Every now and then, some new big thing changes the way people look at technology. Often, it's not so much the technology that changes, but rather the way people use what was already there. The revolution isn't so much technological as it is methodological. Such is certainly the case this time.
The next big thing in internet communication is the blog. It's a shortened form of the phrase "web log," which apparently took too long to say. A "web log," in the classic sense, is nothing more than a personal log (diary or whatever) that's made accessible over the web. Now, there's nothing new about that concept--it's been around as log as the web itself. I've been keeping a sort of running online journal of thoughts for ten years now. After all, what else do you put on your personal website.
However, what's changing the world isn't so much the practice per se, but rather the rising popularity of tools that make the practice so much easier. That's where the blog, in the more contemporary sense, comes into play. See, the term blog today seems to be reserved, not just for online journals, but specifically for journals that are managed by a Content Management System (or CMS) that was designed specifically for managing personal pages. The cool thing about a CMS (and, in fact, its reason for existence) is the fact that it makes data entry a lot easier. Creating and managing web content is so much easier with a CMS that you can spend your time writing instead of moving files around.
Now, the concept of a CMS is also not new. They've also been around since the beginning of the Internet, but until recently, few people used them on their own homepages. The time and work involved in setting one up was simply too prohibitive. There's no money to be made in homepages--especially those telling everyone what's new with your cat--so the home user wasn't much of a target audience for people designing these things. Progress was slow.
However, once CMS technology took root in the personal home page arena, the results were astounding. Let me go over the major selling points of the average blog.
- Adding a story is fast. You can compose content for your blog as fast as you can compose an email.
- Your audience can participate. Every major blogging package allows readers to supply their own comments in response to your story. Suddenly, the user has a real incentive to write--they know they have an audience, and the audience writes back. It's like having hundreds of pen-pals.
- Built-in syndication. A technology that is currently gaining popularity is called RSS (``Really Simple Syndication"). It allows your blog to communicate with client software, like mail readers. People don't have to visit your website to see your latest story--they can read it with their morning email. RSS aggregators are designed to pull content from any number of sources and make them all available in one spot. Not only are blogs easier to write, their easier to read.
So, what has the net effect of the introduction of the blog been? In a nutshell, it's a decentralization of media sources. When everyone can make their own voice heard, the public starts focusing on those whose story is the most interesting rather than who has the greatest publishing power. People start getting the news from their peers, rather than from traditional media outlets.
Information now comes unfiltered. Whereas the news sources used to get their information "from the experts," they now consult the experts' blogs. And in the mean time, the average joe has come to bypass the news outlet, and read the story directly from the source--whether they realize they're doing so or not! It is a revolution of sorts. Your voice can be heard. And if you have something the world want's to listen to, it will be.
Ever since technology became "cool", there's been a fairly steady increase in the amount of technical details that make their way into popular literature. For example, encryption, hackers, firewalls, and biometrics have all played prominent roles in at least a few of the best-selling works of fiction of our day. An interesting side-effect of this trend is the fact the veracity of these technical details depends directly on the technological competence of the work's author. And as a general rule, writers of popular fiction are technologically incompetent.
One of the latest technical absurdities to catch my interest is one involving unbreakable encryption. The plot generally centers around the discovery on an encryption scheme so perfect that no one, not even the most powerful organization in the world, can break it. The implications of such a discovery are, of course, so potentially devastating to the intelligence operations of <insert powerful organization here>, that they focus all their efforts on destroying/containing the technology by any means necessary--usually involving a whole lot of chasing, explosions, and the demonstration of just how powerful this given organization is. As expected, gratuitous action ensues.
Of course, with a little technical knowledge on the subject, you'd realize such a scenario is virtually impossible, but not for the reason you might originally suspect. No, it's not impossible to create an unbreakable encryption scheme. Quite the contrary, actually. Such encryption codes already exist. In fact, unbreakable encryption is the really the foundation of internet commerce. The tools are available and within the reach of any computer-using individual to encrypt a secret so completely that not even the most powerful organizations in the world could get to it.
Over the past 20 years, the science of encryption has evolved to the point that for an encryption scheme to be considered "strong", it has to not only withstand everyday use, but it also has to withstand any theoretical attack from a mathematical perspective. In other words, it's has to be proven unbreakable in theory, not just in in practice.
The gory details of such a process are fairly uninteresting. But the implications are this: If an encryption scheme is a house, then an unbreakable scheme is one such that the easiest method of entry is always the front door--no matter how heavily guarded it may be. That is to say, the easiest way of decoding your secret document would have to be guessing your password, no matter how difficult that task me be. While theorists don't like to say "unbreakable" or "impossible", Modern "strong" encryption is so difficult to break that doing so would require more energy than exists in the universe.
Suddenly, password guessing becomes a very attractive option.
And that's exactly how they do it--when the government seizes the computer of a suspected criminal, they employ a huge network of their own computers to attempt to guess the passwords on any encrypted documents. They optimize their search by building a dictionary of words to try from the other files on the victim's computer. The idea is that most people aren't too adept at remembering passwords, so chances are you wrote it down somewhere.
Asymmetric encryption (also known as public-key cryptography), uses one password to encode a secret, and another one to decode it. This makes the CIA's job all the more difficult. When you log on to your bank's website, the computers encrypt the transmission without asking you for an encryption password (not to be confused with your account password). What is actually happening is your computer is picking a temporary password for that session--a random number, usually between 0 and 21024 (about 1 centillion, or around 1 googol3), which is a large and fairly unguessable number by any standard. Through the beauty of asymmetric encryption, you temporary password is never sent to anyone--not even the bank--and it is destroyed once you're done with it.
Unbreakable? Yeah, you could say that.