A veteran computer user’s thoughts on the commercialisation of computer technology

I’ve been having quite intriguing email conversations lately, one of them with Mac, whom I first met via Twitter and Flickr. We’ve been exchanging links and ideas about open standards, internet privacy, media and philosophy. One of his last emails offered a very unique (at least for me) point of view regarding our computer- and data-driven society and the commercialisation of computer technology. What’s unique is that he’s been there pretty much since the introduction of computer networks, being able to observe and follow the development from the early days to the current commercialisation of social interaction. I asked for his permission to publish his comments, and I am honoured to be able to share them here:

My familiarity with IT dates from around the 1970s. I had used a mainframe computer and a small PDP8 machine to do statistical analyses while I was at university. (For the mainframe, you had to put programs and data on punched cards, which you had to take over to the Computing Department to get processed; and you collected the printout of the results the following day!)

Ten or more years later, I was working in education when personal computers started to become available in the early 1980s; and I got interested in using them in the education of children with disabilities.

That was a good while before Tim Berners-Lee had invented the world-wide web.

What strikes me most about the developments in information technology is not the exponential increase in the power and complexity of the technology itself, but the battle – and that does not seem too strong a word – over who controls it and how it’s used. And what particularly strikes me is the discrepancy between the anarchic idealism of the communities that created the personal computer and the internet and the present attempts by multinational companies and governments to take control of these things for profit and power.

The early history of the internet is fascinating. It was invented by a group of young men who were innocently startled to find that they knew more about connecting computers into networks than the representatives of corporations and universities who were supplying them with equipment and facilities, and hoping for some useful outcome to their experiments.

As Steve Crocker says in rfc1000, “We had no official charter. Most of us were graduate students and we expected that a professional crew would show up eventually to take over the problems we were dealing with.”

But Crocker, Roberts, Reynolds, Postel and the others discovered that there wasn’t a professional crew who knew more about networking than they did. They were it. And they created a wonderfully democratic system for building the engineering protocols by consultation and consensus. The RFC (= ‘Request For Comments’) system that Crocker describes in the article above is a masterpiece of creative sharing, and it is what made the Internet happen. And the principles of equality and sharing were built into the original engineering of the internet: the model of the network was one of peer-to-peer relationships.

Sharing was a fundamental principle for many software developers, too. Linus Torvalds’ system for the creation of software by a community of contributors relied on it. Indeed, Torvald’s contribution was not so much the software (the Linux kernel), but his genius for organising a community of contributors to create and maintain it. (Richard Stalman had done the lion’s share of writing the operating system (apart from the kernel) that eventually became GNU/Linux, but GNU had not – at least in the early days – found a way to build a community to create software in quite the way that Torvalds did.)

It can’t be emphasised too strongly that for Stalman – and most other early software developers – software had always been about sharing. It was no different from mathematics. In maths, if you discovered some useful methods or solutions you shared them with the community, and other people used them to go further. You clearly didn’t have to buy a license from anyone to use addition operations in your arithmetic; and the same applied to routines in computer programs. You shared your software with the community, so that the community could make progress.

But the urge to commercialisation of inventions and ideas that has a long history in the USA soon meant that some people started to apply the system of patents and copyright to software. This happened early on with Unix. And Bill Gates, for instance, started his commercial life with a now-infamous copyright battle with a group of hobbyist computer hackers who were used to participating in communities of sharing where software was concerned.

The increasing commercial restrictions on sharing software incensed Stalman so much that he gave up his job to set about writing his own version of Unix. That led to the GNU libraries, which, when combined with Torvalds’s Minix-like kernel, became GNU/Linux – the main free operating system that much of the internet now runs on.

The situation has become more complex now, and the original peer-to-peer model of networks has been obscured by the server-client model that much commercial software introduced. And the asymmetry of power that the server-client model has come to deploy has a special significance, now that information per-se, rather than the technical means for transforming it, has become the most lucrative feature of internet computing. So Google now makes billions of dollars not from hardware or software, but from trading complex analyses of billions of informational transactions that it records on its servers. And Facebook wants its users to live inside its walled garden, where the company controls the servers that provide all the methods of communication, and can make money from the information that users make available to the company while living inside its invisible walls.

The two opposed cultures – the creative commonwealth and the monopolistic commercial enterprise – have continued to vie for ascendency, and to seek to harness the Internet for their entirely different purposes. And now governments as well as powerful commercial interests would like to control the Internet and the transactions that take place using it.

Of course, while it’s almost impossible for one government to commandeer the Internet as a whole, it is entirely possible for a government to prevent its population using the Internet, or particular sites or content, because the state can control the servers and physical infrastructure provided by ISPs. People may be able to find ways of working around these restrictions; but governments can make that very hard to do – as we see from China, Iran, Syria, Libya, Burma and other examples.

Still, in principle, the Internet is inherently ‘anarchic’, in that it is designed not to have a central controller, but to have high redundancy and distributed organisational processes (because it grew out of a military communication network that was designed to be highly resilient to attack). So its very nature is not to be easily controlled by someone trying to take it over. It is fundamentally designed to be a network of peers. But the server-client model that most people find themselves in because of the software and networks they use makes it easier for commercial interests and governments to build systems of control. Fortunately, it’s still possible to use software that does not offer you only the server-client relationship; and you don’t have to agree to live inside the fortresses that the likes of Facebook and Google invite you to enter and make your home.

So that’s about where we are now. And it’s why Free Software and the Creative Commons matter.


Any thoughts?

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