All complex ecosystems have parasites

A cautionary tale from Cory Doctorow in his most recent Locus column, Persistence Pays Parasites.

My friend Katherine Myronuk once told me, "All complex ecosystems have parasites." She was talking about spam and malware (these days they're often the same thing) and other undesirable critters on the net. It's one of the smartest things anyone's ever said to me about the net - and about the world. If there's a niche, a parasite will fill it. There's a reason the cells of the organisms that live in your body outnumber your own by 100 to one. And every complex system has unfilled niches. The only way to eliminate unfilled niches is to keep everything simple to the point of insignificance.


And I'm media-literate: I have a good nose for scams and linkbait, I know that no one's planning to give me millions for aiding in a baroque scheme to smuggle cash out of Nigeria, and I can spot a phishing e-mail at a thousand paces.

I know that phishing - using clever fakes to trick the unsuspecting into revealing their passwords - is a real problem, with real victims. But I just assumed that phishing was someone else's problem.

Or so I thought, until I got phished last week.


But all the stars aligned for that one moment, and in that exact and precise moment of vulnerability, I was attacked by a phisher. This is eerily biological, this idea of parasites trying every conceivable variation, at all times, on every front, seeking a way to colonize a host organism. The net's complex ecosystem is so crowded with parasites now that it is a sure bet that there will be a parasite lurking in the next vulnerable moment I experience, and the next. And I will have vulnerable moments. We all do.

I don't have a solution, but at least I have a better understanding of the problem. Falling victim to a scam isn't just a matter of not being wise to the ways of the world: it's a matter of being caught out in a moment of distraction and of unlikely circumstance.

The moral of the story is that nobody's perfect, we're all vulnerable. I know I've been hit once or twice with things where I should have known better (fortunately, nothing serious).

Read Doctorow's complete tale of woe -- it's a great story by a great story-teller.

And think a bit about distributed expertise, a topic I've been thinking about quite a bit for the last day or two and the subject of my next post. No one of us, as a family or a profession or a society, can know everything or have every talent or be ready for every eventuality or fill every role. Something I think libraries and librarians try and do sometimes: be all things to all people.

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