OpenBSD version: Not relevant here... Arch: ? NSFP: Well...
For some wired reason, humans have an uncanny tendency of reacting to crises not with the appropriate unification and ‘surviving together’, but with splintering apart an ‘us vs. them’ mentality. With the ‘neuland’ of the Internet being around for a couple of decades now, traditional leadership and governance people discovered this new vast area for themselves and their ideas. Humans being humans, though, people confronted with something new will try to pattern-match it to what they already know. If we are talking international politics, what is known are terms like ‘borders’ and ‘sovereignty’.
Hence, what that got us is the new flying buzzword ‘digital sovereignty’. This pressing issue in the policy arena is usually understood as ‘ensuring that a state can exert policy on the (IT) systems used by its constituents, while ensuring that only their own policy is applied to them.’ The classical example of attempts to realize this with policy is most likely the ongoing discussion of the `Safe Harbor’ agreement, or whatever the name of the current incarnation is. A similar, more technical approach, is Schengen Routing, i.e., an attempt to make sure packets from European users do not leave the EU.
What all these approaches have in common is that they, ultimately, dream of a cozy little ‘Internet’ within the boundaries of individual nation states or sets of such. Europeans are usually rather quick to be judgemental about countries installing cryptographic backdoors and running national firewalls for censorship; However, will quickly, either under the disguise of either digital sovereignty, or under the pretense of protecting $group_of_vulnerable_people happily pflock to policies yielding the same results. At this point we do not want to pass judgement on these approaches, no matter where they take place; What we would like to point out, though, is that these processes align rather well with our previous observation that “the Internet will be falling apart”.
Still, with digital sovereignty being juggled around so frequently in the context of applying policies and control, we believe that another important part is usually missed in the face of a burning world. In fact, we claim:
“Digital sovereignty is being used wrong.”
Of course, we would all like to live in a world that is not falling apart, and where defending the united, open, and global Internet from attempts to segment and nationalize it is the most pressing issue. However, as much as the happy engineers in us that grew up on and with the Internet want to just see packets flow, given the state of our world we also have to consider a much more fundamental meaning of sovereignty, which is usually missed: The ability to (re)build and maintain one’s infrastructure independent of another party.
And this is something that just continues to get harder and harder. Computers don’t live forever. Capacitors age, up to the point where they can no longer power on a system (shoutout to everyone who had a suprise power loss in a datacenter with a lot of legacy systems). Hard disks eventually die. SSDs have an explicit best-before, usually explicitly written in stone er… firmware, denominated in write cycles.
We all like to tell stories of those Department of Defense contractors that keep buying old DEC Alpha equipment on online market places for horrendous prices. But the truth behind that is that a major part of our digital infrastructure hinges on a steady supply of spare and replacement parts, which can not be easily produced in a world burned to the ground. That nice solar energy farm over there? What happens if the mainboard in the (1, 2, 3, it is only a matter of time) controllers just dies? Up to a point you may be able to repair by salvaging things [scattered in the world around us]. But ultimately, we might get to a point where we might have to replace systems all together (or, say, just their harddrive). And then, the hardware problem perpetuates to the software. Where can we get the right controll software, system documentation, or firmware and how do we make it run on a computer it was never intended to run on, all the while the vendor who initially build is lays in the ashes of our burning world?
One might argue that this is not an issue in a globalized world, and our world will stay… fine. However, as we learned earlier this year, all it takes is a stuck ship and a global pandemic to give us a free preview into such a future world. All of a sudden, we could see how the world can be when it may take [months or years][sth] for new and replacement systems to arrive. And this will only get worse, with more and more parts of our world burning down all around us.
Hence, in a burning world, it may be essential to have the know how to keep systems running wide spread and locally available. And yes, this includes questions like open(!) and publicly available(!), ideally, open source software and documentation. Otherwise, computers may just become rather expensive (and, to be honest, actually worse) bricks.
Also, going back to the sum of the earlier propositions, the policy aspect may even be secondary. In the end it is about running systems, providing services, and caring for users. Everywhere. As long as we can rebuild.
Over the past 13 days we took you along for a ride through ‘13 Propositions for a Burning World’, thinking about a resilient and sustainable Internet, which should be run with care for its users and the infrastructure itself. They might be overly bold, lack concrete solutions, and paint a disturbingly dire picture of the world. (And we hope you are not too depressed after reading them.) Still, given the state of the world, we claim that we are past the point of raising awareness and hiding behind ‘they would never’; We can no longer risk staying complacent in the hopes for a better future. We have to talk about these issues now and find tangible solutions. The future will be bleak if we do not make it better, and whether the world goes down in flames or not, preparation is better than reaction.
Our first gut reaction, roughly, translates to “Computers were a mistake. Learn to ride a horse and grow your own food.”
But that can not be the answer, not for the the billions of people going with us into the shifts to come.
After all, we are system, network, routing, and many more… engineers.
And calling yourself an engineer comes with a responsibility;
A responsibility to build a better world for everyone.
And a responsibility to keep trying to make the world better, even if it looks bleak.
So, to fulfill the ultimate cliché of people who grew up on the Internet, let us close with a Star Trek quote:
“It may be the warriors who get the glory, but it’s the engineers who build societies.”
- B’Elanna Torres