Tuesday, February 28, 2012

In Which Cliff Stoll Destroys Ignorance

Rarely do those who experience great stories know at the beginning how the stories are going to end, precisely because it is the banishment of high orders of ignorance[1] that makes for a great story. If you already know the end of your story, you're already there, and there is no more story. All character development and all personal growth is a matter of coming to realize the answers to questions that one previously didn't even know existed to be asked. The higher the levels of ignorance overcome, the greater the story is.
At one level, Cliff Stoll's The Cuckoo's Egg[2] is the story of how an astronomer became an expert in computer security, but Cliff could have expected this; he didn't know about security from the start, but he knew he would have to learn. He knew that there were questions to be asked on that topic. On another level, The Cuckoo's Egg is about how a self-styled irresponsible kid discovered responsibility and ethics. This is the greater story, because Cliff not only had to learn the answers, and not only had to learn the questions to ask to get the answers, but had to first learn that there was a topic about which ethical questions could be asked. That realization is the fundamental weltanschauung-altering event, which Cliff Stoll struggled with throughout his pursuit of the German hacker. He knew that his views were changing; he worried about how he would be received by his "radical friends" in the "People's Republic of Berkeley"; and he worried because he knew that not only would they disagree with his new politics, but that they were basically incapable of understanding his new politics, because they did not know how to ask the questions that were the prerequisite for understanding. It is that realization, not the simple acquisition of technical knowledge, that made him a real expert in his new field.

[1] http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=352194
[2] http://www.amazon.com/Cuckoos-Egg-Tracking-Computer-Espionage/dp/1416507787/