Monday, September 20, 2010

Book burning post mortem: digital destruction

Lately I've been reading Joseph Schumpeter's writings on Creative Destruction, in preparation for the upcoming Open Hardware Summit this coming week. I know, some heavy stuff... So my head has been thinking about destruction and acts of purposeful damage.

I've gotten a handful of funny emails and comments in conversations over the past few days in response to my article about book burning, so I thought I'd give it a quick summary of my favorite additional ideas. Far be it from me to beat a dead joke any further than it needs to go (not really, I do it all the time), but I do think there's something worth contemplating here, about the future of book burning.

The essence is: digital desecration is far more nuanced than book burning. You simply have more options to be obnoxious.

In no particular order:
  • Burning isn't good enough, you also have to explicitly destroy some of the content
  • There is a close relationship between desecration and information defacing
  • Digital desecration opens up a more complex relationship between destruction of the physical object, the file, the creative medium, the idea, and the ideology
  • In the digital desecration world, each of these are explicitly different stages (in that sense, is book burning in the traditional sense more effective? will we one day pine for the good ol' days when book burning was as easy as applying incendiaries to paper?)
  • A corollary is that the more creative effort that went into a work of art, the more "satisfying" it is to desecrate (e.g. destroying that which took seconds to build is somewhat lame)
  • A further corollary suggests the ratio of time invested in desecration should somehow be far less than the time someone else invested in the act of creating
  • At the ASCII level, digital defacing might include something like taking a concept or idea, and overwriting or padding it with the word "sucks"
  • At the byte level, you could swap the Endianness of the double chars in order to make it unreadable by whatever chip it's on
  • At the binary level, you could AND or XOR the binary with a random binary sequence, in order to truly make it obfuscated and irretrievable (thanks Devlin)
  • At the file level, you could overwrite pieces of text with strategically identified counter-points or antithetical topics
  • At the archive level, you might rename the cover or title of the file to something misleading, in order to deceive the next potential reader
  • At the chip level, you could create a mechanism that actually made the chip on which bytes were stored burst into flames, moving into the real physical world for some tangible destruction (thanks Chris)
  • At the web level, you could Google bomb the concept or title of the Ebook or text, so that when it's Googled, other links come up at the top that are actually propaganda for something else
  • You could try to measure the performance of desecration by converting electron energy into mass using E=mc^2
  • Less heat is generated from digital desecrations, implying less "wasted energy", and instead there is a more efficient thermodynamic transformation, directing more energy at desecration than being lost as radiating heat
In closing, I'll just throw this out there, since it really got me thinking... we look back on the burning of the Library of Alexandria as a horrible thing, because of all the timeless works of literature that were lost. Do you think anyone would notice if Twitter turned off it's saved tweets archive feature? Will uber-nerdy future historians 1,000 years from now lose cryogenic nano-sleep over this, as they zip around on intergalactic hoverboards?

Probably not.


john personna said...

Did you ever read "The Innovators' Dilemma" by Clayton M. Christensen?

Good stuff.

Matt said...

@personna - yes indeed. i had mixed reviews. on the one hand, i thought it was an interesting idea. on the other hand, i think i got the point within 5 pages... i didn't need all those case studies, but i suppose it made it real