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DANIEL HENNINGER: Hurricane Irene and Steve Jobs – WSJ

September 1, 2011

Hurricane Irene and Steve Jobs

Jobs drove an industry to let us download Irene in real time—or to let Moammar Gadhafi hunt and imprison dissidents.



It was exciting and disturbing to spend all last Sunday in the kitchen of a small house in the Austrian countryside, watching New York City TV stations back home broadcast reports of Hurricane Irene driving torrents of water across my neighborhood in Manhattan, and the American East Coast.

We streamed live images for 18 hours from New York TV stations into a Lenovo laptop, an Apple iPad and a Barnes & Noble Nook Color tablet. Smartphones’ voice and email kept us in touch with family in the region.

These tech hook-ups sound prosaic to daily users, but in ancient electronic times—a few years ago—live-streamed TV was a balky business, and there’s no way a modem in the Austrian mountains would have delivered data all day. It all works now. Permitting oneself to be rendered agog by the experience remains one of life’s pleasures.

In the week before Irene struck, we’d all been celebrating the career of one of the architects of modern progress, Steve Jobs. He stood on the bridge of one of technology’s greatest ships, Apple, as it pushed through the electronic waves the past 25 years. Steve Jobs didn’t create everything that let us download Hurricane Irene real-time into an Austrian kitchen, but he drove the industry to be better, faster. We benefited.

Before we get too ga-ga over these hardware wonders, let us divert to reality in a darker corner of our new civilization in the news this week: The barbarians have iPhones, too.

The networking London mobs of a fortnight ago we knew about. More disturbing was this week’s eye-popping Wall Street Journal story in Tripoli about Moammar Gadhafi’s Internet-monitoring center (“Firms Aided Gadhafi’s Spies” by Paul Sonne and Margaret Coker).

Libyan technicians in a Tripoli building used deep-packet inspections and other sophisticated technologies sold to them by foreign firms to read emails between dissidents and monitor chat-room traffic. They filled rooms with dossiers on the opposition’s conversations. Unlike the East German Stasi spies in “The Lives of Others,” there’s no need now to break into anyone’s apartment—until the arrest.

The Journal reported that the monitoring center also had a dank, windowless detention center. One of the piece’s more chilling incidents notes that a few hours after two college students on March 1 called a foreign reporter by cellphone, the police picked them up. Their whereabouts are still unknown. What is known is that Gadhafi’s bitter-enders in Tripoli have been systematically executing detained Libyans.

When, in 1945, the famed mathematician John von Neumann wrote “First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC,” the road map to what would become the computer revolution, did he think then that some day a Steve Jobs would bring forth the iPad and a Moammar Gadhafi would use technology to increase the productivity of murder?

The answer certainly is that von Neumann did understand the promise and peril of these ideas, just as some builders of the Manhattan Project assumed good would come (nuclear power) from the bomb’s technology.

Von Neumann the genius theorist, Steve Jobs the genius marketer and uncounted other contributors of seminal ideas and breakthroughs brought forth our new world of mass—and massive—information. Its benefits have spread to every corner of the Earth. That includes mass murderers. We also read this week how China’s Internet Information Office (itself a mass abuser of technology) is purporting to shut down websites that get paid by Chinese corporations to spread rumors and lies about competitors.

It’s true that Google said, “Don’t be evil.” But with access to the same knowledge base as Google’s godly engineers, the Gadhafis of the world have a different view: Be evil. Are we, the people, relegated to being passive takers of whatever good or evil product next pops out of these minds?

One argument holds that governments will have to regulate these powerful flows. Hmmm. While Irene raged through the weekend, the world’s economic authorities gathered in Jackson Hole, Wyo., largely to admit they had spent the past two years accomplishing next to nothing for their economies. It’s hard to believe that managing the world’s information streams is easier than managing a national economy. The evidence suggests that both have become equally impossible to control or guide.

Gadhafi lost. Almost surely, China’s Internet Monitoring Office won’t win. Maybe some day a good Google techie will fashion a way to protect the conversations of a dictator’s opponents. As to the rest of us, this will sound like an impossibly small idea set against the scale of modern information technology, but whatever happened to the virtue of skepticism? We’re always urged to “embrace” tech’s constant changes. Instead, why not keep a safe distance?

We’ve seen, literally, how even the most sophisticated public figures turn into drooling babies when talking to “friends” on the Web. Compulsive naivete and infantilism seem to be byproducts of the computer age. User innocence is mainly why hackers get inside “closed” systems.

Let us all thank Steve Jobs and his industry colleagues for making our world more fun and connected amid our celebrations, disasters and revolutions. But let us recognize that “Don’t be evil” still cohabits with “Be bad.” So try this: Be careful.

via Henninger: Hurricane Irene and Steve Jobs –


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