My latest Guardian column, ‘Poor internet for poor people': India’s activists fight Facebook connection plan, tells the story of how India’s amazing Internet activists have beaten back Facebook’s bid to become gatekeeper to the Internet for the next billion users.
My new Locus Magazine column, Wicked Problems: Resilience Through Sensing, proposes a solution the urgent problem we have today of people doing bad stuff with computers. Where once “bad stuff with computers” meant “hacking your server,” now it could potentially mean “blocking air-traffic control transmissions” or “programming your self-driving car to kill you.”
It’s been a year since I sat down at the mic, but it’s Christmas and we have a tradition to uphold. Now we’re settling in here in Burbank and I’ve got a new computer, I’m hoping to get everything running again and get back to a regular schedule.
In my latest Guardian column, The problem with self-driving cars: who controls the code?, I take issue with the “Trolley Problem” as applied to autonomous vehicles, which asks, if your car has to choose between a maneuver that kills you and one that kills other people, which one should it be programmed to do?
I appeared on the current episode of “A Call From Paul” (MP3), a podcast created by Paul Holdengraber, who curates the NY Public Library’s amazing interview series. Paul and I talked about London, UK politics, class war, education, and books.
I’m in Berlin to speak at OEB, a conference on technology and education. It costs a hefty sum to attend the whole event, but my talk tomorrow at 1200h, “No Matter who’s Winning the War on General Purpose Computing, You’re Losing
” is free. Just show up at the Hotel Intercontinental on Budapester Strasse and check in at the OEB desk with the password “PINEAPPLE” for a voucher that will get you into my talk.
I have an editorial in the current issue of Communications of the Association of Computing Machinery, a scholarly journal for computer scientists, in which I describe the way that laws that protect digital locks (like America’s DMCA) compromise the fundamentals of computer security.
At the Electronic Frontier Foundation, we’re anxious to talk with computer scientists whose research is impeded by DMCA and laws like it, and to discuss how they can improve their odds of coming out on top in legal challenges. It’s part of the Apollo 1201 project to kill all the world’s DRM within a decade.
Chris Zappone’s published a long, wide-ranging interview with me in the Sydney Morning Herald where I try to connect the dots between digital rights, surveillance, climate change, and wealth disparity.
Doctorow points to the internet itself and inequality – two things that have a surprising link.
“I think wealth inequality is related to the internet in lots of ways, partly because globalisation is an internet phenomenon.”
Global corporations relied on globalised supply chains enabled by the web, he said. The wealth that had flowed into their hands gave them the power to push their agenda, even if it ran counter to the common good.
Australia and Canada’s political resistance to addressing climate change reflected this effect of inequality, he said.
“Where the people whose wealth relies on us not doing something about climate change can exert more influence, then all of us … suffer as a consequence of their veniality and their greed,” he said.
But the internet also enables diverse groups to form opposition to a cause or a political situation quickly.
In 2011, during the protests in Tahrir Square in Egypt, members of the LGBT and socially conservative Muslim Brotherhood were unified to achieve the same goal – ousting then-president Hosni Mubarak. Keeping diverse factions together to rule with the help of the internet has proven much more elusive – a point anyone watching Australia’s revolving-door position of prime minister would accept.
Coming together for opposition is easy. Coalescing to rule is hard.
Before the internet, opposition groups and politicians used to spend years building skills, ideas and even networks they could use once in power. Now, the internet can thrust power on parties, movements and leaders who are far from ready for it. This is true in developed democracies, as well as fragile ones in the developing world.
Doctorow said one theory is that it took many years for society to adapt to some technologies. If that’s true, the effective use of the internet for politics had some way to go.
But the big question regarding the internet in politics was “figuring out how to take this game-changing new reality on the ground and harnessing it not just to say ‘no’, but to say ‘yes’.”
McKenzie Wark, author of the classic Hacker Manifesto, has written a long, smart review of my book Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free (now in paperback) for the Los Angeles Review of Books. It’s a genuinely excellent piece of critical writing — I think it’s my favorite review of this book so far.
A number of writers — including Douglas Rushkoff and Astra Taylor — have published useful books on similar issues recently, but Doctorow comes closest among these authors to understanding the interest of creators as a class interest. In my view, the class perspective runs like this: Creators are a bit different from other workers, in ways that make it difficult to analyze their behavior and interests in the class-based terms devised to make sense of 19th-century industrial labor. For one thing, musicians, writers, sculptors, and video makers all view themselves as doing very different things, and marketing the products of their labor within very different industries. Their work is also difficult to standardize: where traditional laborers make the same thing, over and over, creators, by definition, make different things: the whole point of being a creator, and the value of what the creator makes, is that each product comes out at least a bit different. While creators, like Marx’s workers, rarely own the means of production, they don’t usually sell their labor power itself. Instead, they sell the rights to reproduce their work and make money from it.
Things become even more confusing when you consider that a lot of what creators make these days takes the form of information, as opposed to physical objects. The product of the labor is a file you can copy, regardless of whether the file is text or sound or images or moving images. Audiences, like creators, usually don’t own the means of making and distributing creative work; they need platforms and software provided by tech companies and service providers to access the creator’s work at all. The overwhelming fact about life in this overdeveloped world of ours is that we don’t make our own culture for each other. There’s a whole host of culture and communication industries that stand between the creator and the audience.
The relationship of creator to audience is mediated by what Doctorow calls “investors” and “intermediaries,” typified by Hollywood (the culture industry) and Silicon Valley (the internet-based communication industry). The investor owns a stock of creative works — images, texts, recordings — most often by controlling the copyright. The intermediary controls the flow of information: they own the means of getting copies of those books or songs to audiences. Sometimes the investor and intermediary are parts of the same multinational company, and often they are not.
Investors, when they can, will try to jack up the price of reproducing creative work. Intermediaries, when they can, will take advantage of creative work they can get for free. They will also try to monopolize the channel, inflate the price to the audience, and low-ball what they pay to the investor. Since creators have the least bargaining power of everyone involved in these transactions, they usually get the rough end of the pineapple.