You got up, you worked, you slept, you died. Loyalties were to our immediate family, maybe our community. Work was only a means to provide for your family. Your ecology might only be your town (villages by today’s standards). Tribal or national boundaries were strong as a foreigner was strange. Unusual. Not a common occurence.
Brings us to yesterday. The turn of the century. Europe languishing after two world wars, the rest of the world catching up. Living standards climbing up. People have more food and no longer pushed by that lifelong driving fear of poverty or starvation into laborious repetitive work, free to engage in creative endeavors.
Build a house? Paint a picture? Make a machine. This is the essence of human entrepreneurship. Taking risks, re-combining ideas from disparate fields. This creativity adds value to the meaningless noise around us.
Computers are the supporting bedrock beneath our society. Undoubtably they have been our crutch in manipulating this flow of noisy data into useful information that we value. More than ever before they are our silent companion in the technological society we have engineered.
Years of programmers creating software have made the virtual world into a bewildering ecosystem of programs running on programs running on programs. This ecosystem is the operating system, the end result; applications.
A computer program is written in binary. Binary is an answer- yes or no. Binary code is a series of answers. Like a game of 20 questions.
Imagine you’re inside a computer. We’ve shrank ourselves down to the size of an electron and are standing outside the CPU (central processing unit) as it interrogates us.
“Do you want to open a new program?”
“Does this program come preinstalled with the computer?”
“Is a CD needed to run it (like a video game)?”
“Is the program media related?”
“Will you create?”
“Are you working with video?”
“Do you want to work with images?”
“Painting a picture?”
> Open painting application.
Each binary question is known as a bit. Here in 9 questions, 9 bits of information we have described the task of opening a new program so we can paint a picture. But computers handle many more thousands of these tasks precisely and accurately with no ambiguity. A 1 TB hardrive might hold 10 to the 13- that’s 1 followed by 13 0′s of bits. By comparison there are 10^19 grains of sand in the whole worlds beaches. Each question deals with the minutae mundane detail of the day to day running of your computer.
A programmer would have a hard time dealing with the finesse of keeping millions of bits in order. Fortunately, we have the language of programmers otherwise known as a programming language. It is the meeting point where machine language and our native languages cross. We speak in a semi-english-semi-machine language, halfway between the two worlds to communicate our desires to machines.
Decades ago a program was written which would translate into those bits from human sounding instructions. Writing with human sounding commands like “add”, “subtract”, “move”, “jump” made writing programs easier, less abstract, more graspable. Now the programmer no longer had to bend their mind dealing with the masses of yesses and nos as they could concentrate on the content of their commands.
Still the programming language was clumsy and awkward so written in that same language blossomed newer better languages. And then again and again. This iterative process bringing us to today where to write prose for a computer is so removed and abstract that it does not resemble the workings of the machines brain. Today’s programming languages resemble more the language we speak in and are approaching english closer everyday.
We rely on computers to power our society. We use immensely useful programs written in increasingly flexible and accessible programming languages. A programmer “writes” these “source” “codes” which are then taken and translated by a “compiler” into “machine” “code” which the computer can understand. Thousands of machine instructions are too bewildering for a human.
Access to this source, is access to technology and is power. Companies that own this source code which is the origin for the software running our society are able to meter this resource. When faulty software we rely on for our defense, medical care, communications and most of our lives go faulty we are defenseless in the hands of companies not driven by a sense of goodwill but by profit. One invention fails and there’s a chain reaction in failure due to the dependency of our society.
The rite of new ages is a paean of civilisation. In the beginning man was simple and curious. He often got ideas wrong that took centuries to propagate throughthe aether of culture. Painstakingly slow tortous transmission of ideas meant emergence of ideas was slow and in small steps. Churches only had a few dozen books tortously copied by scribes; read only by the government and a rich elite.
Around 1440 the heralding of the Gutenberg press was a turning point in backwards Europe. Books no longer the prestige of the rich and powerful started to be consumed by the common man. There’s a lovely quote from a bishop of the time: “Printing will make reading the infatuation of people who have no business reading!”, I mean hurrumph!. Churning 3600 pages a day, by 1500 presses had already produced 20 million books! Mass communication forever altered the structure of society, circulating ideas, transcending borders, bolstering a new educated middle class, threatening religious and political power… and most importantly directly being responsible for the renaissance; a explosion of cultural, scientific, technological and artistic growth.
Next was the industrial age, atomic age, space age. We are now in the process of a new age, maybe more revolutionary then the previous ages. If part one of the trading of knowledge and culture happened in the 15th century when Johann Gutenberg came up with the printing press, then this is part two: the information age. Information is a commodity we all share. It’s value goes up the more it’s traded. Ideas cannot wear out, they can forever be traded.
Say I hold in my hand an apple. It’s tasty and good and I will enjoy the sweet taste when I choose to eat it. You also have an apple and coming along with your apple, you also take my apple giving you two apples. Now I have no apple, I cannot eat it, and I will not enjoy it’s sweet taste. You could say I lost out on this finite resource just so you could have more.
Now say I hold in my hand an idea. We can represent it using this apple. Maybe it’s a new method of baking a cake, or a fashion concept, maybe a minor improvement to a piece of electronics, a new theory of the universe… Let’s say it’s an algorithm which is a mathematical set of commands for anything as benign as sorting a list of numbers, to decoding an image, to encrypting a message. This algorithm which we’ve represented here as an apple benefits me. Along you come and we trade apples. You look in your hand and see two apples. I look in mine and also see two apples! Two new ideas just spontaneously arose.
Culturally and electronically when we move ideas across the network, we are in effect copying an idea from A to B [walk from a place A to B]. Once the copy’s complete, we delete the idea remaining at location A [go back to A]. We have means for massive interchange of ideas. Old laws from the last age before information interchange become easy and commonplace are stunting that growth. Global civilisation is on the verge of a second renaissance which will happen once information bursts into a torrent through the concrete dam of copyright and patent law. Patent law makes it illegal to write software with absurd commonsense ideas such as pay-per-click advertising or playing a dvd without paying fees to a company at whichever price they choose.
This is the antithesis to the openness which is responsible for our modern society. Information wants to be free. Information itself evolves nurtered by open communication and free enquiry. The units of biological evolution are genes. The units of cultural evolution are ideas. Ideas are transported all over the planet. They are selected through analysis and debate. In our time a revolution has began, a revolution perhaps as significant as the evolution of DNA and nervous systems, and the invention of writing. The potential for a global intelligence is emerging linking all the brains on earth into a planetary consciousness.
Technology is the platform which can liberate or condemn us. Information is the currency that can be traded or hoarded.
Tomorrow could be a world where abundance is everywhere. Time to engage in any creative endeavor you choose. A maelstrom of ideas to sift through. Take any of us, and remove our ability to talk or write, and we’re pretty much a little smarter than your average raven or dolphin: we’re isolated islands of thought. Occasionally we get glimmers of brilliance now and then, but it fades, and is trapped in our skulls, and dies with us. And contrary to artist’s claims, no one has an original idea. We are not born with ideas. Instead our cumulative experience is based on the interlinking of old ideas in new and novel ways.
Our information based society in which people live longer, travel, create wonderful works of art, discover profound cosmological insights is based on free flow of ideas across borders and into different media from the camera, to the cd, to the printer. We’re an interdependant social species that thrives on lively engagement. During this discourse the potential for change is discovered in that most humdrum of technology through the interlinking of old concepts in unforseen ways. Things almost always start by doing something that at the time looks totally useless! History is no straight line, no lone inventor exists. Newton said: “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”
Your life is ruled by secrets from the past. Pieces of a jigsaw. And if pieces are missing, then you don’t have the picture. A popular influence for change has been taking a thing from one field and switching it to another far fetched removed one- the jacquard loom came from the organ.
Made posssible like books were by the printing press, by the software written by programmers.
Computers and the internet are a life support system that runs machinery to put affordable food in the supermarkets, guide the plane you ride upon, phone your friends and possibly replace us in the future if science fiction is right- and it often is! Denying that knowledge and concentrating that power is inexcusable when we all require the aspects that affect our lives deeply.
You’re in a hospital being cured, the specifics of which you don’t understand. Some might argue why bother caring, the knowledge is better understood by experts who devote the time and I should specialise in my own tasks. Well, the treatment could fail and the reasons being witheld from me, I fail to make an informed analysis about the quality of the treatment due to malpractice by the Doctor. Doctor’s are after all human and fallible.
If you have information and a computer, that is power. Commercial power. Political power. Power to change things. And already the companies have already demonstrated they’re not trustworthy.
Sony was installing software to spy on their users. Total control over their machines with software called a rootkit that is illegal. Nothing happened.
Amazon deleting books from people’s kindles devices without their consent. Say you buy a book from me then I take it back a few days later from your house paying you back your money.
Not a lot of people know this or they don’t care. But facebook makes money selling your user information to companies.
Apple tries very hard to not let their devices or applications integrate with other technology.
Yahoo sells search results and hands over details of anonymous users accused of political crimes in China.
These are the first few fished up by me. By no means exhaustive. Just the tip of the iceberg. Issues like:
Trusted computing. Only allowing software approved by a manufacturer to run on your computer under the pretense of improving user security.
Tiered internet where you buy access to a select few sites with you connections. In AT&T’s vision when you log on the net you only access company approved sites where the net is a cable television experience of consumable channels rather than our current model of shared content and information. Turning people back into consumers. They seek to make the net non-neutral (referred to as net-neutrality) to make websites uncommon and provided by them. Truly the net would enter a ‘dark period’ should this happen. Mainstream media is a big force behind this as the drive for cheap user generated content is seen as an unacceptable threat to them. Newspapers have shed a fifth of journalists since 2001 as the industry is experiencing head first downward slump as the readily available online news is rendering them obselete. Free distribution of content through the internet has caused a total collapse of old business models in mainstream media.
The answer is not to flail around and try to smash the internet. Times change. Industries adapt.
Censorship which does nothing to stop persistent finders of that information who will use cheap, readily available technology to circumnavigate restrictions but punishes common users blocked off from educating themselves and equipping themselves defensively using that knowledge. As a child my interest in programming grew from learning how to develop viruses. Any experienced programmer knows how to do this and simply smashing all access to that knowledge is not the answer.
Embarrassing scandals and documents have been leaked from governments worldwide on the site wikileaks. Wikileaks hosts any material by anonymous whistleblowers and insider documents. This site is the greatest tool for democracy we possess where our journalists have failed us.
Privacy which does not exist when the means to that computer technology handling your personal information are not in your hands. You have no guarantees at all except by owning and inspecting that technology yourself through access to the source code to confirm it yourself personally.
Software patents which stunt growth and development in the creation of software. Creating physical machinery might take years in an exhaustive process of manufacturing an item and making changes. Creating software literally takes hours to months from the designing of a world of objects and algorithms to manipulate them to writing and running of the compiler.
Patents are usually framed as the long suffering lone inventor devoting his life to creating one brilliant idea having it stolen. The reality is different. The majority of times in software, patents stifle. Gather a dozen sharp programmers with a hard problem to solve. A bunch will have solutions probably patentable and similar enough that the first programmer to file could sue everyone else.
Why should society reward that? It brings no benefit and doesn’t being us better goods which come from competition and not self inflicted monopolies. The programmer had a problem to solve and he just had to do it.
Most worringly of all these restrictions is DRM or Digital Rights Management. A better term would be Digital Restrictions Management. You buy a DVD you can only watch it on one player. You pay, download and listen to a piece of music once before it’s no longer usable. Copyright law creates artificial scarcity by saying this item is scarce (when it actually isn’t) and so is therefore more valuable. With the advent of computers and a culture of abundance, media pushes harder to combat the crime of sharing perplexingly likening it to stealing.
As we saw before change comes unexpectedly by the modification of the bits of old information and culture. Each of these technologies seeks to abuse power and trust to limit or take away our power over that information and culture. Increasingly there is a number of invisible innovations that require high degrees of specialised knowledge that affect us deeply. Areas like genetic engineering, radioactive fuel, new drugs, better poisons. If the information is shut off or the flow stemmed then we won’t know how to vote for the people making decisions for us that change our lives. In the absence of knowledge what is there to appeal to except our emotions? And then the issue becomes national prestige, or good for jobs, or defense of our way of life, or something [shrugs]. And suddenly you’re not voting for the real issue at all!
I don’t care. Let them sort it out themselves. As long as I get electricity out of the wall when I want it, don’t bother me about where it comes from. You might argue that until you wake up in the future encumbered by restrictions on your movement in cyberspace or totally lacking in privacy, told the lie that openly partcipating in huge crowds means exposure of all personal information.
By placing all of your communications, and all of your life in centralised services like facebook you’re opening yourself for abuse of trust. The web is based on spread out distribution of resources which allows the free flow of ideas. Using websites like facebook concentrates all that power in one place making people locked into one idea. Resistant to change. Slightly more convenient but disastrous for a healthy internet-ecosystem.
Malevolent groups all motivated by blind profit seeking to appease share holders all seek to pull the internet in this direction of tiered internet, centralised on their services, censored with you acting as a consumer.
But there are signs of change. A new social order is arising based on shared values and communication. Increasingly there is a movement of peoples who see the earth as one nation and the path to future adaptation is openness transcending the boundaries of petty nation states.
Artists share music online under the creative commons licenses for free. Remixing and sharing each others works.
People partcipate in forums creating highly individual groups with their own culture and memes. Even their own developed humour and slang. An astonishing thing for human culture.
Chatrooms like IRC or Internet Relay Chat are awash with peoples from opposite timezones socialising and sharing accumulated content. Unintenionally ensuring valued pieces of culture will survive by the redundant copying of media to each other.
Knowledge workers taking the useless data we have in the aether around us into their black box. The product of their creativity, experience or education comes to forge more valuable output. A graphic designer, a programmer, a video editor. Made possible by a global internet where information is cheaply available in it’s raw form and helped by the ability to create remotely.
It is the ability to take new ideas from the profusion of old ideas in unexpected ways that leads to creative innovation. A new way of painting or another type of invention. Creativity requires lots of unrelated ideas, or… lots of unrelated knowledge. Exactly the opposite of a specialist that our society requires- a generalist. Generalists are born a dime a dozen everyday in the idea-metropolis of the internet.
For years a silent revolution has been happening. All over the net skilled programmers have been collaboratively working on open access technology as a reactionary to the problems and dangers facing the computer world and our global culture. It is called Free Software. Here the free is misleading as it refers to free as in freedom, not free as in free beer. The term free is more akin to the french word for libre (preserves rights) than than gratis (no cost).
Programming is as much art as it is engineering. Together in a swarm they attack problems mowing down defects through effective peer review. No one owns any of its products, and everyone is free to take and modify them. Such a poster for the movement might include Linux, the most popular web server endorsed by IBM, Google and others, permeating embedded devices everywhere and an effective desktop. 95% of computers in large film animation studios use Linux. In 2006 the EU estimated Linux would take $1 billion to develop conventionally. Linux, a volunteer community based project free and openly available source code gives hope for a future based on mutual benefit, merit and cooperation, not profit motives and corporate endorsement.
[Linux powers some of the hollywood films studios, high end mission critical servers and supper computers, almost any type of microprocessor based electronic devices]
“When we rolled into Baghdad, we did it using open source. It may come as a surprise to many of you, but the U.S. Army is “the” single largest install base for Red Hat Linux. I’m their largest customer.” ~ US Army
Firefox, the world’s second most used browser is Free Software. Wikipedia, the worlds largest encyclopedia is also Free Software. Anyone can start their own Free Software project and there’s even Free Software to program your own software in any number of programming languages. People run computers based entirely off Free Software where all the source code is freely accessible routinely. Even this video was edited on Linux.
With this awesome technology that has the ability to shake the foundations of our future and change our way of thinking, usher in a new social order it is still in the minority. The technology is superior but it’s not the majority. Well technology is uptaken based on social acceptance not on its technological merits. The superior technology doesn’t always prevail.
Take the world’s most popular program for writing: Microsoft Word. Social movements don’t concern you. Getting your work done does. You have been brought up using this piece of software which works on Microsoft Windows. You buy a computer and the store installs Microsoft Windows because they know you use Word and will want windows. You don’t want to learn a different tool even if it’s only slightly better because learning that new tool takes time and the benefit gained is small.
So the world stagnates. Being stay inert and refuse to stubbornly move over.
But there are signs of change. Linux usage on home computers every year climbs by half a percent of the total market. Linux usage on server computers dominates the market!
Using Linux is hard. Help requires self education. There’s no quick fix support employee on call and friends are often alien to this foreign technology:
Windows users are more or less in a customer-supplier relationship: They pay for software, for warranties, for support, and so on. They expect software to have a certain level of usability. They are therefore used to having rights with their software: They have paid for technical support and have every right to demand that they receive it. They are also used to dealing with entities rather than people: Their contracts are with a company, not with a person.
Linux users are in more of a community. They don’t have to buy the software, they don’t have to pay for technical support. They download software for free & use Instant Messaging and web-based forums to get help. They deal with people, not corporations.
Free Software can be sold. As long as the ability to make changes to the functioning of the programs and release those changes to others remains intact. Typically companies might offer support in the form of glossy manuals, cds with the software all prepackaged or services if you want particular personal changes made.
The movement began in the 80s when largely at the time software was shared and redistributed. Commercial vendors gave away source code along with the functioning programs. As computing grew large companies moved in and took over, closing the source codes and making them company secrets. Programmers who disagreed with the new conduct saw this as an enroachment on the previous culture of sharing, negatively affecting the software for everybody.
Richard Stallman, a programmer at MIT hit upon the idea of using copyright law against itself to develop a license called copyleft. Copyleft says that this Wikipedia article, this piece of music or this piece of source code that is protected under this license must be shared. Furthermore for software programs the source code must always remain public- if I redistribute that program then I must also distribute the source code with it. Any changes I make, they have to be released too. He setup the Free Software Foundation to protect these licenses. For music, writing and art we have the Creative Commons. For documents and source code we have the GNU Free Documentation License and GNU General Public License. Each license particular to the media, and each with customisable variants for different situations; all protecting the user and free expression.
Linux and Free Software, a community developed software made to help people is regularly under threat by corporations. Extreme USA software patent law makes Linux illegal in the USA where it can play mp3 music or play DVDs. Many software written like music encoding into small files has to tip toe around software patents and using sub-optimal solutions which aren’t patented.
Microsoft tries to force users not to choose an operating system by creating a market where most computers shipped from OEMs come with Windows preinstalled, and by secretly agreeing with OEMs by means of rebates, to make it very hard to receive a Windows refund. The infamous leaked “Halloween documents” detailed an internal strategy of subversion and funding groups to litigate against companies working with Linux to crush the threat posed by Free Software.
Such actions demonstrate a moral corruption when the technology is free and open for all. Open access to the source code that is the enabler of our modern transmitter of culture, communications and information is morally reprehensible. We must not let it happen. More than over we need guidance and free software offers us the greatest hope for an egalitarian, free and sharing civil society with each person responsible for the wellbeing of the community rather than being passive consumers guided by appointed shephards and charlitans. An order based on merit not appointed honours and qualifications.