Technology has rapidly advanced, affecting standards on privacy, telecommunications, and criminal law. Every day, we encounter unexpected consequences of data flows that could not have happened a few years ago. Due to the bits explosion, the world changed very suddenly. Almost everything is stored in a computer somewhere. Court records, grocery purchases, precious family photos, radio programs… It is all being reduced to zeroes and ones – “bits.” The bits are stashed on disks of home computers and in the data centers of big corporations and government agencies. The disks can hold so many bits that there is no need to pick and choose what gets remembered. So much disk storage is being produced every year that it could be used to record a page of information, every minute or two, about you and every other human being on earth. Once something is on a computer, it can replicate and move around the world in a heartbeat.
Making a million perfect copies takes but an instant – copy of things we want everyone in the world to see, and also copies of things that weren’t meant to be copied at all. Due to instantaneous transfers, some data leak. Credit card records are supposed to stay locked up in a data warehouse, but escape into the hands of identity thieves. And we sometimes give information away just because we get something back for doing so. A company will give you free phone calls to anywhere in the world—if you don’t mind watching ads for the products its computers hear you talking about. The book presents 7 ‘koans’ or principles regarding the bits and the effect of it on humanity. Koan 1: Even though your computer seems to present pictures, texts, songs, and videos, they are all composed of bits. Everything that’s digital are ruled by bits. Even as we speak, bits are flying through the airwaves by our phones. Koan 2: Every copy made by a computer is perfect.
The era of books being handwritten oftentimes resulting to mistakes, has now been closed by digital explosion. And even though these machines do fail as long as the bits have been communicated, the probability of error of the bits is so slim. Koan 3: Vast as world-wide data storage is today, five years from now it will be ten times as large. Yet the information explosion means, paradoxically, the loss of information that is not online. Outdated software and information not stored in the computer are usually assumed as inexistent. Koan 4: The speed of a computer is usually measured by the number of basic operations, such as additions, that can be performed in one second. The fastest computers available in the early 1940s could perform about five operations per second. The fastest today can perform about a trillion.
Koan 5: Exponential growth is actually smooth and steady; it just takes very little time to pass from unnoticeable change to highly visible. In the rapidly changing world of bits, it pays to notice even small changes, and to do something about them. Koan 6: Data stored will all be kept forever, unless there are policies to get rid of it. The Internet consists of millions of interconnected computers; once data gets out, there is no getting it back. Victims of identity theft experience daily the distress of having to remove misinformation from the record. It seems never to go away. Koan 7: In the bits world, in which messages flow instantaneously, it sometimes seems that distance doesn’t matter at all.
The instantaneous communication of massive amounts of information has created the misimpression that there is a place called “Cyberspace,” a land without frontiers where all the world’s people can be interconnected as though they were residents of the same small town. The book introduces two basic morals. The first is that information technology is inherently neither good nor bad—it can be used for good or ill, to free us or to shackle us. Second, new technology brings social change, and change comes with both risks and opportunities.
Any technology can be used for good or ill. Nuclear reactions create electric power and weapons of mass destruction. The same encryption technology that makes it possible for you to email your friends with confidence that no eavesdropper will be able to decipher your message also makes it possible for terrorists to plan their attacks undiscovered. The key to managing the ethical and moral consequences of technology while nourishing economic growth is to regulate the use of technology without banning or restricting its creation.