First, do no harm

A two year old draft blog post I just found, which is too good not to publish. Age leavens its earnest attempts to be ahead of trend.

New computer technology used to be my relaxation, my hope.

As the world has changed, that comfort has gone.

We grew up in a digital village. Now we’re in its seedy metropolis.

Tintin in America 29

A decade or so ago, I used my energy for emotionally hard problems to try and help with international development or democracy or climate change.

All the while, my childhood hobby was getting exponentially more powerful. Wonders appeared each year – the mouse, 3D graphics, buying things online, Python, Kuro5hin, a pocket electronic diary/address book, rsync, Wikipedia…

I now realise that this gave me the strength, the hope to deal with the hard problems.

Yes, there were threats to this nascent information society.

However, by the time I knew about each threat, there were already contervailing forces – free software, TCP/IP, the web. I joined those as they were being taken up by early adopters, missing the long, lonely innovator phase.

So even when our information society was in parlous danger, I was in massive, growing, hopeful communities fixing the problem.

There are three reactions to this. Perhaps we can make them stages of reaction.

1. Just despair

Snowden revelation’s about the routine spying we are all under combine with a certain geek knowledge that even if you love GCHQ, the same backdoors are being used by the Chinese, the Russians, organised crime… Who knows who!

Safe havens such as the Linux operating system no longer feel safe. It’s an age when massive security holes in even open source software are evocatively branded – heartbleed, shellshock.

I can’t even feel safe in the privacy of my once obscure command line. The common command “less” has a severe hole. “less” is the geek word for merely glancing at something on my computer. That should be simple and safe, but now I know it is flawed so attackers could remotely run their own nasty programs on my computer.

What can I trust?

2. Leap to the new fun

Where are the wonders now? It’s much easier to just get excited about them!

Skip the Internet now its tricky… Let’s start learning about augmented reality! Now that Magic Leap has $400 million to commercialise light field displays, let’s read up on our OpenGL and fesnangle a job projecting virtual pets into the palm of our hands.

(My favourite early job was making virtual pets)

That doesn’t have enough roar for you? Space exploration is looking quite fun right now. Let’s brush up on our rocket chemistry, move to LA and help colonise Mars.

Electric cars, blockchain, solar power, DIY bio… So much to pick from!

This summer, I went to Britain’s newish hackerspace festival Electromagnetic Field. The programming of the talks, and the attitude of us attendees, was effectively:

Oh man online privacy is so fucked … Wow shiny! Look at that drone!

Yeah, look at that brilliant quadcopter. Under-regulated, about to crash into aircraft this month, probably used to assassinate someone next.

Jumping to the next good thing is a cute, a tempting attitude. Yet deeply immoral.

Math is hard, let’s go shopping!

3. Be professional

I suspect this swing happens to all professions.

Post-war European architects were on a mission to build housing for everyone in society. Monsterous tower blocks later, funded by South American right wing dictatorships… By the 1990s, they’re building funky sky scrapers for wealthy corporations. Destruction, guilt, complexity everywhere. (See introduction to Radical Cities for a summary.)

Nuclear physicists, it’s obvious why their tech went evil! Well no.

Last week, at an exhibition just across the road from work, I read about three excited Liverpool physicists. They were playing with their radiation in the 1930s, for medical purposes! Using X-rays for the first time to get an invasive object out of a child’s foot. Developing cancer treatments.

And yet, the war comes, they already have one of the world’s few cyclotrons. Before they know it, whisked to Los Alamos for cutting edge refresher courses on quantum mechanics, and leading roles in the Manhatten project.

One of them paid penance for the bomb, spending much of the rest of his life campaigning against it, including founding Pugwash. They’re the organisation which makes the nuclear doomsday clock.

(For a bit more on this, “Why the future doesn’t need us” by Bill Joy covers it, and in its own way much of the ground of this blog post)

So seriously, we’re just whiny. Finally noticing our shiny tool can be used for evil. We had a lovely grace period when computers were innocent. They’re not any more.

Just being sad it isn’t fun any more won’t fix it – professionalism will.

Partly, some of us are fighting a rearguard action – desperately trying to co-opt a few new pieces of information tech, to create new protocols, to boldly reinvent business models.

That’s kinda nice – and you should keep donating to Mozilla, and crowd funding Indiephone. Watch some of my videos over at Redecentralize. Send your first GPG email using Mailpile. Every tiny action adds up.

And it won’t be enough.

I think the missing piece is a code of honour. A hipocratic oath for software.


It has to be shameful, humiliating, career destroying to make insecure, anti-human software.

We can sign it with an elipitic curve cryptography pen on the vellum parchment of a block chain, for all I care.

And sign it we must.

First, do no harm.

8 thoughts on “First, do no harm

  1. Also connected to Manhattan btw were Linus Pauling who was connected to postwar antinuclear campaigns, and Dr Sheila Jones who worked with Pauling in the UK and in whose house the first ever CND public meeting was planned. I shared an office with her there 30something years later.

    1. Oh yes! Did you get a deeper sense in those CND days what happened practically and emotionally when nuclear physicists realised the destructive power of their new technology? There must be useful tips for computer programmers, now having the same kind of realisation (while nukes can kill all life on earth, I suspect badly run computers can make a global, fascist state have a serious lock on power for a long time, with ongoing associated pain)

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