Self-Keeping Secrets

A magician never reveals his secrets.

The secret behind nearly every magic trick ever performed is available at your local library. Magicial secrets stay secret because they’re inconsequential. Unless you are a magician or aspire to become one, you have better things to learn than magic tricks. If magic tricks did anything that mattered then they wouldn’t be magic tricks. They’d be technology.

Magicians don’t need a conspiracy to keep our tricks secret. It takes work to learn how to do magic. Friction and inertia are sufficient to keep out the riffraff.

This is true of more important subjects too, like computer security. Though zero-day exploits themselves are precious secrets, “how to find” zero-days is public knowledge. And since zero-day exploits have a limited shelf-life it’s “how to find” zero-days that matters.

Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.

―Benjamin Franklin

Organizations leak like a sponge. Organizations can keep passwords secret most of the time only because a good authentication system is easy to reset. If you’re even the slightest bit concerned that your passwords have been stolen then you can re-randomize them. Similarly, an intelligence agency maintains its stockpile of zero-day exploits by constantly replenishing them. To an organization, “preserving secrecy” really means “restoring secrecy”. Techniques can’t be kept secret because they change too infrequently to restore secrecy after they get stolen.

In practice, organizations face the opposite problem: not enough knowledge is widely-known. Training people is so hard that the limiting factor of an organization’s size is how many skilled employees it can hire. The bigger your organization gets the more it’ll suffer a regression to the mean. Scaling a company is an exercise in dumbing down your employees’ jobs to counteract the regression to the mean.

Large organizations can neither keep knowledge secret nor spread it around. In other words, a dependence on smart people of any kind inhibits the growth of an organization. An organization can scale to the extent it makes its employees’—and especially its customers’—intelligence unnecessary.

SCP-055 is a “self-keeping secret” or “anti-meme”.

internal document, SCP Foundation

The largest organizations are precisely those that make knowledge the most obsolete. The public school system is, by headcount, among the largest organizations in modern civilization. It must therefore, by necessity, minimize the need for students to learn anything hard[1].

Most adults are employed by large companies. Most adults buy most of our products from large companies. Small businesses are dying out[2]. Modern civilization is increasingly dominated by large organizations. These organizations don’t just shape our society. They are our society. We are our jobs. We are the products we use. We are the media we consume. We are our communities.

Our most popular activities are those that scale the best. Those that scale the best are those that require the least thinking, the least skill, the least specialized knowledge, the least individuality. If you want to measure your individuality, ask yourself this: of all the things you do, how much of it is so hard your friends and coworkers literally can’t do it.

  1. ↩︎

    By “hard” I mean “conceptual”. Schools can effectively force students to learn by rote. However, as a coercive institution, any school with mandatory attendance is definitionally incapable of forcing students to productively misbehave or otherwise exercise critical thinking. (Except to oppose the institution itself.)

  2. ↩︎

    Small operations that concentrate a lot of talent in a tiny number of employees are doing well. These companies will continue to constitute an insignificant fraction of total employment.