I ended 2017 without my customary “State of Technology” post, and just as well: Spectre is a far better representation than anything I might have written. Faced with a fundamental imbalance (data fetch slowness versus execution speed), processor engineers devised an ingenious system optimized for performance, but having failed to envision the possibility of bad actors abusing the system, everyone was left vulnerable.
The analogy is obvious: faced with a fundamental imbalance (the difficulty of gaining and retaining users versus the ease of rapid iteration and optimization), Internet companies devised ingenious systems optimized for engagement, but having failed to envision the possibility of bad actors abusing the system, everyone was left vulnerable.
Spectre, though, helps illustrate why these issues are so vexing:
- I don’t believe anyone intended to create this vulnerability
- The vulnerability might be worth it — the gains from faster processors have been absolutely massive!
- Regardless, decisions made in the past are in the past: the best we can do is muddle through
So it is with the effects of Facebook, Google/YouTube, etc., and the Internet broadly. Power comes from giving people what they want — hardly a bad motivation! — and the benefits still may — probably? — outweigh the downsides. Regardless, our only choice is to move forward.
As Thompson admits, there are some really strained analogies earlier in the piece. However, this final analogy couldn't be more apt.