Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Cyberspace's Laboratory

by Craig Harm
Cyberspace is an amazing laboratory for observation at the same time it connects us socially and professionally in real life. Our search for understanding in this living laboratory offers us a better comprehension of this extraordinary environment in ways no previously explored environment has been able to do in our history. As we refocus some of our best thinking towards better understanding cyberspace holistically as an interconnecting domain powered by the process of exchange and the outcome of emergence, we must consider cyberspace as a medium that enables exploration as much as exploitation. These two related ideas serve to frame the important questions we must ask to better understand cyberspace and fulfill the basic criteria of science: explain and predict.[1]
One of the foundational principles of empirical science is that knowledge is based on observable phenomena, capable of being tested for its validity by other researchers working under the same conditions. The accepted practice to meet these ends is experimentation through the scientific method. Scientists develop a hypothesis based on research and expectations. This hypothesis is then put to the test through multiple attempts to prove and disprove it. Using laboratories specifically designed for the purpose, scientists are able to create repeatable events which can be validated by other scientists.
For the “traditional: sciences, we are all familiar with how this experimentation is accomplished: Chemistry and Physics have specially designed labs (particle accelerators come to mind); Biology demonstrates experimentation in life through nature and evolution (as well as labs); Medicine has research and controlled studies. But what about the Science of Cyberspace…how will we accomplish the principles of observable phenomena and repeatable experimentation?
As cyberspace evolved, tradecraft and technology served as the basis for our knowledge of cyberspace and users and developers focused almost exclusively on technical solutions to advance an environment that we are only now beginning to understand. Yet any attempt to explore, understand and exploit cyberspace requires a fundamental scientific foundation, which the current technology-focused approach fails to provide. To gain this understanding we must better observe and experiment within cyberspace.
Emergence, exchange and self-organization are effects we could potentially observe and measure through successful study and experimentation as a part of a Science of Cyberspace. As we’ve pointed out elsewhere in this blog, the observance of emergence must be a fundamental object of study within this new science.
And, as we build towards an observation of emergent behavior, we must also consider exchange as a part of cyberspace science. If exchange might be the fuel for emergence, self-organized criticality serves as the transmission for it. So how will cyberspace scientists observe these elements of emergence? The answer manifests itself as it does for the traditional physical science: a laboratory specifically and uniquely designed for the purpose of studying cyberspace.
Whereas sciences like biology, chemistry and physics have concepts and laws that can be experimented with through visible, physical media, cyberspace has not yet revealed those laws. The challenge for experimentation within a science of cyberspace is how to observe the virtual existence of its complex concepts and laws. In SENDS, we believe this lack of a physical, visible media for experimentation may be overcome with models and simulations.
We propose that we begin to think of highly collaborative, multidisciplinary computer-based models as the science of cyberspace’s laboratory. Within the SENDS Pilot Study, SENDSim will be used as cyberspace’s model and laboratory to observe and experiment. This blog already contains entries which go into detail on SENDSsim so please refer to those discussions for more details.
As the SENDS Pilot Study progresses, we must look to the modeling and simulation effort SENDSim provides. It is an opportunity to not only look at the specific scenario of Conficker, it is more importantly an opportunity to prove the viability for modeling to serve as the science of cyberspace’s experimentation laboratory. Just as we think of the important role chemistry, biology or physics labs fulfill to those respective sciences, so too will modeling serve the same role for the study of a Science of Cyberspace. In a way it is ironic that we will use cyberspace to observe cyberspace. It’s really quite interesting that in fact cyberspace is a medium that enables exploration as much as exploitation.

[1] Or, as biologist Harold Morowitz puts it “starting with observation, developing theoretical explanations of the observations, and using these to predict other observations.” (Morowitz, H., The Emergence of Everything, Oxford, NY, 2002, p. 7).

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