The atomic, subatomic and galactic structure of things today

On the last day of the digital identity conference I spent an hour with Phil Becker, co-founder (with Andre Durand) of Digital ID World. By the end I felt like Peter Finch in Network, whose skull was pried open by Ned Beatty in order to receive the cosmology of money:

"There are no nations! There are no peoples! There are no Russians. There are no Arabs! There are no third worlds! There is no West! There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multi-variate, multi-national dominion of dollars! petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars!, Reichmarks, rubles, rin, pounds and shekels! It is the international system of currency that determines the totality of life on this planet! That is the natural order of things today! That is the atomic, subatomic and galactic structure of things today! And you have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and you will atone! Am I getting through to you, Mr. Beale?"

Yes :-)

Phil believes (as do I) that we are at the end of an evolutionary phase. The connected computer is fast approaching ubiquity. We've created cyberspace, but we haven't yet really colonized it because we lack the organizing principle to do so. Having abolished time and space, nothing remains but identity. How we project our identities into cyberspace is the central riddle. Until we solve that, we can't move on.

By now we've all had an epiphany about connected computers and digital identity. Phil's was a real attention-getter. Many years ago, when remote terminals were still an amazing novelty, Phil -- then a military 1 guy -- says he accidentally modemed into the console of a Titan missile. He didn't have the launch codes, but you can imagine how this kind of thing would frame your perspective on cyber-identity.

Phil also believes that intellectual property is the basis of all economic value, and that the value of all IP that touches the Net tends toward zero. Here we part ways, but it is a serious argument that I do not lightly dismiss, and it goes to the heart of the DRM controversy that was one of the many themes woven through this fascinating conference. For Phil, the IP at risk is not only the packaged content (music, videos, books) that is the immediate focus of the DRM industry, but more generally the human capital that is the wellspring of all goods and services. I suggested that this latter form of IP doesn't yet touch the Net and is only marginally at risk. Phil countered that leakage at the edge has already cost businesses billions of dollars 2 and that, sooner or later, this adds up to real money.

I wonder what kinds of human capital can, in fact, leak in this way. I'm reminded of the book Noble Obsession, Charles Slack's history of Charles Goodyear, who discovered how to vulcanize rubber. Sulfur was a key ingredient in the process, a discovery made not by Goodyear but by Nathaniel Hayward. Goodyear partnered with Hayward, urged him to patent the use of sulfur in rubber, and then bought the patent from Hayward. But it took endless frustrating experimentation before Goodyear finally nailed down the process. Along the way, Goodyear's nemesis, Horace Day, bribed another Goodyear associate, Horace Cutler, to reveal Goodyear's know-how:

"If you tell me the process, and if it works as you say, fifty dollars plus expenses for your trip here and back to Springfield," Day offered. Cutler agreed. Over the course of the next day or two, for fifty dollars, plus sixteen and change for boat fare and board at Widow Hall's, Horace Cutler systematically passed on to Horace Day secrets that had cost Charles Goodyear eight years of his life, his health, thousands of dollars, untold suffering, humiliation, ridicule, and poverty."

Despite this leak, Day could not reproduce the process. Goodyear's know-how transferred imperfectly to Cutler, and even more imperfectly to Day. Goodyear's lab had, in fact, pretty good physical security. If we project him into our near future, he might also have had pretty good DRM protection on his lab notebooks. Even so, unless we turn Cutler into a Palladiumized cyborg, Goodyear is still vulnerable to a social engineering attack like Day's. Should Cutler's DRM somehow fail, we must further posit high-fidelity transfer of consciousness -- from Goodyear to Cutler to Day -- for the IP leak to be fatal to Goodyear.

The relationship between protected IP and innovation is, of course, deeply complex. In Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128, AnnaLee Saxenian argues that fraternization among competitors helped Silicon Valley surpass Route 128. At a 1998 conference in Stockholm she said:

I describe Silicon Valley as a network system, a decentralized industrial system in which production is organized by networks of specialized firms that compete intensely while also collaborating in both formal and informal ways with each other and with local institutions like universities.

What matters in this network system is relationships. The rich social, technical and productive relationships in the region foster entrepreneurship, experimentation, and collective learning. As a result, the region's social, technical and productive infrastructure is as critical to the successes of local firms as their own individual activities. What I argue in Regional Advantage is that it is this network-based system that has allowed firms in Silicon Valley to surpass their leading domestic competitors, those located in Boston's Route 128 region, as well as to remain competitive with the Japanese.

Those Silicon Valley engineers, fraternizing with their counterparts in bars after work, had to negotiate the fuzzy public/private boundary with a subtlety that I cannot imagine describing in an XML grammar or implementing in a computer.

In today's NY Times, Steve Lohr discusses how weak IP protection has been an engine of economic development:

Indeed, the economies that were shining success stories of development, from the United States in the 19th century to Japan and its East Asian neighbors like Taiwan and South Korea in the 20th, took off under systems of weak intellectual property protection. Technology transfer came easily and inexpensively until domestic skills and local industries were advanced enough that stronger intellectual property protections became a matter of self-interest.

But according to the recent report, this kind of economic-development tactic -- copying to jump-start an industry -- is endangered by the United States-led push for stronger intellectual property rights worldwide.

In the bar at the digital identity conference, David Weinberger said a remarkable thing. The two of us were chatting with Eric Norlin, Bryan Field-Elliot, and Nat Torkington. Eric, who once worked for the NSA, believes like Scott McNealy (and me, a lot of the time): You have no privacy, get over it. The subject of gays in the military came up. Somebody asked whether, in the transparent world of the NSA where "don't ask, don't tell" is irrelevant, gay employees are not tolerated.

Eric: "There were guys who were gay. But they were good, so people looked the other way."

David: "That's the problem with DRM. Computers are too stupid to look the other way."

I can't think of a better touchstone for the subject of digital identity. We have to have it. We're going to get it. But we're a long way from knowing how to use it. Phil, I should add, agrees with that. I want to thank him and the whole Digital ID World team for pulling together such a diverse and stimulating event. Let the conversations continue!

1 Digital identity has deep military roots. I suppose it's no accident that Eric Norlin was with the NSA. At the conference I also met Tom Carty, founder of GTE CyberTrust, who told me about a fully functional PKI implementation he helped build for the NSA, circa 1987. I'm also reminded that a lot of the most interesting applications of Groove live in the shadows of the "public sector" where most of us can't see them.

2 I'd like to see this documented.

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