Americans are suffering from an undiagnosed condition. Overwhelmed and outmatched by the allure, complexity, and insecurity of networked technologies, we’ve been left confused and compromised across multiple fault lines. The public’s poor aptitude for digital life has now moved beyond the realm of just personal risk and actually poses a legitimate threat to our national security. It is time we acknowledge America is in a state of “cyber debility” and then take clear-eyed steps to address it.
Surely, though, America’s political, social, and technological problems are separate and unrelated, no?
A few years ago I would have agreed. But no more. Not when our online vulnerabilities aren’t just technical or structural, but perceptual and behavioral as well. Not when cyber attacks regularly lead on the local news, or when our unconscious biases keep us from discerning fact from foreign influence. The need for informed judgment is common to all of these situations, yet we’re failing over and over.
Consider that 80 percent of then presidential candidate Donald Trump’s Twitter traffic last fall was, by one expert estimate, actually artificial. The Russian-generated portion of those fake accounts, likes, and retweets were, in essence, a massive illegal foreign campaign contribution. That Trump may have won in part because of that help – and not despite it – is a clear indication of cyber debility. By contrast, when Russia tried much the same thing before elections in France this May, the French showed admirable cyber ability in blocking out propaganda.
Once you know what to look for, evidence of our cyber debility is strewn around us. It’s not just in our Russia-warped politics, but in a modern public hostile to science and fact, and in our astonishing susceptibility to online theft, blackmail, and disinformation. Cyber debility works against the established values of humility, skepticism, and rational self-interest. It promotes befuddlement, credulity, and historical amnesia.
Of course the internet and social media didn’t create political polarization, criminality, or Russia’s recent treachery. But that’s not the point, is it? Rather, our stampede toward ubiquitous connectivity and the Internet of Things has been so rash, so unthinking that we have few reliable signposts or guardrails to help us. During past national security threats the sides were clear and trust in our institutions higher. In our present state, however, we cast aside old pieties in a flash and no longer fear, or even recognize, irony or hypocrisy.
Consider the durability of Republican anti-Communism and Red-baiting across the twentieth century. Three generations of conservatives impugned the “softness” of even the most hawkish Democrats, destroying countless careers and lives for political sport.
Yet today, Russia’s assault on our democracy – what could be the largest cyber attack in the history of the world – is still ongoing. Even the Kremlin must be shocked that in just a couple years their malicious algorithms exploited America’s big data sets and social media titans, Twitter and Facebook, to turn our Republican leadership, and a sizable part of the electorate, on its head. And the left is hardly immune or innocent.
From a physiological and cognitive perspective, people are edging beyond the limits of what our human brains can rationally manage. We can be angry that our laws and schools and other institutions failed to anticipate or protect us from this cyber debility. But there’s already a surplus of anger in America; more of it won’t save the republic. As with health or safety education, we need to start young, with principles and concepts – like basic hygiene or looking both ways – and not tactics and minutia that are soon to be obsolete.
It was not supposed to be this way. The minimal cost of storing and sharing information across networks was to create a “digital town square” in which all could participate. Citizens would choose wise policies, and leaders to enact them, after hearing out a diverse range of views. Innovation, while disruptive to be sure, would be overwhelmingly positive, bringing us the lowest price. Guaranteed. And computer wizards and market forces would keep things safe and secure so there is nothing we needed to learn or do.
Today, breaking out of this naive mythology feels like escaping an Escher drawing. But escape we must. The United States isn’t alone. Every country will confront this problem in one form or another. But surely nobody denies that correctly diagnosing a problem is the first step to addressing it. Can we discuss if that’s a good place to begin?