Fuzzy Logic:
Dispatches from the Information Revolution

212 pages,
ISBN: 1550650882

Post Your Opinion
Not So Freenet
by Henry Lackner

"On July 6 [1993] Justice Francis Kovacs, presiding at [Karla] Homolka's trial, clamped down on the proceedings with an almost unprecedented publications ban. Judge Kovacs' decision was supposed to protect the integrity of the trial process.... The courtroom was closed to all but 88 people.... American journalists.were barred.. Canadian news media were forbidden to publish under threat of a contempt of court citation.. Customs agents seized American newspapers containing trial coverage at the border."

Yet every Canadian Tom, Dick, and Harriet had easy access to this forbidden information, during this forbidden time. Matthew Friedman tells us of two "newsgroups" that reported Bernardo-Homolka facts and rumours. A surprisingly accurate FAQ was available: an online newsgroup document answering "frequently asked questions". Newsgroups are specialized discussion forums available via the Internet, the major subsystem of the "Information Highway". So anyone with a phone, a computer, and an Internet connection could have gotten around the judge's order. Even the penniless could feast on Bernardo-Homolka via a public access connection to a "freenet" (though Friedman does not tell us this).

Fuzzy Logic details this and other revolutionary social and economic effects of the new information technology. Friedman starts us off with a superficial and selective history. We learn of Babbage's Difference Engine; Turing's cypher-busting machines and his abstract Universal Machine; ENIAC, the first "real" computer; transistors and integrated circuits; microprocessors; and personal computers from the Apple to today's PC.

Then we learn of the Internet: its origins with the U.S. Defence Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). To co-ordinate research distributed among many universities, ARPA tied many big research computers together with communication links. This ARPAnet became the "Internet" when university researchers were given permission to use the system for their own projects-and promptly found non-research uses as well.

With the invention of the World Wide Web, the Internet become so convenient to use that every researcher with a personal computer (PC) was tempted to go online. Then the system spread far beyond the universities. Finally the U.S. government stopped paying for the Internet, giving the technology away to commercial interests. Today this fast-growing system connects millions of computers world-wide. Commercial applications dominate the Internet today. Advertising is common.

It's obvious the author loves this new information technology. But he can't help confessing to another love affair, from his younger days: with his manual typewriter. Thus we are introduced to the typewriter revolution, now a less familiar history. Friedman tells us of the radical changes in office paperwork, the rise of the woman typist, and the transformation of business procedures. The typewriter era lasted barely fifty years. Then came the computer.

Friedman writes informally, fluently, excitingly, racing from one topic to another in a loosely connected set of essays. He is the astute and knowledgeable weekly computer columnist for the Montreal Gazette. In this role he cuts through the computer hype, giving business people very valuable technical advice. So it is quite surprising that he does not understand "fuzzy logic" in the technical sense of Zadeh-from whom Friedman quotes. In Zadeh's fuzzy logic, we do not ask whether something is a chair or is not a chair. We ask: To what degree is something a chair? Zadeh uses this shift of paradigm to solve some very hard mathematical and engineering problems. Friedman appropriates the term "fuzzy logic" to mean something completely different: it is our knowledge that is fuzzy; we never really know exactly what is going on.

In his Fuzzy Logic, Friedman avoids technicalities. How the Internet affects our lives is more important than the technical stuff, he says. Yet much of the book is not for the computer-illiterate. He uses terms he never defines. The book lacks an index and cross-references. The discussions of "digital", "Cyberspace", and "information highway" are fuzzy enough to be confusing. Internet virgins might want to read an accurate introductory book first.

The Information Highway is not in the least like a highway. It's an ultra-comprehensive global road system ranging from sixteen-lane superhighways to all manner of roads, ferries, city streets, narrow alleys, and private driveways. Anyone with a computer and a telephone can travel. This system (the Iway or Net) allows a computer to communicate rapidly with any other computer on the system, by telephone or other communication links. Texts, electronic magazines, accounting records, blueprints, financial transactions, currency exchanges, pictures, conversations, speeches, movies, computer programs, and "multimedia"-all incarnations of "information"-are sent flying from one computer to another; or to hundreds of computers; or to thousands upon thousands.

No highway patrol, no customs inspectors at borders, no restrictions on hazardous materials, no strictures on "stolen goods", no enforceable rules of any kind can stop this irresistible flow of lightning-fast traffic. Friedman's cheery book never tells us so, but business transactions and other sensitive material had better be well-encrypted, and business computer sites had better be protected by "firewalls" to prevent Iway-borne spies and saboteurs from penetrating company secrets.

Any information location connected to the Iway is in "Cyberspace", now usually accessible via the World Wide Web. Anyone on the Web can research any of millions of databases with the help of "search engines" (comprehensive but incomplete indexes), supplementing what can be retrieved from libraries.

But the Web can be more interactive: e-mail, list-servs (informal online magazines to which one can usually subscribe free), and newsgroups facilitate "virtual communities", whose members (often temporary) share information, interests, and values. In the more recent "chatrooms", the virtual community interacts as intimately as if connected in a conference telephone call.

With information transported so easily, so cheaply, and so speedily from one location to another-and with no import-export controls whatsoever-businesses will, of course, globalize. Goods will be produced where labour is cheapest and transported to where they will sell best. If the goods are information goods, transportation costs dwindle to almost nothing. Given these conditions, Friedman concedes that the Third World might be completely colonized by big business. Local cultures are threatened: "As it [the Internet] promises to erase geographical distance and bring the whole world into a common marketplace of ideas, it appears to threaten a deluge of foreign, particularly American culture, values, language, and ideas."

But our cheerful author is convinced that the Third World-and cultural communities-can fight the foreigners using the foreigners' own Internet weapons. He insists there must be no controls: the information revolution must go wherever it goes. He wants us to empower the little guy, not to restrain the big guy.

Friedman details what these little guys have been able to do. Revolutionaries world-wide have broadcast their messages on the Internet. Social action groups have co-ordinated their attacks via the Internet. Information workers have been enabled to work from home, rather than go to the office. One could add that people find jobs, and indeed run entire businesses just using the Internet.

Yet-as Friedman tells us-it is the little guys who create computer viruses. It is the little guys, as well as large criminal outfits, that steal "intellectual property", copying programs, texts, music, movies, and other information. The Internet makes distribution easy-the perfect "getaway car" and fence combined. Friedman reports on the backlash. Agents from huge software companies in collusion with police raid Internet sites, close them down, and confiscate equipment. There are those who even want to make Web-sites legally responsible for their contents. The author warns against this counter-revolution. He tells us about the Electronic Frontier Foundation set up to fight restrictions on Internet freedom.

Today, nothing seems to be as horrifying as child pornography. And there's plenty to be had on the Net. As these words are being written, online Lolita Clubs break into the news, horrifying the politically correct. Here the would-be controllers and the Electronic Frontier Foundation fight on a second front.

The controllers have not won this one (yet). All we get is the V-chip which allows parents to restrict what their children can access. Neo-Nazi and other "hate literatures" also wing their way throughout the Net. Some want it stopped. Friedman opts for Net freedom.

How much Net freedom is it safe to allow? Hackers have penetrated sensitive government sites, even the military. They have posted big lists of stealable credit card numbers on bulletin boards. They have broken into private businesses, even large banks. We will never know how much money these businesses have lost to computer criminals. No bank wants its customers to know the extent of its vulnerability. Friedman writes only about the hacker criminals made famous by getting caught! Of course we know almost nothing about the others.

Unfortunately, Friedman tells us nothing about data encryption. If banks and other large outfits were to encrypt their files, data spying would almost disappear (though sabotage would still be possible). Were data thieves to encrypt their stolen data, and sell their stolen goods in encrypted form, it would be almost impossible to catch up with them. Data encryption would allow businesses to evade all taxes, would prevent governments from controlling currency transactions, and would prevent law enforcement agencies from bugging conversations. It takes very expensive supercomputers long periods of time to break even readily available cyphers such as PGP (Pretty Good Privacy). So those with the most money would win in the end.

In The Sovereign Individual, Davidson and Rees-Mogg admit that strong encryption would make data theft impossible to detect. Consequently they forecast a "clubbish", restricted Information Highway, where only those deemed trustworthy would be allowed to travel. Old-fashioned, British upper-class-style values would stage a comeback in a nationless, governmentless cyberworld. The vast majority would be excluded. But Friedman tells us he writes about the present, not about an unpredictable future: "Whatever will be will be, The future's not ours to see, Que sera, sera."

Fuzzy logic? Yes, indeed. 

Henry Lackner is a Halifax writer.


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