Well. I can honestly say that it's taken me a good few days to digest Cory Doctorow's amazing talk at our fifth Firestarters event last Wednesday. And I'm still ruminating on it. Cory's talk, billed as 'The Coming War On General Computation' concerned what he sees as the gross inadequacies inherent in our regulatory and copyright system in dealing with the growing pervasiveness of digital technologies. Gathered to hear it were over a hundred of the great and the good from UK planning.
What followed was a passionate, rapid-fire, 50 minute narrative, packed with great insight, provocation and perception, and all delivered with no slides. I can hardly do it justice in a write up. But here goes.
The thrust of Cory's talk was that the last 20 years of Internet policy have been dominated by the battle over copyright, a battle that is nearly won. But it turns out that the battle was only a skirmish, a precursor to a much greater war on general computing that will characterise the next decades.
As Kevin Kelly once said: "The internet is a copy machine. At its most foundational level, it copies every action, every character, every thought we make while we ride upon it." The early struggles have seen ever-more complex attempts to contain duplication and anti-copying and encryption strategies that only became more fraught as networks spread. Laws made it illegal to look inside your computer when it was running certain programs, to tell people what you found when you did, and they made it easy to censor material on the internet without having to prove that anything wrong had happened.
As some learnt how to decrypt, this created escalating problems of containment and such laws would create more problems than they could possibly solve. Just as in the nursery rhyme where the lady who swallows a spider to catch a fly has to swallow a bird to catch the spider, and a cat to catch the bird, so "each regulation begets a new one, aimed at shoring up its own failures".
Government and regulation relies on heuristics and rules of thumb, yet information technology confounds these heuristics. The test for a sound regulation are whether or not it works, and also whether or not it in the course of doing its work, it will have effects on everything else. We'd never regulate wheels for example, even though bank robbers make their escape in wheeled vehicles, since we know that the wider benefits of wheels are so profound. But if we had proof that hands-free phones were making cars dangerous, it might be far more reasonable to have a law prohibiting hands-free phones in cars. Whilst we might disagree about the rights and wrongs of the regulation, taking hands-free phones out of cars does not stop them being cars. Cars (as an example of a special-purpose technology) are complex, and you can remove features from them "without doing fundamental, disfiguring violence to their underlying utility."
But general-pupose technology and computing renders this rule of thumb null and void. We don't create computers so that they might run any programme except one that we don't like. So, that means monitoring what we are doing with the technology. As James says in his excellent write up: "Censorship and surveillance used to be different things…now the enforcement of censorship requires surveillance of the reader, controlled access and putting restraints of the movements of the user. Censorship and surveillance have converged."
Image courtesy of Mike Phillips
Whilst it may seem that defeating proposed regulation like SOPA is the endgame in securing freedom of PCs and networks, it is a mere shadow of what is to come. As Cory when he began speaking, this isn't actually about copyright. The battle over copyright is "just the beta version" of a long coming war on computation: "We've spent the last decade sending our best players out to fight what we thought was the final boss at the end of the game, but it turns out it's just been an end-level guardian."
The ultimate question here is about whether every PC should be locked so that their programs could be regulated by central authorities. As digital technologies become pervasive and begin to replace every other device in our world ("there are no airplanes, only computers that fly. There are no cars, only computers we sit in. There are no hearing aids, only computers we put in our ears. There are no 3D printers, only computers that drive peripherals"), this becomes a huge question.
General-purpose computers are astounding. Forming groups and doing things together is fundamentally important to humans and the internet has been a great enabler. At stake is not only the future of computing, but the freedom, fortune and privacy of many different aspects of our existence: "Freedom in the future will require us to have the capacity to monitor our devices and set meaningful policies for them; to examine and terminate the software processes that runs on them; and to maintain them as honest servants to our will."
As I said at the start of the post, it's pretty impossible to do justice to Cory's charismatic delivery and the automatic weapon of polemic that peppered his talk with metaphor and perceptive insight. I've put together a Storify of the event which is a great commentary and is well worth a look. As Phil says, "evocative words, delivered with Doctorowian conviction, paint a thousand pictures in your mind". If you ever get the chance to hear Cory speak in person, go, listen, and be amazed.