Terrorism and technology: This week Paul Ford and Rich Ziade talk about a host of topics in the wake of the past weekend’s bombing in Manhattan. They cover the state of the city and the collective reaction of its residents, the ease of international communication in the digital age, and the emergency alert that went out early Monday morning that named the suspected perpetrator and said simply, “See media for pic. Call 9–1–1 if seen.”
Rich Ziade: Hi, this is Rich Ziade, and welcome to Track Changes.
Paul Ford: I’m Paul Ford, and it’s Monday at noon, there’s all, we’re talking about something that’s still going on.
Rich: And I think it’s worth talking about the technology side of it.
Paul: OK, so we’re gonna talk about, there was a…an explosion in New York City over the weekend, not too far from where we work, and we came into work today and it’s kind of on top of everybody’s head, and literally as we are recording this, I’ll bet new details are gonna come in. But there are some things that we’re thinking about, and we want to talk about.
Rich: Postlight is based in New York.
Paul: Very much so.
Rich: In the…in, I guess you’d call it Flatiron, still. We’ve just recently moved to 17th and 5th Avenue, and literally about a 3 minute walk away from this explosion that happened on Saturday, in Chelsea.
Paul: That’s right. There was a big explosion between, what, 6th and 7th on 23rd Street.
Rich: 23rd between 6th and 7th.
Paul: Yeah, I was just there the other, I was there on, um, Thursday to see my doctor. And…
Rich: 4 minutes from us.
Paul: New York is a funny city. It actually has a complicated, rich history of mad bombers blowing things up over the decades. And that’s sort of how I saw this, I was like, oh, someone’s blown something up in New York City. And unfortunately we’re in this weird moment where everything’s super high-stakes, and you just realize that this suddenly becomes something that’s part of the presidential election, and…
Rich: Everything gets amplified, right?
Rich: And I think…
Paul: And you know it’s just —
Rich: And that frustrates me, to see it get amplified, actually.
Paul: Me too.
Rich: A little bit. Because that’s incredibly satisfying to, you know, the four knuckleheads or three, whoever, one knucklehead, or whoever did this, and it’s….
Paul: It is, and it’s also just like, you knew the minute this guy shows up, and if he’s, I figured it was a man, and I was like, this is gonna be a guy with a Muslim name, and then the whole country’s gonna lose its damn mind.
Rich: [laughter] That’s pretty much where we are.
Paul: Yeah, that’s, that is where we are. We’re recording this as news is sort of trickling out.
Rich: Yeah. And you know, as you observe, and you know, we’re a tech podcast, Paul, so we’re not here to…
Paul: We’re definitely that.
Rich: We’re not here to pull in somebody from a think tank and from Council on Foreign Relations to talk about this stuff.
Paul: We’re just, honestly we’re just New Yorkers. My wife is —
Rich: We’re New Yorkers…
Paul: My wife’s very nervous this morning.
Paul: She’s like, you know, let’s make sure we know where we are.
Paul: Because everybody has these sort of very strong memories of things like September 11th, of course.
Paul: Also the blackout, sort of how do I get home.
Paul: And for us, you know, I’m sure you feel this too, like, where are my kids?
Paul: If something happens and I have to walk home because I can’t take the train because there’s been a terrorist incident, will I be able to, you know, get to school on time.
Rich: It’s sort of how we think, I think a little bit.
Paul: It’s very practical. There’s a sense of like, well, something could happen, a certain number of people could be injured or die, and that might mean that the people closest to me, I need to make some decisions about how to take care of them.
Rich: Yeah. Exactly.
Paul: So this is Monday, it’s the first day back to work after this happened, and you know, we’re getting on the bus and we’re getting on the train and everybody’s thinking, what’s going on? Mo got on the train today, my wife got on the train with a big tray of cupcakes from our kids’ birthday, and she said she felt that people were eyeing her very suspiciously. Because it’s a big metal tinfoil tray, right?
Rich: Right, right, right.
Paul: Now my wife does not look like she blows up buses, but…
Rich: Well cupcakes are very high-calorie, so there’s that.
Paul: It’s very dangerous, that’s why we were getting them the hell out of the house. [laughter]
Rich: Well I mean, you hear about stuff like this, and you could tell it was kind of very homemade, there was a pressure cooker with a cellphone attached to it, whatever the hell gets put together to make this thing dangerous.
Paul: Very old school, very…
Rich: Pretty old school.
Paul: Intifada-style explosion.
Rich: And you can’t help but think about tech, because first off, this guy got that recipe from the internet, obviously.
Paul: I mean, was it the internet, or the darknet?
Rich: I don’t even know what that is.
Paul: I don’t either.
Rich: I don’t know what that is.
Paul: Do you remember The Anarchist Cookbook?
Rich: I do remember The Anarchist Cookbook, of course.
Paul: Right, this was a great thing about the internet, everybody was terrified…
Paul: That you could just go get The Anarchist Cookbook online…
Paul: And you’d be able to make as many pipe bombs or smoke as many banana peels as you need to. [laughter]
Rich: And plenty’s been written about how we’re globalized now. Here’s what I can do today, OK? I have a product that I need to get done, and I need it QAed. I’m a software developer.
Rich: Product manager. And I have a product, it’s almost done, I need some testing, OK?
Paul: It’s a new word processor that has cool emojis.
Rich: A new word processor that has cool emojis. I could spin up a team in…let’s go to Brazil.
Rich: And test it. I’ll have a couple of conversations, we’ll set up a chat room, and then we’ll test it.
Paul: That’s right. I mean, weekly, we get people emailing us, saying…
Paul: “Hey, I have a QA team, in Bangalore, in Brazil, all over the world.”
Rich: Yup. And not —
Paul: Eastern Europe.
Rich: Exactly. And I want to market this thing. And I’d gotten a solicitation email a couple months ago from this video,t hey make animation videos, like two minute product animation videos, out of Latvia.
Rich: And they’re not bad. They’re not super pro, but they’re pretty good.
Paul: I like the way I’m just like —
Rich: They’re like $400 bucks.
Paul: Sure, they make promotional animations out of Latvia, but that feels normal now.
Rich: It feels normal now. And I could send them the app, send them a script, they’d probably have a couple of Skype calls with me, and they’d put it together.
Rich: Right. And this we talk about pretty casually, about how the world is interconnected, and globalized, and this and that. So you see this as a backdrop, and then what frustrates me a little bit is how, I guess, the apparatus that sort of runs the government, the nation-state, let’s call it for a second, thinks about in the context of nation-states. Like, this isn’t an attack from Canada, or from Pakistan, or from Lebanon —
Rich: Or Afghanistan, right? But the context they still continue to work in is, there’s first off, the federal government, that thinks about, well is this an attack on our soil. That language still continues to be used. Then there’s the, whether, are we dealing with terrorists, and is ISIS involved? And I can’t help but, in my mind, think, this person probably used an encrypted chat product of some sort — there are many out there — and was in a room, and found another person, and two or three others, that sort of felt the same way about some stuff.
Paul: Well and to be clear right, we have no idea right this minute —
Rich: We don’t.
Rich: We don’t.
Paul: But you know what I remember, the FBI would always arrest these people, and it would be like, they got on a chat room and they, they talked about, like, for a while it was like, they’re talking about how to find a good bride. [laughter] And then they exchanged some recipes, and then, like, the FBI agent would be like, “You ever just really want to just kill a lot of Jews?”
Rich: Yeah. [laughter]
Paul: And then they’d be like, “You know, I do!” And then you just hear the sirens…
Rich: Right. I guess what I’m getting at is, the system is so well-oiled around the world right now, and it’s so, like, I could put together a pretty serious team in about 12 hours, for a product. And…
Paul: Right, and oh, even more so, you could almost make something physically. You can talk to people in China, and they will re-tool an assembly line.
Rich: Exactly. Exactly.
Rich: And I think we haven’t fully translated over yet is that these ad-hoc mini states, almost, whether it be six people or 25 of 50, can come together and be incredibly productive really quickly.
Rich: And it really doesn’t take a lot, other than, like, hey man, I just wrote an essay. You should check it out. And then everybody gets riled up, and it comes together. And then what you have is —
Paul: Well this threw everybody off about ISIS, that its comms were so good, like it had that glossy magazine.
Paul: Occasionally —
Rich: The fact that they had paper, by the way, is tremendous.
Rich: They went ahead with paper.
Paul: No, they had like, yeah, they had these PDFs you could download.
Paul: And it would be in English.
Paul: And then every now and then they’d publish something, and you’d be like, all right, all right, all right, and then you’d read the article, which would be, like, “Why Slavery Is Justified,” and you’d be like, all right, this is really bad.
Rich: Yeah. So then you have the governor of the state, I think it was like yesterday or whatever, and saying, we can’t confirm yet whether it’s an international act or not.
Paul: That’s right.
Rich: Which to me is like, dude, it’s not 1988.
Paul: So this guy is out there, they just caught him.
Paul: OK? We’re worried about whether it’s international or not.
Paul: But you and I aren’t worried about that. We’re worried about, did they catch the guy so he stops blowing stuff up, because I need to get to work, right?
Rich: [laughter] Right.
Paul: And I’m really grateful, actually, like, I’m not grateful that people got hurt, because that sucks, and it could’ve been anyone I know or love, I mean, for all we know, one of the 26 people was somebody we know.
Rich: That wouldn’t be insane.
Paul: That wouldn’t be insane. It wouldn’t be surprising at all.
Paul: I have friends who live on that block.
Paul: Or one block south. But at the same time, like, so there’s all these criteria that are us on the ground, right? We’re like, how can we ensure safety. And this a day two. If the cops had asked to look at my bag, I would’ve been like, fine, just look in my bag.
Paul: You guys, you’re doing your job.
Paul: At the same time, of course, there’s a lot of bad profiling. There’s all these things — this is New York City, it’s very tricky.
Rich: It’s a mess.
Paul: It’s a mess, there’s a lot — I mean, there’s just, the police department has had an incredibly disastrous relationship with many of the communities —
Paul: Here. There’s a lot of bad racism, there’s a lot of stuff —
Rich: Yeah but you know what happens is, I think when an event like this occurs, everybody —
Paul: Everybody chills.
Rich: Everybody kind of takes a step back and says, all right, you know what, do your job for a second here.
Rich: Gonna give you a break for a little while.
Rich: So you can go do your job.
Paul: We’re gonna fight that fight again on Thursday…
Rich: [laughter] Yeah.
Paul: But right now…
Rich: I haven’t forgotten!
Rich: But I’m gonna chill for a minute.
Paul: This is, it is true, that is a very, like, like, and everybody’s getting along a little bit.
Paul: So there’s that, and then you’re right, there’s this crazy framing that the government needs to figure out, right? They need to figure out, is this international, because I’m assuming that what that means is different phone calls get made.
Paul: And different people get to take control of the situation.
Rich: And that’s happening, right? And I think the line between a local criminal act and an act that is considered international in scope, such that the federal government should get involved, I think it’s all one big globby mess, right?
Paul: Right, because international could be, the guy could be an American citizen, but then talking to people in Syria via Whatsapp.
Rich: Exactly. If I’m not mistaken, this guy that they just caught is an American citizen, in fact. His origin is Middle Eastern, but he’s actually a naturalized citizen.
Paul: Well then you get into tricky stuff — maybe he’s here on a green card. Regardless, you talk to your family in Lebanon on Whatsapp all the time.
Paul: I see you do it while we’re standing there at work.
Rich: It’s worth highlighting, it used to be a big deal to call. I was, I was here while the war was happening in Lebanon, many years ago, where to make a phone call, it took hours, because the lines were such a mess, to Lebanon, that you’d have to keep trying and trying and then it would, once in a while, it would go through. Today my cousin will tell me he just had really good sushi.
Rich: In Lebanon.
Rich: And that would be the end of the conversation on Whatsapp.
Paul: So I was in Israel in 2000, 2001, and everyone had a Nokia phone. It was just like, it was one of the most wired-up cultures you can imagine, and it was sort of famous for it.
Paul: And also there’s mandatory military service.
Paul: So what you have is Israeli kids going into the occupied territories with their Nokia phones, which basically worked because everything’s really close.
Paul: The towers reached, everything was fine, and they would be calling their family while they’re like, kind of, “Hey mom, yeah, a little busy right now.” [gun noises]
Paul: And so this was a weird thing, because soldiers always were cut off. You know, you would go, you served.
Rich: You’re in service.
Paul: Yeah, and you would go home, and you had a line. That line blurred, and it’s increasingly blurry, now also, it’s been blurry for years for almost every military around the world, because they can do video calling.
Paul: So what’s happening, I remember reading about this too — for the American military, you send people overseas and they’re calling back and the wife or husband is like, “Jimmy had a really bad day at school, and the dog broke its leg,” and then you have to go out, you know, in a Humvee, and patrol, and it was messing peoples’ heads up really bad, because you got to focus on that patrol.
Paul: And meanwhile you’re thinking about the dog’s leg.
Paul: And so these power structures used to be really clearly defined, and it used to be a really big deal to get in touch with someone overseas. It was high stakes.
Paul: It was almost something where you could, like if someone, 20 years ago, was regularly in touch with some warring country, right? You could point to that and you could be like, “Hmmm.”
Rich: Right, exactly.
Paul: Which is —
Rich: And now —
Paul: How the NSA went out of control.
Rich: Exactly. And the ability to quickly organize, to easily communicate, in an encrypted way, is amazing for sort of this global economy, for thinking just in terms of markets, and the fact that you could give a job to someone in a country where there isn’t much of an economy, because I get to connect to them, here in New York? That’s amazing, right? That’s really cool.
Paul: Let’s ask a really big, dumb question that — I mean, I’m sure we’ve already pissed off about 80% of our audience, somehow, with this conversation.
Paul: Let’s go a little further.
Paul: Given all of this, given this, what is a nation-state now?
Rich: I think…look, I’m not a…Paul: This is the thing.
Rich: A historian…
Paul: This is a disastrous question.
Rich: Yeah, exactly. So let’s talk out of turn for a minute here, OK? To me, a nation-state is one that, that’s based on geography, because you could physically defend it, right? So I could have a navy, and I can have an army, and if you commit an act that is clearly trying to, you know, pierce, sort of, the sovereignty and safety of the citizens within that geography, that’s a hostile act towards nation-state. Because historically, we weren’t this connected, right? It was about —
Paul: Well —
Rich: Vessels, and…
Paul: We would have imperialist adventures and, like, take over the Philippines, but it was still a navy.
Rich: Let’s put imperialism aside…
Paul: But it was still our navy, like…
Rich: Yeah. It was still…still, you know, the…they use the word “homeland” a lot after 9/11, right? That was a big…so, to me, it’s geography. It’s geographically based, right? Like, even though we have allies that we protect around the world, they’re not part of our nation. Our nation is the US, and that’s based on what it looks like on a map. But the truth is, at this point, if you drew the lines that have been created through what we have today on the internet on a map, you wouldn’t see the geography. It’s just lines, everywhere, right? Connecting, and up and down and left and right.
Paul: Well the reality, too, like, our money is everywhere, right? Like Apple has —
Rich: Money is everywhere.
Paul: Apple has a $14.5 billion tax bill —
Paul: Because it’s been sheltering itself in Ireland.
Rich: That’s right.
Paul: Which everybody knows — it’s just this sort of like comfortable legal fiction where Apple gets to claim a kind of extra-territoriality for itself?
Paul: And say, we’re such a big company that we can start to move and dissolve ourselves into other nation-states —
Rich: They’re playing, right? I mean, a lot of it’s bullshit, there’s no doubt, there’s some nasty agenda going on here, no doubt.
Paul: Sure. I mean, I’m sure there’s an office in Ireland where they do something, right?
Rich: Yeah, they’re Apple.
Paul: It’s not completely —
Rich: They’re selling a couple million in Ireland.
Rich: So there’s go…do you have that justification, but can you shift whatever amount of money. I think, you know, laws and sort of international customs just don’t move fast. So what Apple’s seeing is like, you know what, they’re never going to get their act together and button up the tax laws around the world.
Paul: I mean, the EU?
Rich: It’d take ’em 50 years! So we’ll move some money around, we’ll put it over here. And the EU finally, like, woke up from a nap, and said, you know what, this is ridiculous.
Paul: Well it’s been having quite a year, right?
Rich: Right. [laughter] Right. So I think, I don’t think it’s that different with something like this, so you get a press conference where it’s, “Well, we don’t know if it’s international yet.” Like, what the hell? It’s international. I just found out my cousin had a piece of fruit in Lebanon ten minutes ago. Nothing is international anymore.
Paul: But I mean, Lebanon — I mean, this is day-to-day life in Lebanon, the social order, the way that people are elected, like, the way that that territory works is fundamentally different than the way we’re living in the United States.
Rich: Oh yeah. For sure.
Paul: Right? So there is, there is something there that you have to say, like, well that’s a nation-state. Those are two completely different entities, with different leadership.
Rich: Yeah. Look, if you look at the premise of an Islamic state, it’s abstract by design.
Paul: I know, but then they went for —
Rich: It’s not geographic.
Paul: They went hard for territory, with ISIS.
Rich: They did. But if you look at their sort of, their mission, it is really less about, oh I want this piece of land and then that piece of land, and more about sort of this concept that should blanket the earth, etc. Whatever —
Paul: Exactly. Well we want to get this piece of land, and then forcibly convert people to our ideology.
Rich: Yeah, and keep going and keep going.
Paul: We’re gonna take over — and what’s actually, it is an apocalypse cult, ISIS is very much about the end of the world.
Paul: And sort of getting things in place.
Rich: It isn’t about lines on a map, at all. The lines are silly to them, right? So this other thing happened this morning, Paul. It was around 7:45, I think, I got the first weird sound on my phone.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Rich: Did you get this as well?
Paul: I got this, too.
Rich: OK. I think they call them — it didn’t come in saying “amber alert,” but everybody calls them amber alerts.
Paul: Let’s just call it an alert.
Rich: I think it’s an emergency alert something, and it was kind of bananas, right?
Paul: Well the noise is intense, right? [makes the terrifying alert noise]
Rich: The noise is a little crazy.
Paul: Yeah, it’s just a real strong noise.
Rich: My phone’s never making noise, so it was a weird —
Rich: Long buzz, but it said something like, emergency alert, whatever his name is is at large, I think it said, or something to that effect, and…
Paul: And then it says —
Rich: Check —
Paul: “Check the media.”
Rich: [laughter] Which is just the best.
Paul: Check the media for the picture.
Rich: Right. So…
Paul: First of all —
Rich: Check the media —
Paul: Some cop had to send that out, right, like you’re just like, that’s a bad day.
Rich: Well, let’s pause on “check the media” for a second. My mom messaged me after she got this thing, OK? And she said, “RICH! CHECK THE MEDIA!” [laughter] And I said, “I think they’re saying his picture is out, you can go see it on the news.” And so she just paused, she didn’t know what was going on.
Paul: What did she think it meant?
Rich: She thought it meant you needed to do something on your computer. [laughter]
Paul: Because what’s “the media”?
Rich: Like push a button.
Paul: Right. Because what’s “the media”? Like, most people don’t think “the media.”
Rich: It was ridiculous.
Paul: It’s not like, they don’t think “TV”…
Rich: I think first off, that statement, for many people, millions, tens of millions of millions — not tens of millions, it’s a regional, it was a regional blast — so they didn’t know what that meant, bullet one. Bullet two, you can’t, there’s no link.
Paul: No, there’s no link.
Rich: I think — let’s talk about the limitations of this thing. It has to be 90 characters.
Rich: Like, it’s two thirds of a tweet. There’s no hyperlink. And it’s really weirdly disruptive. I didn’t know that this was enough criteria to blast one of these out.
Paul: No no, they —
Rich: This was pretty…
Paul: I’ve received them about missing kids, too, though.
Rich: I’ve received them about — well that’s the original, I mean, amber alert —
Paul: And flash, flash floods.
Rich: Yeah. Weather. I’ve seen it for weather, and for kids. And you’ll see, sometimes when you’re on a highway —
Paul: I think what’s weird in New York City, too, I was on the bus when the second one came out, and all the phones go off. Just [different comical alert noise].
Rich: That’s just bananas.
Paul: You’re just like, what — it’s jarring and it’s weird and it’s also just like, remember growing up and you’d be watching TV and they would do a test of the emergency broadcast system?
Rich: Yeah. I remember those, yeah.
Paul: And it was like, hey, if this ever happens, you’re gonna hear this really long tone, and then they’ll be a really serious alert.
Paul: And they would train you on it, and you’d be like, OK, if that ever comes down the pike, I’m gonna wanna know, and that’ll be good.
Paul: But there’s nothing like that anymore. There’s no sort of universal connective tissue, and the phones…
Rich: I think they’re banking on the phones.
Paul: They’re banking on the phones, which is not a bad idea. That is a global, like, people have phones. Everybody has a phone, and the phone systems can reach them, but at the same time, there’s no…training, or sense of cultural…there’s no civic understanding of what these messages mean, and you can see how that plays out, because the actual product of the message, the thing that it is, is nonsense.
Paul: It’s like, hey we’re looking for this guy, check the media, because there’s pictures all over the place. We can’t show them to you. The internet might as well not exist, even though you’re on an internet-connected device, for the most part.
Rich: Yeah. And I have to imagine, there was a conversation, right? It’s like, should we do this? This is crazy, we’re gonna blast everybody’s phones. And they’re like, you know what? So they’ll be some criticism, the safer bet is to do this.
Paul: Which is —
Rich: And then they went and just did it. There’s no way there is —
Paul: I mean, they caught the guy in two hours, so who knows…
Rich: Who knows, but there’s no way that there is a formal sort of decision tree on whether to, how and when to send these things out.
Paul: I actually differ. I bet there is one, but there’s no, again, like, no rehearsal for how to apply it and best practices. That simulation should’ve been run, where they’re like, hey, we’re gonna wanna pursue a perpetrator.
Paul: How’re we gonna communicate. And also they could’ve put a link to his mugshot, they could have put it on Twitter and just linked to the tweet, that would’ve been perfectly cast and 10 million people could’ve looked at that image.
Rich: Well but they can’t link. There’s no links.
Paul: Well they could’ve put the text in. They could’ve put a link in.
Rich: Like just the text of the link?
Paul: Yeah, see link.
Rich: Do you understand, my mom would’ve just cried if she saw it? Twitter link?
Paul: If she saw bit.ly?
Rich: [laughter] Bit.ly? Yeah, she would not have known what was happening, at all.
Paul: But your mom knows what a web link is, right?
Rich: She does. She does. She does, yes. I don’t know. I hear where you’re at. I mean, it’s, it’s a weird system, because it’s wired clearly to these old boxes.
Rich: But using really modern endpoints, so it’s just what’s so weird about it. Like, to me, T-Mobile messages me all the time asking me how I’m doing.
Paul: Oh yeah, and it tells me about my…
Rich: Just tell T-Mobile to do it. There’s only five carriers at this point.
Paul: Tells me about my bill, too.
Paul: Yeah, you owe this much.
Rich: There, you’re way better off, just hit the five carriers. It’s not like there’s 50 of them. It’s five carriers, major carriers, and just blast it out there. Or something. I don’t know. The last point I want to make about all this is you just hated how loud it all was. You just, in an event like this, in the seventies or in the sixties or in the eighties, even, the amplification of it…
Paul: It’s not good.
Rich: It’s frustrating.
Paul: It’s really not good.
Rich: It’s frustrating to see, and it’s too bad.
Paul: I just immediately was like, I’m getting off of Twitter right now. Because everyone becomes intolerable.
Rich: Yeah. And they just can’t, you know, CNN does not know how to fill that time.
Paul: There was one good tweet. Max Read wrote, “Inspirational: New Yorkers all around the city are calling their relatives to let them know that that’s probably not actually Chelsea.” [laughter]
Paul: It was along those lines. So…
Rich: Unfortunately that’s part of the motivation here. You see how loud of a blast it is, way more than the physical blast, I think, is probably more than half the motivation here, right?
Paul: Well you gotta think —
Rich: Which is unfortunate.
Paul: If you’re a person who puts bombs in dumpsters, the amount of stimulus that you get from watching the reaction is basically infinite. I mean, that guy, if he went home and, like, looked at his phone, if it was him.
Rich: Price this. Buy this. Be an ad buyer. Price this.
Paul: Oh, this is, this is like a $40 million campaign.
Rich: I’d say even more.
Rich: It just blanketed…
Paul: You can’t capture the cycle across social media…
Rich: No. What’s a big launch, like, Microsoft’s Surface or something?
Rich: [laughter] I remember they painted sidewalks in New York when it first came out.
Paul: Well Windows 95 was…they got the Rolling Stones.
Rich: They got the Rolling Stones…
Paul: To do “Start Me Up.”
Rich: How much would this cost?
Paul: It’s like that. This is —
Rich: I would say more like $100 million.
Paul: This is the equivalent of the Windows 95 launch.
Paul: But it’s one guy with a pipe bomb in a dumpster.
Rich: To me, that is, you know, when you look at the…
Paul: We should be clear, alleged. Like, we don’t know if this is really the guy or not. Regardless of whether it is or not, they’re pretty far along now. They put a picture out. They arrested a guy. It better be him.
Rich: They moved pretty fast. [laughter]
Paul: OK, so this conversation…oooof.
Rich: If I had to package it up, it’s just sort of like, you know, you look at the institutions that protect us and take care of us and we use to communicate today, they’re being exploited because they’re just not reacting quickly enough to how the world’s changed.
Paul: Well after September 11th, the concept of asymmetrical warfare, right, got very big, which was essentially guerrilla warfare repackaged.
Paul: But the difference between, I guess, between guerrilla warfare and asymmetrical warfare is asymmetrical could come from overseas. Like, you could be attacked by this very small, crypto-nation state or cult or whatever, they could come and blow up your buildings.
Paul: And you, then, really didn’t have a target.
Paul: To blow up.
Rich: Yeah. And let’s be realistic: we’re not gonna dig into an investigation, probably not, and find that this person is an agent of the government of Afghanistan.
Paul: Not in the way that we understand, right?
Rich: Not in the way that we understand.
Paul: And this has been the ISIS recruiting strategy, right? It’s almost like getting you to sign up for Instagram.
Paul: Or Twitter, right? Like, hey, how about, would you like to have a conversation with some of your best friends about the end of the world and the coming end times, and owning, you know, and having slaves?
Rich: Come on over!
Paul: Fill out this form.
Rich: Yeah. You could almost argue that 9/11 happened, and then we just bombed the hell out of Afghanistan, that Al-Qaeda, as sort of this place that actually had a headquarters, and had allies, and had a place we could go and get really angry at, and bomb? Might be the last of that kind.
Paul: We also —
Rich: That actually had a tangible location, and…
Paul: Oh, I’m sure we’ll have big old wars again. I mean, but actually, we had to go invade Iraq just to feel better, because we couldn’t win in Afghanistan.
Rich: Exactly. There wasn’t that satisfying, you know…
Paul: Well that one, we got to topple the statue.
Rich: Which stuck in everyone’s mind, right?
Paul: Did you ever see the movie Control Room? It’s about Al Jazeera?
Rich: I have not.
Paul: It’s actually a fascinating documentary, because it’s, you saw the US coverage of the Iraq war, and it’s all the Al Jazeera coverage, and basically these are all very good reporters, but they’re Arab, and they’re just sort of like, they kind of can’t believe what they’re seeing, and they can’t believe, like, America at one point had 52 playing cards with the 52 most wanted Iraqis. Everyone’s like —
Rich: Just insanity.
Paul: All the rest of the press is just desperate to get that. Also when they topple the statue, they’re like, oh my God. Like, they can’t believe that America can just pull it off that quickly.
Paul: It is —
Rich: You needed that closing scene, right?
Rich: We needed that movie to just be like, oh, here comes that final action scene.
Paul: They did it. They got it.
Rich: They did it. Exactly.
Paul: So you know, I don’t know if you knew this, too, but like, there’s a Kurdish expeditionary force of, like, foreign fighters that recruits through Facebook.
Paul: You can go —
Rich: That’s incredible.
Paul: This took me a long time to understand. This is also true about the Tahrir Square protests, where people would go protest, they’d go home for a while, then they’d come back and protest.
Rich: Mmmm hmmm.
Paul: Like it was literally like you were kind of fighting a war…
Rich: Mmmm hmmm.
Paul: Working it in with some of their other stuff…
Paul: Stopping to get some hummus. Like, literally —
Rich: Well, it’s incredibly — I mean, the tools to mobilize….
Paul: That’s right.
Rich: On a massive scale, were incredible.
Paul: So I think what’s wild here, right, is that, you know, that is, like, violence can be, and war-fighting, can be this kind of almost everyday activity, in certain scenarios, and also it can be like, hey, I send somebody an email, and then I get on a plane, and then I get on another plane, and then I get on a third plane that’s going somewhere a little weirder.
Paul: And then I finally get that fourth flight, and then I’m in some camp somewhere.
Paul: And I’m a former Marine with the Kurds, and they’re saying, let’s go fight ISIS.
Paul: The number of decisions you have to make to end up as part of this very intense, often violent global system is like, three or four.
Paul: So you see these kids going to Syria, because they, like, 16-year-olds getting on flights.
Paul: Because they read some stuff.
Paul: Right? The thing that’s happening that’s really intense is that the internet is taking down the amount of energy necessary to engage in this stuff.
Rich: And at the same time, allowing you to quickly amplify and broadcast a message, and a signal, anywhere, without worrying about being stopped.
Paul: And meanwhile…
Rich: That’s real.
Paul: The government is trying its best, because of the way it’s structured, to arrange these scenarios into the system it understands, which is domestic crime, international terrorism, international warfare.
Rich: It has huge implications in terms of law, and in terms of jurisdiction, keep in mind, because think about it, if this person is framed as a someone that’s committing an act of war on the country, it’s a whole other set of rights for this person. They don’t get the Miranda Rights.
Rich: It’s a whole other game.
Paul: Well that’s it — we’re still wrestling with Guantanamo.
Rich: We’re still wrestling with Guantanamo, right? So it’s all very messy.
Paul: This is the thing I think I’m gonna walk away and think about, is that we spend an enormous amount of time in our business trying to figure out how to cut the amount of time and energy it takes for a person to perform some specific task. Like, to cut the friction of signing up for a service, buying a product…
Paul: Yeah, constantly.
Rich: It’s our job, is to innovate and accelerate.
Paul: And we get very excited about it, because it’s like, hey, I’m gonna connect you to your music, or you’re gonna see things that you really wanted to see, or your newsfeed is gonna get a lot better.
Rich: Mmmm hmmm.
Paul: But that exact same set of rituals and paradigms and rules and ideas that we apply in order to do that, applies to, hey, you’re 16, do you wanna come to Syria and be a true fighter in the cause of Allah?
Rich: But even, I mean, don’t even go, Paul, I mean, that’s the thing. I think you don’t have to go anywhere. They say, look, you are one of us now.
Paul: Right, but —
Rich: You are there, and we need you, and we just need you, and what happens is this indoctrination happens, where it’s like, you don’t have to get on a plane, dude, just relax for a minute, we’re gonna put a plan together, exactly you are, and we’re gonna get to work, exactly where you are. And where he is is a mile away from a strip mall, and two miles away from a train station, or whatever it may be.
Paul: See it’s just, it’s good to be mindful that the tools and the frameworks we use, we talk about things like user experience and, you know, we’re gonna create these great…
Rich: Collaboration tools, and…
Paul: Yeah, exactly. That all of this has this flip-side, where it could easily accelerate or shorten the distance between a person who is lost, confused, angry, violent, ill, and someone who is looking to exploit them for domestic or international political goals.
Paul: I don’t think there is a framework where the government can even talk about this. They can talk about terrorism.
Paul: And they can talk about the act of a sick individual
Rich: Mmmm hmmm.
Paul: But they can’t talk about, like, this was, it’s almost like self-exploitation, like, the system…we talk about it, actually, when people talk about, like, internet pornography addiction. That’s actually a framework where they’re like, it is ultimately the responsibility of the individual, but the constant accessibility of the substance or the material that caused them to have the addictive relationship, it was so available and so widespread that they were able to get into this, like, super addictive state really, really quickly, in a way that they wouldn’t have if they were going to peep shows 25 years ago.
Rich: It just, it was more difficult.
Paul: That’s right. And I think —
Rich: It cost money.
Rich: First off, and they had to be a certain age, and I mean, a kid living in the middle of North Carolina, it might have been 400 miles away.
Paul: That’s right.
Rich: But now all those barriers are gone, right?
Paul: I mean, there are these pathways to gratification, and if you are an incredibly enraged person, you’re angry about something.
Paul: One of the things that you’re looking for is some sort of reflection of that anger, right?
Paul: Like, some way to know that it’s shared, and then it’s this very thin line, from someone saying, like, yeah, we, I…
Rich: I hear you. Here’s why.
Paul: This is where it gets tricky, because we have a culture that is absolutely based on free speech, right, so it is OK to say, I should kill — I wish someone would kill all those people.
Rich: Mmmm hmmm.
Paul: And it’s OK to say, I want to kill all those people, to some degree.
Paul: But then there is this line you cross, where you go, let’s kill all the people.
Paul: Here’s how we’re going to do it.
Paul: And I remember, you know, being young and angry and whatever. Like, you can imagine where that line is.
Paul: You can see it, and you can see how quick and easy it is to cross it. And the systems, unfortunately, are actually built to enable that.
Rich: Yeah. Agreed.
Paul: So, um, let’s do a whiteboard session, see if we can fix that.
Paul: I got about, I think we could probably, two weeks, just knock out a few prototypes.
Paul: And fix global —
Rich: We need a few different color pens to really sort this out. [laughter]
Paul: This is the problem, right? We should wrap this up, but this is the problem, which is that our industry has this tendency to think the technology, more technology, is gonna solve this.
Rich: And good for everybody, yeah.
Paul: This is something that the internet created.
Rich: No doubt. It’s a different terrain, because of it.
Paul: Now we don’t know. We could go back and find out that this guy has just been reading the local paper.
Rich: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. But if you look at, let’s just, even just —
Paul: But it’s not just him —
Rich: Base it on —
Paul: Let’s not just talk about —
Rich: Each story that’s behind each event that’s occurred over the last three years —
Rich: Around the world, not just here in the US, it’s the same pattern, right? I mean, it’s just, a lot of rage, a support group, sort of ad-hoc group comes together…
Paul: Found that phpBB bulletin board…
Rich: Or whatever…
Rich: And then it just spins up, right? So.
Paul: Here’s the funny thing, is it’s actually really hard to talk about this stuff, because the dialogue around it, especially right now, is so fraught. There are issues around race, there’s issues around civil rights, there’s issues around security and privacy.
Paul: And it’s just —
Rich: We didn’t even go there.
Rich: That’s a big facet of this.
Paul: But there are tons of stakeholders, there’s tons of really good actors who are trying to figure out a framework, right? But I’ve gotta say, there’s no single consistent framework, where you can go — I mean, that’s the law, the law is supposed to do that.
Paul: Where you can look at this situation and go, let’s do something to keep this from happening again.
Paul: That’s what’s really tricky right now, is you have a lot of people who are like, don’t look at it this way, look at it this way. Don’t look at it this way…look at it in terms of race, look at this in terms of economics, look at this in terms of foreign policy, look at this in terms of…
Rich: It’s a new animal.
Paul: It’s all of them together.
Paul: Our brains — my brain can’t handle that. It’s too much, right?
Paul: I’m dropping my kids off at kindergarten, and I have the moment, when I look around and I see 400 people,
Paul: And then I think about Newtown and all that stuff and I’m like, wow somebody could just blow up my kids today.
Paul: And it’s like a two-second thought, and then I just drop them off and go to work, because you’ve gotta live your life.
Paul: But there is no consistent framework for understanding and thinking through this part of technology.
Rich: It’s a ton of change, in what, 15 years?
Rich: This is a ton of change to come down on us, in a very short period of time.
Paul: And really what you have is a lot of people in the room who are going, this is bad and let’s, let’s somehow get it back, how it used to be.
Rich: Yeah, which is…it’s out of the bag. It’s too late.
Paul: Well, and that’s, I think, then you end up with situations where the NSA just tracks everything.
Paul: Because they’re like, well, if we can’t…
Rich: Which is another podcast, Paul.
Paul: Right, all right, all right.
Rich: We didn’t go into privacy here.
Rich: And you know, surveillance, but I think it’s another fascinating topic, because that’s not caught up either, and what a mess that turned out to be, right?
Paul: How scared do you get when they start blowing things up in New York City?
Rich: Not very, actually.
Paul: Me neither, overall.
Paul: A lot of little thoughts.
Paul: Well let’s go to Chelsea and we’ll hit that weird barbecue on 8th Ave.
Rich: And…and then hit the whiteboards.
Rich: Solve — let’s sort this out. [laughter]
Paul: Let’s fix this problem.
Rich: Let’s put the solution in a future podcast.
Paul: So look, I’m sure people have opinions on what we’ve just talked about, so go ahead and send an email to [email protected] if you have any thoughts, concerns, or questions about today’s Track Changes. Track Changes is the official podcast of Postlight, a digital product studio in New York City. I’m Paul Ford, co-founder of Postlight.
Rich: Rich Ziade.
Paul: And check us out on the web at postlight.com, rate us on iTunes, and we’re glad to hear all your thoughts.
Rich: Have a great week.
Paul: Take care.