On Saturday we’ll be celebrating 244 years of American life. The United States of America has been a political member of earth’s community for a relatively brief stint of history. The country has grown immensely since our heroes from the 18th century dedicated their lives to giving us freedom from the English kingdom’s oppression. Thirteen colonies since expanded to 50 states, the District of Columbia, and 16 territories that collectively span half the planet from Guam to the U.S. Virgin Islands. It’s commonly accepted that 2.5 million people occupied America on its day of birth back in July 1776. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are more now. We’re sitting at around 328 million today.
We know that in these 244 years our planet hasn’t grown (geologists and similar scientists would lend detailed nuance that could refute whether it’s grown or shrunk to unnoticeable degrees over time). So, over the years as America has grown geographically and politically, we’ve done so while the base stayed the same. Of course, the United Kingdom, France, Spain, and other political characters with colonization strategies of days gone by have shrunk, meanwhile. We’ve grown at their expenses, somewhat, though in many cases their “lost” peoples and lands have, like us, become independent.
In one sense that I’d like you to understand today, in advance of the muted celebration that we’ll endure in the throes of the novel coronavirus pandemic, we’ve also shrunk. The smallness that I’m implicating is not due to some territorial revolution that broke away from our nearly global reach. It hasn’t come from some reverse Louisiana Purchase sell-off of lands to another nation. The shrink, in my limited perspective, has been affected by the internet. Regular readers with great memories may recall that last October I invited you to celebrate another birthday when the internet turned 50. How much has America and the world changed in the most recent 50 years? The phenomenon of space travel and now residency, the internet and its nodes (i.e., computers) implanted in nearly every household, the 11,355 TV channels available, modern kitchen appliances and conveniences, the appearance and then disappearance of stadium rock shows after the music industry’s comeuppance from file sharing. On and on.
Just about every one of the major cultural and social changes relates somehow to technology. While America spent two-and-a-half centuries growing, the world around us has been shrinking because of our global interconnectivity, a side effect of all these otherwise seemingly positive advances. We can see this all the time. I imagine how taken aback Jane or Joe American must have been 70 years ago when other modes of communication were becoming prevalent. Being able to speak with Aunt Cassandra wa-a-ay up in New York?! Wild stuff. Now, though, one unintended tweet by Aunt Cassandra, especially within the cancel culture, could garner news in Auckland, Reykjavík, and Lima simultaneously and within seconds of publication. That’s exciting, too, and not even the dastardliest outcomes of our immediate, global communications would cast a shadow on the innumerable and inexplicable benefits of the internet. Forget the bullying and such, the politically incorrect messages, the minutiae. The internet and its communications powers have, indirectly for the most part, saved lives, created peace, grown economies, thwarted war, solved crimes.
This is a hard balance to understand. What good has the internet done for the human experience, and what bad? It’s the smallness of the world, and regrettably the badness, that bubbled up for me over the weekend. It was nothing more than a blip on most people’s news radar. And that’s my sense even limited to Kiwis’ radars. The headline was “‘Tsunami’ of ransomware attacks coming, businesses warned.” It was published in the online version of Stuff, a New Zealand newspaper company. When I clicked into the link, I knew it was from New Zealand. The story was clearly limited to an intended audience of Kiwis, particularly business owners. No matter, my kneejerk reaction to the headline, and then built upon by reading the piece, was “Ruh-roh.” This niche-y cybersecurity-business article, published 8,213 miles away from Corbin, caused my alarm. Why could that be? What things ongoing in Corbin are attracting the eyes of your average Aucklander? Fair enough, the populations of the two cities don’t warrant the comparison.
Why did I, an attorney in the Commonwealth and an educator in the narrower Tri-county, give two hoots about cybersecurity incidents one-third of the way around the planet? It’s partially because nearly anything surrounding cybersecurity intrigues me. More to the point, though, it’s because I know how small earth’s 24,901 miles of circumference have effectively become during the past half-century. By the time the digital information making up that New Zealand story transmitted into outer space to bounce back down to us in America, the same hackers could have already been in your computer and left again unnoticed. We Americans not only created the internet, and are immensely benefitting by it, but we also are subject to its maladies.
None of us will enjoy the Fourth of July to the extent that we would have predicted on, say, July 5, 2019. No one saw the pandemic coming then, of course, and many epidemiological smarties the world over were unaware of it much earlier than that year’s end. The experts are still claiming that they’re not beyond the nebulous halfway point of understanding it, all its effects, and its evolution. As you wrestle with those truisms four days from now, even if you do so subconsciously, try and embrace the reality that they’re merely part of the progression of time and technology that tells the story of the American spirit. Also, though, be wary. Know that all that we reap that’s favorable gets a side order of risk. We’re Americans who are part of this small world.
Ed is a professor of cybersecurity, an attorney, and a trained ethicist. Reach him at email@example.com.