From Visual Developer Magazine #59, January/February 2000


Three Millennial Challenges



PCs and networking put computing in everyone's face, and now everybody wants government to address their private issues to their benefit, and to hell with everyone else and the common good.

Well, we've put Y2K behind us, and it was an excellent excuse to dump thirty years' worth of crappy software and obsolete iron. (It was also a great excuse to buy a new gas grill and a solar panel, which I've always wanted.) What's next? Are we in the clear now?

Not quite. Computing has solved most of its problems, and the solutions to others (like fat pipes) seem distant only because we're impatient. I may even get DSL here next year, sheesh. Cycles, RAM, and disk are abundant and cheap. Win2K and Linux are terrific platforms, and who knows? The Mac may survive its perpetual dance on the edge of the abyss once Apple's management grows up and stops being jerks. There remain three pretty dire issues before us, however, to which solutions are desperately needed but are nowhere in sight.

1. Malicious execution. Some aspects of this, like Word macro and JavaScript viruses, are idiots' work, and only await somebody with enough guts to create Web browsers, email clients, and word processors that draw the line and say content will not execute. Preventing more traditional .EXE file viruses will require that operating systems forbid executable files to be modified once installed—even by themselves. Technically Microsoft could solve this problem, but they dare not, because to solve it they must first admit that it's their problem, which would bring on the lawyers like piranhas. The more losses people suffer from viruses, the greater Microsoft's reluctance will become.

2. Language comprehension. Speech recognition, while gnarly, is a solvable problem. It's language that's the kicker. Yet without good language comprehension, we've pretty much gone as far as we can in software usability. The mouse wars are over, and we're down to fiddling with screen widgets now. Further breakthroughs will require software that understands context and culture. Researchers are beginning to admit that the problem of language is the problem of how the human mind works, something that many, myself included, consider unknowable. To make any progress at all we will have to take a coldly objective look at what human culture is and why people do what they do, which is something no one seems brave enough to attempt these days.

3. Privacy. The worst problems we face aren't technical at all—and that's why they're so scary. Privacy is a force that pulls in two directions at once: your privacy, after all, is my anonymous harassment. To eliminate spam we have to eliminate anonymous email, and the technology community is split down the middle on that one. The government fears encryption not because it fears crime or terrorism, but because it knows that electronic anonymity will eventually make income taxes—and thus government as we know it—impossible. That's why no one will bother with e-cash unless it's two-way anonymous and provably unbreakable, because the sole purpose of any kind of cash these days is to evade income taxes. We already have traceable e-cash—it's called your Visa card.

Looming over all of these is a shadowy fourth problem: Government. When computing was locked up in a glass-walled room, nobody but paranoids considered it a threat. PCs and networking put computing in everyone's face, and now everybody—feminists, fundamentalists, record labels, software companies, movie studios, whoever—wants government to address their private issues to their benefit, and to hell with everyone else and the common good. This comes at a time when big money and an electorate divided almost surgically in half have paralyzed two-party democracy, giving us de facto rule by lawyers and judges.

Eek! Makes Y2K look almost cuddly, doesn't it? And although there are times when I sympathize with Dick the Butcher, it's dangerous to stand outside the issues and point fingers. We need to keep working on solutions, certain that solutions will eventually turn up, even if they're not the solutions we envisioned. If post-WWII history has taught me anything, it's that things do work out once people assume that progress can be made. We don't always get what we want, but we generally get what we need. Trust the emergent future—keep your hand in—and always be ready to be surprised.