05.29.09

Obama's Internet Misfire

The president’s announcement Friday of a new czar to protect our cybersecurity misses the point, says Douglas Rushkoff. We need a generation of hand-to-hand digital soldiers, not armchair generals.

Neither President Obama's announcement Friday of a new "cyber czar" nor the Pentagon's simultaneous creation of a central "Cyber Command" from which to defend our nation's networks will be enough to bring us up to speed in a rapidly evolving global race for digital superiority. For while America is indeed falling behind in network security, the appointment of a czar to manage yet another highly centralized, top-down extension of the administration only betrays our chronic, almost constitutional inability to engage in distributed warfare by distributed means.

Cybersecurity is not like protecting a cannon or some nuclear fissile material. The barbarians are not at the gates. They're inside your PC right now, or just behind that banner ad—the fake one telling you there's a spybot on your hard drive and to "click here" to remove it. Because of the 'Net's decentralized nature, cyberwarfare is less like an artillery battle than it is like hand-to-hand combat. We are all on the frontlines; each of our computers the potential weak spot in the network. Our vulnerabilities are the passwords they "phish" from us by faking messages from the bank, the Social Security numbers they pry from poorly managed university servers, and the computer-processing power they rob from the laptops of millions of porn users whose hard drives are now nodes in our enemies' bot-nets.

The United States will be surpassed in cyberskills within a single generation. The best of our kids design videogames; the Indians, Chinese, and Russians' kids write the code on which those games run.

Network defenseless can be measured in how easily we fall for fake news reports and disinformation, how poorly we distinguish between credible sources and sheer propaganda (whether our own or someone else's), and how quickly we will share our most intimate details in return for a chance at a free iPod or new "friend" on Facebook.

Indeed, the better we adapt to our roles as online consumers, the more likely we are as a population to mindlessly hit "submit."

We also need real cybersoldiers. But candidates for such jobs aren’t simply invented in military-training camps—they’re grown by a society that values online skills. I gave a keynote address at a cybersecurity summit this past spring in Louisiana, along with General Robert Elder, then-head of the Air Force's "Cyber Command." His main concern? That not enough American kids know how to program.

General Elder has no problem attracting recruits ready to operate robots or fly drones using controllers modeled after the ones that come with the Sony PlayStation. Hell, they love playing videogames already. His problem is finding high-school graduates with any experience or interest in actually programming all this stuff. Unless something changes radically, Elder told me, the United States will be surpassed in cyberskills within a single generation. The best of our kids design videogames; the Indians, Chinese, and Russians' kids write the code on which those games run. Our competitiveness in war, as well as in the high-tech market, is already being propped up by outsourcing contracts only as durable as the bank loans they're being funded with.

How could this be? It's because in America we don't value programming. We think of it like bricklaying, farming, or any other seemingly menial skill. We ship our networking jobs to India, China, and other formerly Third World nations, whose elementary schools still teach computer programming as if it were an essential language for everyone to learn. Which it is.

Here in the U.S., on the other hand, high-school computer classes teach kids how to use the programs in Office for Windows. Instead of learning how to program a computer, our kids learn how to use one as it has been delivered. In a computing marketplace where altering one's iPhone will "brick" its functionality and where user improvement to programs is treated as an intellectual-property violation, it's no wonder we have adopted the attitude that our technology is finished and inviolable from the minute it has been purchased. Just clicking on "agree" during installation says as much.

But we relegate and outsource our programming capabilities at our own peril. No, not every kid we teach programming in school is going to become a computer programmer capable of protecting us from the worst the Iranians or North Koreans can throw at us. But some of them will. Enough, hopefully, to give General Elder the cybersoldiers he needs.

It's time for an academic revolution as profound as the one motivated by the Sputnik launch. If the false threat of the Soviets painting a sickle on the moon was enough to get calculus taught in a majority of American high schools, the real threat of a communications infrastructure meltdown should be enough to get us teaching Basic to Boy Scouts.

Moreover, by educating ourselves en masse about how our computers and networks actually function, we will have strengthened the network itself. It's not up to a czar to protect us from digital calamity. In a world where the enemy martial artist can pop up virtually anywhere, everyone must know kung fu.

Douglas Rushkoff, a professor of media studies at The New School University and producer and correspondent for the PBS Frontline Digital Nation project, is the author of numerous books, including Cyberia, ScreenAgers, Media Virus and, most recently, Life Inc., to be released this week from RandomHouse.