A Fork() in the Road

This essay appeared as an article in the Winter 2018-2019 issue of 2600 Magazine

“Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done
anything truly wrong, he was arrested.” This is the opening line of The Trial
by Franz Kafka, a novel about a man who has been imprisoned. The authorities
refuse to tell him the nature of his accusation, how long he will be in jail,
and what– if any– due process he will receive.

Our relationship with technology over the years (and decades) has been one of
tension at best. One can read the history of IBM and see how Big Blue
established an almost monolithic enterprise, and then read Steven Levy’s
Hackers and see how the same kinds of technology were used by individuals to
build creative inventions. On one hand, we can use technology to create massive
surveillance instruments that give governments and corporations all kinds of
unaccountable powers; on the other, the same technology can be used to give a
voice to people who might never have had one before. This tension is a tango
dance on the sharpened edge of a sword, and we’re currently at a point where one
slip in the wrong direction could be disasterous.

I see a lot of trends in current computing that I not only dislike, but which
worry me. If my neighbor prefers to use a Mac and I prefer to use a PC, fine by
me; but if my government decides to install surveillance cameras, not only does
this threaten to override my personal preference, but it has the potential to
impact others as well. And at least governments are (in theory) accountable to
citizens; what happens when similar moves are made by large corporations?

I believe computers are tools that ought to be used to enable freedom. But what
happens when the technology available to use starts making decisions for us?
First it begins by demanding proof we have legally purchased the operating
system (such as Windows product activation), then it begins to dictate what
software we can have installed on our hardware (the App Store), and finally, it
forbids us from even modifying our own hardware, pushing technology as fashion
items that are impossible to repair. Add in a few extra features, like forcing
people to go to the officially sanctioned company store to fix their
increasingly opaque tech, and we’ve created a Cathedral that not even Eric S.
Raymond could have dreamed up.

To make matters worse, we now see the moves by these same technology companies
to further abstract control away from us in the form of “web applications.” Now,
instead of having software locally installed that might occasionally “phone
home” to the corporate mothership, our entire computer effectively becomes a
dumb terminal that is useless without both access to a fast internet connection
and proper credentials to access the service of our choice. And this extends
into all kinds of domains: if services like Twitter and Facebook have forced
their way into the public square, does this mean that to participate in
important discussions, we now must have access to these services? What happens
if one of them decides to kick us off, or to limit our account? And what if our
job depends on them? Right now, we have no recourse.

In some ways this is about control, in others it is about coerced profit. Take
software that we would have once purchased and installed on our computer, which
may now have moved to a “cloud” only subscription model. Maybe we can’t even use
it anymore unless we have an internet connection. So now, not only does our data
all exist in the cloud (aka, someone else’s computer), but if we skip a month of
payment for whatever reason, our access could be completely revoked. Whereas
before, we made a one time payment and could confidently say we owned the
software on our computer, now we’re locked in a carrot and stick game that only
lasts either as long as our ability to pay in perpetuity or until the company
decides to shut down that service. And let’s pray that there is no lobbying from
said corporations to ensure that the laws remain in their favor.

So what can we do? We need to look at the various fronts upon which these trends
thrive, and come up with ways to push back. While we care about our personal
freedoms and liberties, these companies generally only care about the short term
bottom line. Here are a few thoughts that might help guide us. First, the
average person doesn’t care about abstract ideas like “freedom” unless they see
a direct cost to themselves, so maybe it’s useful to construct a narrative
explaining that, while there might be short term happiness, there will be long
term misery. Second, consider the various cost-benefit analyses various
companies employ, and see if there are alternative strategies that either help
or make no change for the company while helping the individual, and come up with
ways to propose them. If we can honestly tell a company our proposal will cost
them nothing and even earn them more money, they will often start listening.
Finally, keep a watch both at the local and higher levels of government for
bills coming through, push back when necessary, and get involved when we can.
Lawmakers are not technology experts, and they really appreciate help from their
constituents. There are already some groups, like the “self hosting” and “right
to repair” movements, working to make strides in these areas.

As these technology trends have continued to advance, all of us have been losing
small bits of individual agency and freedom; the compound loss is significant.
There is a clear struggle between the rights of the individual and that of the
corporation: after all, surely Microsoft has the right to make sure people
aren’t pirating their software. But there is a limit. With each of these moves,
the corporation gets a little more powerful, and the individual becomes less of
a citizen and more of a user. We’re now at a point where we need to step back,
ensure that we as individuals become aware of what else we might lose, and
decide what kind of future we want.

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