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OpinionColumnistsWilliam F. B. O'Reilly

How the internet is turning on all of us

This July 29, 2015, file photo made in

This July 29, 2015, file photo made in New York shows Amazon's Echo, a digital assistant that continually listens for commands such as for a song, a sports score or the weather. Credit: AP

My 10-year-old daughter and I were driving on a highway earlier this month when she suddenly blurted out the word “Alexa.”

She looked genuinely surprised when no one responded.

If you don’t find that funny, you probably haven’t been around the Amazon Echo much, the increasingly ubiquitous kitchen counter device that answers just about anything you ask it/her. “Hey, Alexa, who’s the president of Ethiopia? (Mulatu Teshome.) She grows on you — quickly.

The next day a trove of former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s private emails were leaked to the public through a website called The site reportedly has ties to international hacker Guccifer 2.0, who many believe is a product of Russia’s top spy agency. Guccifer 2.0 was also reportedly behind the hacks of the Democratic National Committee that felled its chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schwartz over the summer, several Republican U.S. senators and retired Gen. Philip Breedlove, the former supreme allied commander of NATO, to name just a few.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who’s holed up in London’s Ecuadorean Embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden on a rape charge, credibly promises in the coming days to release on his website up to 100,000 pages of deleted emails and other material involving former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The release has the potential to be an “October surprise” that alters the outcome of the U.S. presidential race.

This week New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio had to shut down his new citywide network of free internet kiosks because, well, let’s just say he needed to shut them down.

All this, slowly but surely, is coming to seem normal.

God help us.

Samuel Morse showed off to Congress in 1844 a newfangled device called the Telegraph by sending a message through it from the U.S. Capitol in Washington to a waiting colleague in Baltimore who would send it back. The message was a question: “What hath man wrought?”

The answer, evidently, is Guccifer 2.0, Assange, Anthony Weiner and the iPhone 7.

For all it’s extraordinary benefits, the internet seems to be just getting warmed up in demonstrating its vulnerability to the law of unintended consequences — the one political conservatives are always warning people about. In Newtonian parlance it’s the old, “for-every-action-there-is-an-equal-and-opposite-reaction” rule.

One of the most tragic historical examples of the law of unintended consequences in action involved Mao Zedong, the first Chinese Communist Party chairman. It’s always worth citing: As part of his “Great Leap Forward” (1958-61), Chairman Mao instructed 650 million of his countrymen to prevent sparrows from landing so they would get exhausted in flight and die. The tiny birds were eating Chinese crops. Mao thought his idea was ingenious.

Here’s what actually happened: Millions of sparrows dropped dead and the insects they had also been eating ravaged China’s rice crop, contributing to mass starvation throughout the Chinese countryside that resulted in death for an estimated 20 million to 40 million Chinese civilians.

And all Mao had was a Smith-Corona.

I’m no Luddite. I write my columns directly onto “The Cloud,” and have for a long time. But I do wish we could all step back for a moment and shout “This is insane!” one last time before incredulity over where the world is going is universally surrendered.

My daughter talks to our Alexa 20 times a day at least. What she doesn’t know that is everything she asks it — like the answers to her math homework — are neatly listed on a mobile for phone app for her dad to read, should he want to. Her dad, and Guccifer 2.0.

What a world.

William F. B. O’Reilly is a consultant for Republicans.


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