Paris, France

July 7, 2019

Leviathans

Recently, I've been reading Steven Pinker's excellent The Better Angels of our Nature, which details how violence has gone down over the course of human history - and why.

One of the interesting points it's raised to me is old - 14th century philosopher Hobbes old.

Hobbes argued that The Leviathan - some kind of disinterested third party with an effective monopoly on force and an incentive to keep people happy and healthy - would be the most effective strategy against the things that made people hurt one another.

Today, we largely know the Leviathan as nations - massive insitutions with a legal right to use force. And empirically, the system has worked. We live in the safest, most peaceful, most egalitarian times in human history. There is still work to be done - but what we're doing is working.

But mostly, what it really made me think about was Google. And email.

See for years, I've wondered why it is that Google hasn't done things like make email secure. As you may know, email isn't encrypted. At some point in your life, someone probably told you to treat email like a postcard - to assume that anyone between you and the person you're sending it to can read it.

It's a great metaphor. But maybe beause we never send postcards anymore, I've never seen anyone really think about it.

This email, the one you're reading right now, passed through about 50 different computers before it got to you - and every one of them (and the people sitting near them) could have read the entire thing. Same goes for when you write back. Same goes for every email you've ever sent.

Yeah.

The thing is - Google could change all of that tomorrow, if they wanted. And they've been in a position to for years.

But they haven't. Cynics argued that it's because Google makes oodles of cash reading your email and serving up advertising - and that might be true.

But it's also because encrypting email would mean they couldn't effectively stop spam, phishing scams, viruses, and all the other terrible things that we get attacked with thousands of times a day. In short, violence.

Don't get me wrong - there are lots of problems at Google. A toxic culture of misogyny, the scary amounts of data collection, and a corporate agenda that's increasingly distant from their "don't be evil" founding principles.

But also - what they're doing is working.

We have instant communication with people across the globe, largely effectively and safely. We can find information so rapidly that if we don't see a result within a handful of seconds, we assume it's simply not known. Despite more viruses and better-funded and more-capable hackers than ever before, we're overall safer and more capable in our digital lives than we've ever been.

And the safest places to live our digital lives are generally with the biggest companies. The leviathans.

(Except Facebook. Facebook is so provably evil that nobody should be giving them a shred of information. But that's a topic for another time.)

All of this has been on my mind a lot as I've continued building out Inkshop, and wrestled with where folks should be able to host it.

Is there some good in the trade of a little liberty for a lot of security? How much liberty is too much to give up? How much risk is acceptable? Who should get to decide? And how do we make sure they're able to?

These questions are the same ones we've been asking since the beginning of humanity, ones whose answers have defined and shaped the cultures and governances across the globe.

And it leaves me, well, just thinking. Sending you another letter without a bow-tied ending. But hopefully with some questions you'll enjoy mulling over too. :)

Have a thoughtful week,

-Steven

p.s. The best thing I saw all week was this fascinating video on the Panama Canal and how global shipping works. Did you know that most shipping boats are built to the exact size of the locks in the Panama Canal? I sure didn't!

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