Technology today: increasingly important, increasingly invisible

Posted November 22, 2010 in comment  |  No Comments so far

Stuxnet is a piece of extremely advanced attack software, currently active in several Iranian nuclear facilities while being studied intently by malware experts around the world. No-one knows who made it. It’s completely unprecedented – a militarised program, engineered to near perfection, something that’s more accurately described not as a computer virus, but as a weapon.

Langner, a security consultancy that’s been analysing the code, recently described Stuxnet as being “like the arrival of an F-35 fighter jet on a World War I battlefield.” Kaspersky Labs called it “a working and fearsome prototype of a cyber-weapon that will lead to the creation of a new arms race.” These claims sound hyperbolic, but the more I learn about Stuxnet, the more inclined I am to agree.

I’m interested in Stuxnet not so much because I have plans to disrupt centrifuge controllers in distant nuclear power plants (well, not in the near future anyway), but because it’s an example of how invisible technologies can have such a concrete effect on the world.

We’re living in a period where our use of technology and our dependence on it is growing. But at the same time our technology is disappearing from view. It gets smaller, it gets lighter, it gets better at understanding us without the aid of clunky input devices, it gradually disappears – as Adam Greenfield describes the phenomenon in his book Everyware, it “dissolves in behaviour”. We use technology, but we’re becoming less engaged with it.

We’re becoming a bit like the Eloi in The Time Machine, completely dependent on things we don’t understand. You can see the results of this pattern wherever you look. Whether it’s Microsoft’s adverts for Windows Phone 7 whose core message could be translated as “phones suck”, or workplace cultures where it’s embarrassing to be seen as technologically adept, there’s a strong theme of technology as an enabler, but still something that should be on the fringes of our lives.

I’m not setting out to criticise this trend or pattern, however, or argue that everyone should become a hardcore techie. If we were burdened with a detailed knowledge of every technological process we initiate in the course of a normal day, we’d probably all suffer from constant migraines. It’s good that, say, checking Twitter on my mobile phone feels like a casual and trivial  thing to do, and that we’re not forced to confront and experience the mind-boggling combination of technologies that are actually invoked when we do it. Technology couldn’t be as ubiquitous as it is if it hadn’t developed this Houdini-like talent for making itself invisible.

But then, when I read about Stuxnet, I’m reminded that these deeper layers of technology are still there, still real, and still have a concrete and tangible effect on our lives. We might push technology aside and keep it out of view, but there are others – like the organisation behind the Stuxnet worm – who obviously aren’t, and their ability to change the world should not be underestimated.

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