November 29, 2020

Wilkins on Technology Policy

In 1641, John Wilkins published the very first book in English about cryptography. (It discussed many other topics as well.) The book’s title was “Mercury; or, the Secret and Swift messenger, shewing how a man may with privacy and speed Communicate his thoughts to a Friend at any distance.”

Wilkins ended the discussion with two pages on the policy implications of cryptography, in which we can see many of the issues we are still debating today. (For images of the two pages, courtesy of Ross Anderson, click here and here.) This is what Wilkins wrote:

The Poets have feigned Mercury to be the chief Patron of Thieves and Treachery …. And the Astrologers observe, that those who are born under this Planet, are naturally addicted to Theft and Cheating.

If it be feared that this Discourse may unhappily advantage others, in such unlawful courses; ’tis considerable, that it does not only teach how to deceive, but consequently also how to discover Delusions. And then besides, the chief experiments are of such nature, that they cannot be frequently practised, without just cause of suspicion, when as it is in the Magistrates power to prevent them. However, it will not follow, that every thing must be supprest which may be abused. There is nothing hath more occasioned Troubles and Contention, than the Art of Writing, which is the reason why the Inventor of it is fabled to have sown Serpents Teeth: And yet it was but a barbarous act of Thamus, the Egyptian King, therefore to forbid the learning of Letters: We may as well cut out our Tongues, because that member is a world of wickedness. If all those useful Inventions that are liable to abuse, should therefore be concealed, there is not any Art or Science which might be lawfully profest.