“If you control the code, you can make your avatar do just about anything.”
Toward the Central Intelligence Corporation
Now, here’s the big question. Just who will control your avatar’s code? You entirely? And what about a future version of yourself as a cyborg? How much and how often will others intervene—totalitarian governments, for example, or corporate megalomaniacs?
Luckily such horrors could start to happen only incrementally, app by app; and with enough vigilance, we can avoid the dark sides of the scenarios in Stephenson’s books. Let’s try. Do you really want to freelance for the Central Intelligence Corporation? And should the Library of Congress merge with the CIC library? No, I’m not attacking Stephenson; like Orwell, he is simply a prophet and messenger.
Within technology, our Snow Crash-proofing can begin with the basics such as encouragement of the use of open source software, technical standards of all kinds, and interconnectivity in e-books and other areas.
Stephenson talks about our dwelling in virtual corporate enclaves. Aren’t proprietary e-books formats from huge corporations—especially formats tied to specific operating systems, influencing what books we can read—one step along the way?
Yes, that means you, Microsoft.
A flash about Flash
Similarly, I hope that people in the open source movement can get more excited about SVG and avoid excessive reliance on Adobe-controlled Flash, whether in Web browsers or other apps. And within the field of virtual reality, I hope that Second Life can flourish without using proprietary standards to crowd out competitors (I have heard some encouraging rumors that SL does care about standards, and if true, that’s A Good Thing).
Over the long run, there is reason for concern in all these cases—e-books, Web browsers and VR—and more. Washington loves onerous intellectual property laws. Hollywood, home of the all-rights mentality, wants to control everything. If or when VR, entertainment and Real Life, including politics, merge, then what becomes of democracy and individual freedom? Quite objectively, Hollywood’s copyright zealots own Congress.
Adobe and DMCAism
DMCAism is the ideology of the day. Americans break the law when they decrypt the DRMed e-books they’ve bought—even if it’s just to make backups or translate the original books into different formats. In actuality, the DMCA has already resulted in the arrest of a Russian programmer whose company had the nerve to come up with a product that allowed legitimate users to decrypt Adobe DRM to back up books.
The feds dropped charges against Dmitry Sklyarov, but with Adobe cheering Washington on, could this again in a different context? I think so. If nothing else, the arrest is something for the open source community to keep in mind in deciding whether Adobe’s involvement—in Flash-related matters involving Firefox—will pave the way for Embrace, Extend and Exterminate.
Adobe, despite reversing its initial position on the treatment of the Russian, in the wake of a boycott campaign against its products, isn’t exactly leading the movement to at least mitigate the DMCA.
The Stephenson scenario as post-fascism
So far Washington has not enforced the DMCA to the extent it could at the individual level, but don’t trust the federal government to be so restrained in the future, even if it’s the distant future. We should worry even now about precedents. The United States is gradually moving toward fascism: government in the service not just of despots but of powerful private interests. Corporatism—and, yes, American copyright laws reflects this ideology—is one element of fascism. To support the present DMCA isn’t necessarily to be a fascist; but such a mindset does pave the way for fascism, unwittingly or not.
No, we are not there yet—far from it, thankfully. But without our caring about incremental abuses of power, such as the DMCA, fascism could happen. And then what is next, post-fascism? Massive corporate buyouts of the government itself? Certainly the Bush Administration has not been the least reluctant to privatize the Iraq war—itself undertaken in no small part on behalf of U.S. oil interests. I see the Democrats as less of an overall threat in war-related privatization matters, but probably more of a threat in respect to intellectual property law, given the close ties to powerful Hollywood donors. I’ll keep an open mind about individual Democrats and hope that I’m wrong.
The ultimate rulers—if we don’t act and think “incrementally”
Meanwhile techies and Power Figures alike would be well served in reading or re-visiting Stephenson. In Jesse’s retrospective on the two novels, he sums up a possible Stephensonian scenario: “Corporations (minus governments) will be the ultimate rulers of the world—not just the economic part of it, but the cultural part as well. This is a future I don’t want to live in. And here is where Stephenson is doing us a service: by writing the narrative that leads to this future, he is giving us signs so that we can work against its development. Ultimately, his novels are about the power of human will to work through and above technology to forge meaning and relationships. And that’s a lesson that will always be relevant.”
Exactly, but I wouldn’t mind precautions to prevent the Stephensonian scenarios from happening in the first place. I’m not calling for the demise of Adobe, Hollywood and the rest—just more of a balance between corporate interests and those of humanity at large. This is no small part of the philosophical underpinnings behind my enthusiasm for open source and genuine standards in e-books and other areas. It is why—although I believe that corporations can play an important role in standards development, such as through OASIS–we should avoid elitist situations like the one at the IDPF where a few proprietary e-bookers and their friends are exercising undue influence.
Related: Slashdot discussion of Adobe’s open source initiative (icluding some specifics on SVG). Whether or not SVG is important in the grand scheme of things now—-a debate rages within the discussion—the open source community should work to make it so. And if that’s not possible, the open source and open standards community should come up with an SVG equivalent that does the job better. Let’s not depend on Flash as a building block—well, not unless Adobe makes the standard not just open but also nonproprietary, so Adobe isn’t the only organization controlling it. Meanwhile please do note the complexities here. The same Java-related work benefiting Flash could also help SVG. Fine. But we do need to consider Adobe’s long-term goals, and whether the company’s relationship with the Firefox people could be one more step toward the day when Firefox’s code is far less useful to the open source community than today.