The Breakfast Table

Revenge of the Nerds

Good morning, Nadine.

Our discussion yesterday got me thinking about the power of computer technology in our daily lives. Browsing the “papers” this morning (interactive editions, thank you), I noticed how many stories illustrate this in one way or another. The Wall Street Journal, for example, reports that much of the evidence gathered by Ken Starr in the Lewinsky matter came from emails Monica had sent to various of her friends, and then had deleted from her computer. The story makes the point that once an email message is sent through cyberspace, it becomes almost impossible to delete. This, of course, has very significant implications in terms of privacy. We tend to think of communications as pieces of paper that can be destroyed and thereby kept from prying eyes, but email is very different. Once something is written to a disk, it can later be recovered, or there may be backup copies that the author is simply not aware of. The rule of thumb seems to be that if you don’t want the world to know what you’re thinking, you’d better not put it in an email message.

A New York Times story, in the Technology section, focuses on negative grassroots campaigning by individuals who disseminate adverse information about candidates. The information is posted to websites constructed for the very purpose of injecting these slurs into the campaign.

Two stories in the Wall Street Journal address somewhat different aspects of computer power. In Asia, the proliferation of personal computers threatens to turn the established social order (where age is equated with knowledge) on its head. Younger workers, comfortable with the use of computers, are now showing their superiors how to use email and save their jobs. The second story discusses how access to the internet has changed the tenor of salary negotiations by giving employees and job candidates access to various data bases containing information about salary levels in their fields.

All of which leads me to revise somewhat my concern about the tinkering of the FTC and other government agencies. The simple fact is that this thing is much too big for any government bureaucrat to even understand, never mind regulate. How, for example, does the Federal Election Commission begin to figure out who’s behind a website that sways large numbers of voters against a particular candidate, thereby helping the opposing candidate? Let’s face it, Nadine, fair or unfair, laissez-faire is the way of life on the internet. What Adam Smith could only dream of, Bill Gates and his army of nerds have made a reality. Libertarians (civil or rude) should applaud these developments.

Ciao. AK