Tinkering with Computers

Based on a sample size of one (i.e. just me) I forsee a growing vogue for hobbism, tinkering, and non-standard computer set-ups.

The ramming through of the Digital Economy Bill in Parliament’s “wash up” period is a set-back for remix culture. Worse, because copying and sharing of digital content is so widespread, the new laws provide a sinister excuse for both corporations and the state to persecute people they don’t like.

Mike Butcher of Techcrunch calls the Bill a “Nightmare of Unintended Consequences”. He says that filesharing will continue, only this time it will be encrypted:

In April last year, Sweden’s internet traffic took a dramatic 30 per cent dip as the country’s new anti-file sharing law came into effect. … But several months later traffic levels started to surpass the old levels. Consultancy firm Mediavision found that the accessing of illegally shared movies, TV shows and music simply recovered. But there was one crucial difference. Much of the internet traffic was now encrypted.

In other words, the very laws the entertainment industries had lobbied politicians to pass in order to protect their industry had created the even bigger headache of untraceable file sharing.

I have been meaning to experiment with encryption for a while now. My three inspirations for this are Neal Stephenson and his doorstop Cryptonomicon; Cory Doctorow and his Young Adult thought-experiment Little Brother; and Simon Singh (he of the celebrated libel battle) and his non-fiction Code Book. Stephenson and Doctorow’s books are novels which justify the paranoia that inspires many people to encrypt their every communication, while Singh’s book is a fantastic explanation of the mathematics and history of cryptography.

So in (ahem) “celebration” of the Digital Economy Bill, I’ve got ahold of an old laptop and have installed Linux onto it, the operating system of choice for programmers, hobbyists and hardcore sysadmin‘s the world over. I’ve chosen Ubuntu, the most user-friendly flavour of Linux, but nevertheless there is a steep learning curve to climb. I’m slowly building my system and soon hope to send my first encrypted e-mail (if only I can find someone who can read it when it reaches them). I have spend a bit of time on the Tactical Technology Collective site, pulling off programmes from their ‘Security in a Box’ project.

“So you’re doing all this so you can steal copyright media again?” says a colleague.

I am most certainly not.

Rather, I am doing it to be prepared. First, in my working for PEN, there is a good chance I may have to use such technology for real when corresponding with cyber-dissidents from around the world. I want to have the technology and expertise on hand for them.

Moreover, I think a deeper knowledge of compter systems is an important insurance against the collapse of our current, highly complex communications network. In Cory Doctorow’s When Sysadmins Ruled the World he imagines a worldwide catastrophe which kills most people and leaves a few computer geeks corresponding over a crippled internet…

That would be an extreme scenario. More likely is that the status quo becomes broken in other ways. Apple, with the release of their iPad, are establishing a system whereby all interactions with, and all software for their machines are mediated through the AppStore/iTunes store to the exclusion of everything else. Amazon takes unprecedented control over people’s digital book collections. And legislation which builds on the Digital Economy Bill (soon to be Act) may well seal off vast tracts of cyberspace for many people. For example, if you live outside the USA, it is already extremely difficult to watch The Daily Show and South Park, two of the most important sources of satire, via the Internet. A standard IP address set-up will give you away and block your access. So, compartmentalisation of our current system is possible, even probable, and its good to have the tools to hand to mitigate the problems for freedom of information that this will cause.

Clay Shirky says more about the problem of complex systems in his latest essay.

Complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond. In retrospect, this can seem mystifying. Why didn’t these societies just re-tool in less complex ways? The answer Tainter gives is the simplest one: When societies fail to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t. In such systems, there is no way to make things a little bit simpler – the whole edifice becomes a huge, interlocking system not readily amenable to change.

The realisation that the same is true of our machines is also beginning to dawn. Time was when a car or a blender was a mechanical thing that could be fixed out on the road or on the kitchen table (or in the shed, if your wife wants to keep grease out of the house). This is becoming less possible with each passing month.

Cory Doctorow complained about this phenomenon recently with regards to Apple’s new shiny thing:

The way you improve your iPad isn’t to figure out how it works and making it better. The way you improve the iPad is to buy iApps. Buying an iPad for your kids isn’t a means of jump-starting the realization that the world is yours to take apart and reassemble; it’s a way of telling your offspring that even changing the batteries is something you have to leave to the professionals.

That rings true. During an idle chat with my insurance company last year, following an accident (not my fault, by the way), I discovered that merely setting off the airbags makes your car a write-off, so hidden and complex are the workings.

However, there was plenty of backlash to Doctorow’s analysis. Nicholas Carr suggested Cory was behaving like something of a luddite::

But I’m not under any illusion that progress gives a damn about what I want. While progress may be spurred by the hobbyist, it does not share the hobbyist’s ethic. One of the keynotes of technological advance is its tendency, as it refines a tool, to remove real human agency from the workings of that tool.

While technology has a tendency towards refinement and the removal of human agency (e.g Doctorow’s batteries or my airbags) this is not inevitable or desirable. The path of progress doe not always lead to more complicated technolgies. Nor does our retreat back to simplicity necessarily have to be a catastrophic, civilisation-ending event that Clay Shirky warns against.

Think of our changing attitudes to food. The growing envrionmental movement has made us aware of how dependent we are on the supply chain, and how difficult it would be for us to fend for ourselves in the event of a crisis. In response, we see that schools are eager to teach basic gardening, growing vegetables in your city yard is becoming fashionable, and self-sufficiency at home is the new black. While few people achieve complete sustainability, attitudes are changing and there is more interest, and incentives, to reconnect with a more bespoke, less commodified way of living.

Let us hope a similar attitude emerges for computing. The same long-term thinking that inspires environmentalism should also provoke an interest in the software and machines that can take us beyond the five-year-plans of the NASDAQ players and the Big Four music labels. The Digital Economy Bill is an unpleasant travesty, a victory for insider lobbying… but if it inspires more people to look deeper at open-source software and alternatives to Microsoft and Apple, then that would at least be something. Based on a sample size of one (i.e. just me) I forsee a growing vogue for hobbism, tinkering, and repurposed machines.

Update

@Documentally agrees (I think):

After learning a little about Linux today & then reading how Steve Jobs is going insane.. makes me want t boycott apple.

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