently, intentionally] misinterpret regulations as "slowing down" progress / free markets whereas what they're [the regulations] really doing is preventing exploitation by doing things like forcing internet service providers to provide a minimum quality of service to the People.

When lobbyists from internet service providers push politicians within the FCC to remove safe-guards and regulations put in place to protect Americans against censorship, this is a wage of war.

And this is exactly what has happened over the past year when the US Federal Communications Commission passed docket 17-108 to roll back the 2015 Open Internet Order which classified internet service providers as a public utility. The removal of such protections leaves us with gaping openings which leaves us vulnerable to corporate interests advancing their technologies in way to which we are indefensible and which conspires to undermine the continuance of our freedom of speech.

We're in a very unique and sensitive time where one way to battle back is by redesigning the world wide web (our fundamental medium of communication and connectedness) in such a way that internet service providers cannot control our internet behavior, censor us, isolate and cut us off, decide with whom we can connect, or throttle us. In response, many technologies are rising to the occasion to fight back. But what's to say our new overlords need be any better than the old? And once we give them the key to the city, whose to guarantee they can be stopped?

[7] -- indirection
[8] Who Owns the Future?:

Book recommendations:
- "Who Owns the Future?" by Jaron Lanier:
- Cornered:
- Moral Mazes:

Tags: stock market, "Who Owns the Future?" by Jaron Lanier, privileged, Cryptocurrency, Protocol Labs, Digital-Warfare, Terrorism, FileCoin, blockchain, homicides, Internet Access, Moral Mazes, United States, decentralization, Who Owns the Future?, digital rights