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Brave New World

Week of November 14, 2001

Or 'A Fairy Tale for the New Millennium'.

Now kiddies, this is a different kind of fairy tale. Most fairy tales are supposed to make you fall asleep. This one might very well make you giggle. But you are still supposed to try to go asleep, because that's what the world wants. It wants you asleep. Even when you are awake. Ok, it's time to begin.

Once upon a time there were these generals with a lot of brass on their chests and they invented a Brave New World. But although they really thought they had something, no one else did, and soon no one wanted their world any longer. Which is where academia came in. Academia used this world for years and had great fun with it. And then in about 1993 - in the last millennium in other words - someone in Switzerland invented a great tool for navigating around this world and suddenly everyone wanted to be in on it.

And stores in all countries of the world began selling machines so you could get into this world. 'It's like having a verbal chat electronically,' they said. And in a way it was. Or maybe not.

But there are evil people in all worlds, even brave new ones. And these evil people wanted only to cause others harm. And they could do this by attacking other people's machines.

But we're getting ahead of our story. For years earlier there was a carpetbagger in San Francisco trying to make money off the AIDS scare. He was selling badges to gays in town. These badges told the world that they weren't infected with AIDS and so they could have a gay time without ruining things for other gays. Of course these badges were worthless, but who cares? For the carpetbagger cleaned up.

A year later this carpetbagger had switched horses and proclaimed himself an expert in fighting another kind of germ, namely the Computer Germ or Virus. And soon after that he happened upon the marketing technique which would carry him into the New Millennium. This technique has two parts.

The first part is that you have to give people something for free so that they think they are getting something for free. Anyone who is anyone today knows that this is the essence of separating people from their money - using a come on so the unsuspecting victim thinks something is being given away for free. But of course nothing is ever given away for free - we all know that. Or do we?

No matter. That is the first part. The second part is to establish what appears to be an independent company which continually reports that the products of the first company are the best on the market and all the others in competition are abysmal. Our carpetbagger, now an Anti-Virus Luminary, established an anti-virus laboratory, financed it, hired everyone to work in it, then fed it with lists of virii which only he knew about. Of course he had his own anti-virus software by this time. When he heard about new virii out there, he collected them, and before doing anything else he had his software engineers update his anti-virus software to catch them. Then he gave the new list of virii to the laboratory and told them, 'test my product and test all the competition too and see who catches the most virii.' And of course his product won every time and the competition looked bad. The competition didn't participate actively in these sham tests - no, why would they? In fact they refused to recognise them. So our Anti-Virus Luminary bought his own personal licenses to these products and donated them to the laboratory. And enough people didn't know the score and were sucked in.

He was on TV too. He was on with Matt & Katie and yelled and screamed about Michelangelo. Which was a virus which was going to destroy the universe. His own sales organisation was ready - it had phone lines open all over the country, waiting for the panic calls. Our Anti-Virus Luminary cleaned up, while the competition were caught with their pants down and clogged telephone lines. Of course Michelangelo wasn't anything at all, it hit only maybe 50,000 computers all told, but who cares? That's a lot of money to make.

But then the angle of attack changed. The evil people learned how to ruin other people's machines while they were in this brave new world roaming around enjoying themselves. So our Anti-Virus Luminary decided to branch out.

First off, he had his own anti-virus company start making what is known as a personal firewall. This was only for show. A lot of people bought this personal firewall because they were acquainted with the anti-virus software from the same company. It made getting more money faster even easier.

But our Luminary pulled another fast one - he bought up a competitor to his own product. And this was a very cool move. The information is out there, but no one really pays attention or bothers figuring out what this means. So life goes on - or so you might think.

And then we had adware. Adware was only supposed to flash irritating ad banners at you, right? Wrong. It sent back confidential information to the company servers and this information was sold for a lot of money to marketing companies that wanted to know everything they could about you. People did not like adware, and our Luminary saw his first opening in his New Brave World.

First off, he needed a new laboratory. His old laboratory had more or less fallen apart as his employees there tired of being dishonest and cajoled into compromise after compromise all the time. So he needed a new 'shill'.

He didn't have to look far. A 'Charlie McCarthy' puppet reporter he had used in the old days to stir up virus scares was more than willing to get in on this new game. But before anything was to happen here, first our Luminary had to get his new personal firewall company to figure out a way to stop adware from sending data. Then when he'd done that, he told his shill to go ahead.

The shill now published an astounding discovery about leaky computers and adware that sent secret messages. A lot of people made mention of this adware, but no one made as big a stink of it as the shill. And the shill effort was accompanied by an online test to see if your personal firewall actually stopped the secret messages.

Of course only one personal firewall could stop them. That was the whole idea. So again sales soared, and again our Luminary filled his coffers. But the technique used to stop these secret messages was very primitive, and in no time flat people discovered how cheap this technology really was, so our Luminary set his company to work again, and when they'd bettered their code, he had his shill introduce a new test online, and of course only our Luminary's personal firewall passed this test too, so more coins fell into the coffers.

Then one day people started to figure out that all of this was an illusion - that as one authority expressed it, it was a game of futility. No matter how much the personal firewalls would try to stop secret messages, people would always find ways to fool them again. And so everyone sort of settled back and said, Hey, ok, that's it, ok, let's forget this now, let's move on, this is nothing to worry about anymore.

But it was. Because through all of these tests no one had ever thought of checking exactly what these personal firewalls were being programmed to stop. For most of these personal firewalls had an additional feature that was supposed to stop you from entering the Brave New World completely - something like pulling a plug on it. And conversely, if you couldn't get out, then no one was supposed to get in. Right?

Wrong. Because while all these people were dingling about trying to sneak in back windows on the third floor, no one had checked to see if the front door was open. And it was. The front door that is. It was wide open. It wasn't only unlocked - it was wide open. And no one had bothered to check.

Which is when our Luminary started to panic. He could deal with the new discovery as long as his shill was out in front and his company was ready to pass the new tests. But this discovery - that the front door was wide open - he wasn't ready for that. He started threatening people and had his programmers sitting up all night long trying to figure out how to close the front door and lock it. But they couldn't. They weren't the most gifted programmers in the world and they'd been given what they considered an impossible task. Try as they might - and they burned the midnight oil for several nights in succession - they couldn't get the door to close.

Which is when the Luminary decided he wouldn't publicise secret messages anymore. Suddenly secret messages and motherships and things being sent by adware to marketing companies was no longer an issue. The Luminary had decided this, and all the world fell in line. The journalists refused to publish anymore. Small news groups carried notices, but these groups were closed down, and soon no one remembered there had ever been adware or any secret messages or problems with personal firewalls. And some people started to wonder what they had their danged personal firewalls for anyway, because more and more these people were getting rid of their DSL connections and going back to modems where they were safer. So why worry about personal safety anyway?

And so it went. And as you slip off to dreamland, you might wonder where our Luminary will pop up next. No one really knows. He probably won't have the same shill anymore, but he himself will still be around.

Scum like him always are.

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