Age of Asymmetries

Cory Doctorow’s 2008 novel Little Brother¬†traces the fight between hacker teens and an overactive surveillance¬†state emboldened by a terrorist attack in¬†San Francisco. The novel details in great depth¬†the digital¬†tools of the hackers, especially¬†the asymmetry of contemporary¬†cryptography. Simply put, today’s¬†encryption¬†is based on mathematical functions that are¬†really easy in one direction‚ÄĒmultiplying two prime numbers to get a large number‚ÄĒand really hard in the opposite direction‚ÄĒfiguring out the two prime numbers that were multiplied together to get that large number.

Doctorow’s speculative future also¬†contains asymmetries that are more familiar to us. Terrorist attacks are, alas, all too easy to perpetrate and¬†hard to prevent. On¬†the internet, it¬†is easy to be loud and to troll and to¬†disseminate hate, and hard to counteract those forces¬†and to more quietly forge¬†bonds.

The mathematics of cryptography are immutable. There will always be an asymmetry between that which is easy and that which is hard. It is how we address the addressable asymmetries of our age, how we rebalance the unbalanced, that will determine what our future actually looks like.

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