My Podcast is a regular feed in which I read from one of my stories for a few minutes at least once a week, from whatever friend’s house, airport, hotel, conference, treaty negotiation or what-have-you that I’m currently at. You can get the podcast though iTunes. Alternatively:
I’ve been following the Modern Monetary Theory debate for about 18 months, and I’m largely a convert: governments spend money into existence and tax it out of existence, and government deficit spending is only inflationary if it’s bidding against the private sector for goods or services, which means that the government could guarantee every unemployed person a job (say, working on the Green New Deal), and which also means that every unemployed person and every unfilled social services role is a political choice, not an economic necessity. more
In my latest podcast (MP3), I read my essay “Interoperability and Privacy: Squaring the Circle, published today on EFF’s Deeplinks; it’s another in the series of “adversarial interoperability” explainers, this one focused on how privacy and adversarial interoperability relate to each other.
Even if we do manage to impose interoperability on Facebook in ways that allow for meaningful competition, in the absence of robust anti-monopoly rules, the ecosystem that grows up around that new standard is likely to view everything that’s not a standard interoperable component as a competitive advantage, something that no competitor should be allowed to make incursions upon, on pain of a lawsuit for violating terms of service or infringing a patent or reverse-engineering a copyright lock or even more nebulous claims like “tortious interference with contract.”
In other words, the risk of trusting competition to an interoperability mandate is that it will create a new ecosystem where everything that’s not forbidden is mandatory, freezing in place the current situation, in which Facebook and the other giants dominate and new entrants are faced with onerous compliance burdens that make it more difficult to start a new service, and limit those new services to interoperating in ways that are carefully designed to prevent any kind of competitive challenge.
Standards should be the floor on interoperability, but adversarial interoperability should be the ceiling. Adversarial interoperability takes place when a new company designs a product or service that works with another company’s existing products or services, without seeking permission to do so.
In my latest podcast (MP3), I read my essay “IBM PC Compatible”: how adversarial interoperability saved PCs from monopolization, published today on EFF’s Deeplinks; it’s another installment in my series about “adversarial interoperability,” and the role it has historically played in keeping tech open and competitive. This time, I relate the origin story of the “PC compatible” computer, with help from Tom Jennings (inventor of FidoNet!) who played a key role in the story.
All that changed in 1981, when IBM entered the PC market with its first personal computer, which quickly became the de facto standard for PC hardware. There are many reasons that IBM came to dominate the fragmented PC market: they had the name recognition (“No one ever got fired for buying IBM,” as the saying went) and the manufacturing experience to produce reliable products.
Equally important was IBM’s departure from its usual business practice of pursuing advantage by manufacturing entire systems, down to the subcomponents. Instead, IBM decided to go with an “open” design that incorporated the same commodity parts that the existing PC vendors were using, including MS-DOS and Intel’s 8086 chip. To accompany this open hardware, IBM published exhaustive technical documentation that covered every pin on every chip, every way that programmers could interact with IBM’s firmware (analogous to today’s “APIs”), as well as all the non-standard specifications for its proprietary ROM chip, which included things like the addresses where IBM had stored the fonts it bundled with the system.
Once IBM’s PC became the standard, rival hardware manufacturers realized that they had to create systems that were compatible with IBM’s systems. The software vendors were tired of supporting a lot of idiosyncratic hardware configurations, and IT managers didn’t want to have to juggle multiple versions of the software they relied on. Unless non-IBM PCs could run software optimized for IBM’s systems, the market for those systems would dwindle and wither.
In my latest podcast (MP3), I read my essay Adblocking: How About Nah?, published last week on EFF’s Deeplinks; it’s the latest installment in my series about “adversarial interoperability,” and the role it has historically played in keeping tech open and competitive, and how that role is changing now that yesterday’s scrappy startups have become today’s bloated incumbents, determined to prevent anyone from disrupting them they way they disrupted tech in their early days.
At the height of the pop-up wars, it seemed like there was no end in sight: the future of the Web would be one where humans adapted to pop-ups, then pop-ups found new, obnoxious ways to command humans’ attention, which would wane, until pop-ups got even more obnoxious.
But that’s not how it happened. Instead, browser vendors (beginning with Opera) started to ship on-by-default pop-up blockers. What’s more, users—who hated pop-up ads—started to choose browsers that blocked pop-ups, marginalizing holdouts like Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, until they, too, added pop-up blockers.
Chances are, those blockers are in your browser today. But here’s a funny thing: if you turn them off, you won’t see a million pop-up ads that have been lurking unseen for all these years.
Because once pop-up ads became invisible by default to an ever-larger swathe of Internet users, advertisers stopped demanding that publishers serve pop-up ads. The point of pop-ups was to get people’s attention, but something that is never seen in the first place can’t possibly do that.
In tech, “network effects” can be a powerful force to maintain market dominance: if everyone is using Facebook, then your Facebook replacement doesn’t just have to be better than Facebook, it has to be so much better than Facebook that it’s worth using, even though all the people you want to talk to are still on Facebook. That’s a tall order.
Adversarial interoperability is judo for network effects, using incumbents’ dominance against them. To see how that works, let’s look at a historical example of adversarial interoperability role in helping to unseat a monopolist’s dominance.
The first skirmishes of the PC wars were fought with incompatible file formats and even data-storage formats: Apple users couldn’t open files made by Microsoft users, and vice-versa. Even when file formats were (more or less) harmonized, there was still the problems of storage media: the SCSI drive you plugged into your Mac needed a special add-on and flaky driver software to work on your Windows machine; the ZIP cartridge you formatted for your PC wouldn’t play nice with Macs.
Jim Rutt — former chairman of the Santa Fe Institute and ex-Network Solutions CEO — just launched his new podcast, and included me in the first season! (MP3) It was a characteristically wide-ranging, interdisciplinary kind of interview, covering competition and adversarial interoperability, technological self-determination and human rights, conspiracy theories and corruption. There’s a full transcript here.
In my latest podcast (MP3), I read my essay Occupy Gotham, published in Detective Comics: 80 Years of Batman, commemorating the 1000th issue of Batman comics. It’s an essay about the serious hard problem of trusting billionaires to solve your problems, given the likelihood that billionaires are the cause of your problems.
A thousand issues have gone by, nearly 80 years have passed, and Batman still hasn’t cleaned up Gotham. If the formal definition of insanity it trying the same thing and expecting a different outcome, then Bruce Wayne belongs in a group therapy session in Arkham Asylum. Seriously, get that guy some Cognitive Behavioral Therapy before he gets into some *serious* trouble.
As Upton Sinclair wrote in his limited run of *Batman: Class War*, “It’s impossible to get a man to understand something when his paycheck depends on his not understanding it.”
Gotham is a city riven by inequality. In 1939, that prospect had a very different valence than it has in 2018. Back in 1939, the wealth of the world’s elites had been seriously eroded, first by the Great War, then by the Great Crash and the interwar Great Depression, and what was left of those vast fortunes was being incinerated on the bonfire of WWII. Billionaire plutocrats were a curious relic of a nostalgic time before the intrinsic instability of extreme wealth inequality plunged the world into conflict.
In my latest podcast (MP3), I read my May Locus column: Steering with the Windshield Wipers. It makes the argument that much of the dysfunction of tech regulation — from botched anti-sex-trafficking laws to the EU’s plan to impose mass surveillance and censorship to root out copyright infringement — are the result of trying to jury-rig tools to fix the problems of monopolies, without using anti-monopoly laws, because they have been systematically gutted for 40 years.
A lack of competition rewards bullies, and bullies have insatiable appetites. If your kid is starving because they keep getting beaten up for their lunch money, you can’t solve the problem by giving them more lunch money – the bullies will take that money too. Likewise: in the wildly unequal Borkean inferno we all inhabit, giving artists more copyright will just enrich the companies that control the markets we sell our works into – the media companies, who will demand that we sign over those rights as a condition of their patronage. Of course, these companies will be subsequently menaced and expropriated by the internet distribution companies. And while the media companies are reluctant to share their bounties with us artists, they reliably expect us to share their pain – a bad quarter often means canceled projects, late payments, and lower advances.
And yet, when a lack of competition creates inequities, we do not, by and large, reach for pro-competitive answers. We are the fallen descendants of a lost civilization, destroyed by Robert Bork in the 1970s, and we have forgotten that once we had a mighty tool for correcting our problems in the form of pro-competitive, antitrust enforcement: the power to block mergers, to break up conglomerates, to regulate anticompetitive conduct in the marketplace.
But just because we know where to find the copyright lever, it doesn’t follow that yanking on it hard enough will make it do the work of antitrust law.
In my latest podcast, I read my new Locus column: Fake News is an Oracle. For many years, I’ve been arguing that while science fiction can’t predict the future, it can reveal important truths about the present: the stories writers tell reveal their hopes and fears about technology, while the stories that gain currency in our discourse and our media markets tell us about our latent societal aspirations and anxieties.
Fake news is another important barometer of our societal pressure: when we talk about conspiratorial thinking, we tend to do so ideologically, asking ourselves how it is that the same old conspiracy theories have become so much more convincing in recent years (anti-vax is as old as vaccination, after all), and treating the proponents of conspiracies as though they had acquired the ability to convince people by sharpening their arguments (possibly with the assistance of machine-learning systems).
But when you actually pay attention to the things that conspiracy-pushers say, there’s no evidence that they’re particularly convincing. Instead of ideological answers to the spread of conspiracies, we can look for material answers for the change in our public discourse.
Fake news, in this light, reveals important truth about what our material conditions have led us to fear (that the ship is sinking and their aren’t enough life-boats for all of us) and hope (that we can get a seat in the lifeboat if we help the powerful and ruthless push other people out).
Ten years ago, if you came home from the doctor’s with a prescription for oxy, and advice that they were not to be feared for their addictive potential, and an admonition that pain was “the fourth vital sign,” and its under-treatment was a great societal cruelty, you might have met someone who said that this was all bullshit, that you were being set up to be murdered by a family of ruthless billionaires whose watchdog had switched sides.
You might have called that person an “opioid denier.”
Today, we worry that anti-vaxers represent the resurgence of long-dormant epidemic. Tomorrow, we may find that they presaged an epidemic of collapsed trust in our shared ability to determine the truth.