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Do Secure Communications Face a Machiavellian Future?

Competitors can cooperate—or scheme for domination.
By Moshe Yudkowsky - Posted Jul 28, 2014
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As I write this, I'm waiting for the latest initiative on the privacy front—Phil Zimmerman's most recent project, a phone with completely secure communications. The Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) is fatally compromised and can't be rescued; any number of replacements come to mind. The question is whether these new substitutes will interoperate and how well the various entrepreneurs will cooperate on a personal and business level. And what niches will open up for speech technology in a new, SIP-based, entirely open telecom network?

This leads me to a coincidence: I'm reading Plutarch's Lives at the same time I'm studying Machiavelli's The Prince. I'll take a page from Plutarch and compare two lives—more accurately, two philosophies of life. The first is Niccolo Machiavelli, famous philosopher; the other is Danielle Morrill, modern-day entrepreneur.

Machiavelli's work is to the point and brilliant and has been thoroughly reviled for centuries. It enjoyed a brief renaissance as a guideline for business philosophy in the late 1990s; this flurry has died down, but I continue to see debates on its applicability. Machiavelli's sinister reputation can be best explained by a quote from novelist Isaac Asimov, who wrote, "Never let your sense of morality prevent you from doing what is right." Machiavelli's thorough realism led him to redefine right and wrong in terms of utility and survivability; his blunt words and heartless admonitions constituted a scandalous departure from the rigid morality of his times.

In The Prince, Machiavelli discusses allies, enemies, and the balance of power. Once you, the prince, according to Machiavelli, have acquired a new state through conquest, you must—after killing all possible claimants to the throne—maintain your military security. A skillful leader will recruit allies from weaker states who hated the prior regime. Retain current allies who are weaker than you, but do not allow them to achieve parity or they will no longer need you. Do not accept offers of alliance from more powerful states. Weaken any nearby states as powerful or more powerful than you, lest they decide to overthrow you.

Now let's turn to Danielle Morrill, serial entrepreneur and marketing genius—she coined the term "growth hacker" to provide her technical colleagues with a better explanation of just what it is that she does for a living. Morrill was an early employee of Twilio. She left it to found another company, Referly, which she killed off when she realized it would never grow enough to be a viable concern. Now she has founded Mattermark, which provides private investors, venture capitalists, and other interested parties with "deal intelligence" on thousands of private firms.

Morrill, moreover, is a friendly and helpful person. She used to hold "open office hours" on Sundays—anyone could drop by to ask for advice. She was a mentor; I expect as CEO that continues. She participates in community projects. And she does something I am sure Machiavelli would never condone: She shares her knowledge, transparently, without any expectation of return. Is she helping potential rivals? Yes, but she is also creating a community of smart, competent, motivated people who, one way or another, will contribute to her eventual success—as future employees, customers, colleagues, or (smart, ethical) competitors. All this without the oaths of fealty, conspiracies, or promise of booty Machiavelli would have considered essential.

This brings us back to the original question: As solutions arise to replace the PSTN, can rival companies cooperate? Morrill demonstrates one ethos: Cooperation leads to mutual success. Machiavelli would advocate the other extreme: cooperation, but only from a position of supremacy, which means that everyone will scheme for domination.

Despite the success of Morrill and her likeminded fellow Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, the future is cloudy. Larger tech businesses spend millions of dollars a year on lobbyists in Washington—what was at first an effort to defend themselves against government interference has morphed into a typical rent-seeking. Patents no longer defend essential company intellectual property; instead, they're an offensive weapon of (some of) the well-heeled against small newcomers and established rivals.

I believe the struggle will play out in the usual unfortunate way. Early cooperation by start-up companies will morph into large-scale corporate alliances; the government will step in in an attempt to reintroduce its ability to spy. I hope I'm wrong. I hope the Morrills of this world win instead.


Moshe Yudkowsky, Ph.D., is president of Disaggregate Consulting and author of ?The Pebble and the Avalanche: How Taking Things Apart Creates Revolution. ?He can be reached at speech@pobox.com.


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