Clive Thompson

  • Write from the Start

    Writing is eerie. Considered as a technique or technology, it seems almost magical: a teleportation of ideas and facts from one mind to another, via a few scribbled marks on a page. Many early thinkers were deeply unsettled by this power, worrying that writing would deform our thoughts, and society too. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates frets that writing will kill face-to-face debate and “induce forgetfulness” in learners’ souls: If you could store knowledge on a scroll, why bother committing anything to memory? The Roman philosopher Plotinus thought writing would expose you to uninformed attacks

  • The Worm Turns

    ON MARCH 4, 2007, the Idaho National Laboratory conducted an unsettling experiment in digital sabotage. Federal engineers attacked an industrial electric generator—“the size of a small bus”—using a novel weapon: a twenty-one-line computer virus.

    For the experiment, they set up their own five-thousand horsepower diesel machine and set it running. The virus was designed to target the relays that controlled the generator’s circuit breaker: It would turn them rapidly on and off to throw them out of sync with each other, disturbing the normal spin of the turbine. The effect was speedy and dramatic.

  • Whose Life Is It Anyway?

    Let’s imagine you wanted to instant message with someone in a completely secure way. You don’t want the National Security Agency to listen in, and you don’t want a company like Google scooping up and analyzing your words so it can tailor ads to you. How would you do it?

    You’d have to follow Julia Angwin’s lead. In Dragnet Nation she spends a year trying to communicate digitally without being snooped upon by these powerful forces. As she discovers, it isn’t easy.

    To create private instant messaging, for example, you need to use a great deal of encryption technology to scramble the IMs as they

  • Floating Signifiers

    In the late 1870s, the advent of the telephone created a curious social question: What was the proper way to greet someone at the beginning of a call? The first telephones were always “on” and connected pairwise to each other, so you didn’t need to dial a number to attract the attention of the person on the other end; you just picked up the handset and shouted something into it. But what? Alexander Graham Bell argued that “Ahoy!” was best, since it had traditionally been used for hailing ships. But Thomas Edison, who was creating a competing telephone system for Western Union, proposed a