Last Friday, June 8, I was immensely, fantastically thrilled to receive an honorary doctorate in computer science from the Open University, an institution I have long held in high esteem and where it has been my privilege to serve as a visiting senior lecturer. The degree was conferred in a fabulous ceremony at the Milton Keynes Theatre, just one of the OU’s many graduation ceremonies for the year (the OU specialises in adult and continuing education and is a tremendously democratising force in UK education, and so awards huge numbers of non-honorary degrees every year). As I sat at the front of the stage with my OU colleagues, I had a great seat from which to observe the year’s grads, and to marvel at their diversity in age and background, and to delight in the cheers from the guests they’d brought with them to the event.
My own parents came from Toronto for the occasion, and I was also joined by my wife and daughter. Later in the day, we threw a party with many friends from around the world at Bletchley Park, a nearby historic site famous for being one of the birthplaces of modern computers and cryptography (Bletchley turns out to be a brilliant place to throw a party — take note if you’re thinking of having an event somewhere in the region).
I just wanted to put up a short post here to publicly thank the OU, especially my computer science colleagues Marian Petre, Blaine Price, Ray Corrigan, and Mike Richards, for this honour; and to thank again all the friends, colleagues, and family who made the day so special.
Ray Corrigan has posted Prof Marian Petre‘s introduction from the day, which sets out the case the degree. I was given a few moments to speak about what I think my work means; I’ve pasted that in below the jump.
I am honoured beyond mere words to receive this doctorate from the Open University, an institution whose profoundly humane mission is the extension of personalised, universal education that treats learning as a lifelong mission, rather than a discrete activity undertaken in your adolescence and then put away with other childish things at adulthood.
I come from a family of teachers. My parents, Doctor and Doctor Doctorow, are here today, having flown from Canada for the occasion, which was awfully nice of them. But they’ve always been supportive and infinitely patient with my educational choices — including spending seven years in my four-year secondary school and dropping out of four undergraduate programmes afterwards. A life among teachers had has many lessons, but the most important one is that learning isn’t something that happens to you, it is something you do. More importantly, it is something you do all the time, if you are prepared to.
I’ve been given a few moments to explain my work to you. I wear several hats: entrepreneur, activist, science fiction writer, and campaigning journalist. Like education, vocation isn’t a discrete silo, but rather a spectrum of activities in service of a larger cause and vision. The cause and vision that I’ve made my own is to fight for a free, open infrastructure for the information society.
“Information Society” is a term that gets tossed around a lot as though everyone agrees on what it means, and that’s a sure sign that *no one* agrees on what it means. I’ll tell what I think it means. It means a society where everything we own is made out of networked computers. Not just in the trivial sense that all the devices we own are just PCs in funny boxes — your TV, phone, cable box, games console, camera, CCTV and alarm clock are made out of PC parts, running PC operating systems, using Internet protocols to talk with one another. But increasingly, cars and houses are networked PCs we put our bodies into. Prostheses, from hearing aids to cochlear implants, pacemakers to robotic limbs — they’re PCs we insert into our bodies, sometimes so permanently that they can’t be removed without general anaesthesia.
Networks — by which I mean the Internet, which is like some ancient god with a thousand faces and guises, but which is actually a single, sprawling network that appears to different people and societies in different garb — are the most significant means of changing our social circumstances. The UK Champion for Digital Inclusion, Martha Lane Fox, commissioned a PriceWaterhouseCooper study on the impact of Internet access on the poorest and most vulnerable families in the UK. The study concluded that families with network access have better outcomes on every social axis, from nutrition to employment, from education and social mobility to civil engagement and political awareness. Simply put, the Internet is a single wire that delivers freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, and access to nutrition, education, employment, politics, and community.
As governments and regulators consider the policy of the Internet and the PC, they operate like the blind men and the elephant: “I’m not regulating the Internet, I’m fighting piracy!” or “I’m not regulating the Internet, I’m hunting paedophiles” or “I’m not regulating the PC, I’m protecting the BBC’s ability to get American TV networks to license sit-coms to them” or “I’m not regulating the PC, I’m trying to help companies like Apple protect their App store.”
Some of these causes are just, and some are not. But there is no way to render a PC safe for American sit-coms in Britain without affecting the designs of PCs overall. There is no way to surveil the Internet for terrorism and obscenity without surveilling everything on the Internet. Upon discovering that the PC or the Internet has a feature that causes some problem, regulators reflexively reach for a simple answer: “Very well — remove that feature from the network, then. Remove that feature from the PC.”
But there is no theoretical model for building a general-purpose computer that can run all the programmes we can conceive of, save for the one that is giving a regulator fits. The closest approximation we have is a computer with spyware on it out of the box, a computer that runs some secretive programme whose job is to watch all the things its owner does, and periodically intercede to say, “I can’t let you do that, Dave.” For this programme to work, it has to operate in such a way that the computer’s owner can’t find it and delete it. It has to operate such that the owner can’t switch it off.
And there is no theoretical model for building a general-purpose network that can let anyone talk to anyone else using any protocol to convey any message, save for the message that frightens a politician or alarms a voter. The closest approximation is a network with in-built surveillance and censorship, where unaccountable and secretive processes are used to watch every bit that flows from here to there, so that the terrorist bits and the piracy bits can be interdicted, or at least logged.
In the information society, where we put networked computers in our bodies and put our bodies into networked computers, we need to ensure that the design brief for these devices is to respect their owners, to serve their owners. We must attend to how our IT regulations will fail, and not merely how they will work. The way we respond to the problems created by computers and networks will prefigure and constrain the answers to every other problem of the information society. These are the wheels and levers of the modern age, and I have found in the OU a faculty that is alive to that truth, animated by it, and active in it. I am proud beyond measure to join their number.