If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Squelch ‘Em

There are two major points — one lesser, one greater — to Neal Stephenson’s In the Beginning … was the Command Line (Wikipedia | Amazon). The lesser point serves to feed the superiority complex of computer geeks, namely that people who work closer to the machine are more awesome than people who work with their machines through layers of mediation. The greater point is that maintaining a high degree of control of the devices that shape our lives is a critical element of freedom in the information age.

It’s not about turning your nose up at GUIs and other user-friendly efforts in favor of arcane monochrome text interfaces. The point is that when you cede control of the devices that comprise your environment — that serve as the basis of your personal capabilities — when you cede these to manufacturers, marketers, designers, content providers, legislators, then the limits they seek to impose become your limits as well.

It is as extending and impacting this point that I think Cory Doctorow’s talk, “The Coming War on General Computation” is so important (28th Chaos Communication Congress, Berliner Congress Center, Berlin, Germany, 27 December 2011).

You should definitely watch the whole thing: it’s entertaining as well as one of the most cogent talks I’ve heard in some time. To me his outstanding points are two:

1. The never-ending desire for a certain kind of ease of use that comes through circumscribed functionality is an invitation to, a kind of lazy collusion with, the likes of Apple who are more than happy to sell you a device hobbled in a way that maximizes corporate returns (the walled garden):

So today we have marketing departments who say things like “we don’t need computers, we need … appliances. Make me a computer that doesn’t run every program, just a program that does this specialized task, like streaming audio, or routing packets, or playing Xbox games, and make sure it doesn’t run programs that I haven’t authorized that might undermine our profits”. And on the surface, this seems like a reasonable idea — just a program that does one specialized task — after all, we can put an electric motor in a blender, and we can install a motor in a dishwasher, and we don’t worry if it’s still possible to run a dishwashing program in a blender. But that’s not what we do when we turn a computer into an appliance. We’re not making a computer that runs only the “appliance” app; we’re making a computer that can run every program, but which uses some combination of rootkits, spyware, and code-signing to prevent the user from knowing which processes are running, from installing her own software, and from terminating processes that she doesn’t want. In other words, an appliance is not a stripped-down computer — it is a fully functional computer with spyware on it out of the box.

2. Media copyright is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the incentive of corporations to turn to political-legislative attempts to prevent the disruptions to their business models that result from technological change:

And even this is a shadow of what is to come. After all, this was the year in which we saw the debut of open sourced shape files for converting AR-15s to full automatic. This was the year of crowd-funded open-sourced hardware for gene sequencing. And while 3D printing will give rise to plenty of trivial complaints, there will be judges in the American South and Mullahs in Iran who will lose their minds over people in their jurisdiction printing out sex toys. The trajectory of 3D printing will most certainly raise real grievances, from solid state meth labs, to ceramic knives.

And it doesn’t take a science fiction writer to understand why regulators might be nervous about the user-modifiable firmware on self-driving cars, or limiting interoperability for aviation controllers, or the kind of thing you could do with bio-scale assemblers and sequencers. Imagine what will happen the day that Monsanto determines that it’s really… really… important to make sure that computers can’t execute programs that cause specialized peripherals to output organisms that eat their lunch… literally. Regardless of whether you think these are real problems or merely hysterical fears, they are nevertheless the province of lobbies and interest groups that are far more influential than Hollywood and big content are on their best days, and every one of them will arrive at the same place — “can’t you just make us a general purpose computer that runs all the programs, except the ones that scare and anger us? Can’t you just make us an Internet that transmits any message over any protocol between any two points, unless it upsets us?”

The way to think of all of this is as akin to the transition from feudalism to capitalism. There’s no reason to think that an information economy will be just more capitalism (to think so is a contribution to capitalism as the end of history). That a growing list of industries face disruption on a scale where it’s hard to see their business model surviving in absence of ever escalating state measures to construct markets that otherwise would fail (a point well made by Mr. Doctorow with his wheels analogy) suggests significant incompatibility between capitalism and the information economy.

The retort of the defender of capitalism here would be that the information economy is a creature of capitalism — without chip fabricators and integraters and intellectual property and venture capital and server farms, the information economy doesn’t happen. But of course the feudal baron would have said the same of the capitalist upstart. History is a realm of contingency. It is not a logical system. Contradictions — and the deleterious eddies that result — are perfectly possible. That the information economy might end up destroying the very basis for its existence is within the realm of possibility.

Or perhaps this is perfectly compatible with capitalism and effected sectors are merely the cracks through which we can see the lie of laissez-faire throughout the rest of the economy. The government takes a heavy hand in constructing markets everywhere they exist.

But the point is that previous economic transformations weren’t tranquil evolutions, didn’t happen in a discrete moment. The social transformations that we today package under the rubric “capitalism” benefitted some, but came at terrible consequence to others. Those who stood to lose prestige, revenue, power, opposed these changes, frequently by violence. For them, capitalism wasn’t just social change, it was immoral. Ownership of property by those who did not directly fight for it, property as a transferable abstraction, rootlessness, equality among the classes, attacks upon the ancient privileges of nobility, the undermining of seigniorial obligation, the money economy, the violations of guild oaths, the codification of techne (craft), the insolence of entrepreneurs: these were violations of the moral order of society.

The practices that have grown up around the frictionlessness of the information economy’s core commodities are called piracy by the partisans of our present order. It is immoral. It is theft of property (property is here an analogy growing threadbare at the margins from being stretched too much). It is the collapse of the basis of prosperity. But how is a system of constant content theft to be harnessed to our system of material progress? I haven’t the foggiest notion. But capitalism too was a post hoc ideological construct. At the time it seemed like the end of the world. Remember that by the time Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, such processes were already far along. Smith wasn’t envisioning future pin factories: he was describing existent ones that he had recently visited.

Besides, if it is not within the scope of power to achieve these things, it does not matter the machinations of ideology. Ideology adapts. Moral and immoral will be renamed to accommodate the new arrangement of factors.

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