Neal Stephenson at book signing“If you control the code, you can make your avatar do just about anything.”

So writes Jesse Wilbur in his retrospective in if:book on Neal Stephenson‘s Snow Crash and The Diamond Age. The photo is of Stephenson at a book signing.

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.

The countermeasures

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.


  1. Pegging the DMCA as a step toward fashion seems to me a huge overreach.

    The DMCA is an overreaction to concerns about copyright violations facilitated by the Internet, pushed by an industry that’s seeing its entire business model pretty much evaporate and passed by a Congress that had limited, at best, understanding of the issues it was addressing.

    Ultimately, the DMCA has proven to be absolutely ineffective at what it was supposed to accomplish — deterring copyright violations. Neither it nor the RIAA/MPAA lawsuits have done a thing to stop widespread filesharing.

    The DMCA is more like attempts in the 19th century by tailors to outlaw sewing machines. In the long run, it is doomed.

  2. Hi, Brian. The key word is “incremental,” and beyond that, I’ve taken care to say that to support the DMCA isn’t necessarily to be a fascist. At the same time, remember that the DMCA trespasses on the concept of fair use, which is important in American political debate if the participants are to be well informed. Also, let’s keep in mind the efforts of the Bush administration to control our lives in other ways and overreach its authority whenever it can. Could a future Bush-style administration launch prosecutions against its enemies over “copyright violations”?

    So, no, we’re not talking about huge steps, but we are talking about a series of small steps in copyright and other ares that together, over time, could add add up to authentic fascism. And once again, keep in mind that corporatism is one component of fascism. I’m an unabashed capitalism, but I want the playing field to be level without government having to serve a particular industry or set of industries.

    Anyway, thanks for speaking up, whether or not we agree on this one.


  3. The claim that the United States is a fascist nation, or it will become one tomorrow has been a commonplace bromide in political rhetoric for decades. Indeed, the idea has been de rigueur for major classes of intellectuals starting in the 1960s or earlier. Some believe that goose-stepping to corporate anthems will become mandatory soon. I am concerned about the increase in governmental power but the DMCA is a minuscule part of this overweening power that is based in massive economic intervention and control.

    The hyperbolic rhetoric that invokes fascism reminds me of a coruscating quote about fascism attributed to Jean-François Revel. The quote appears at the end of the following passage that was written by Tom Wolfe about a panel discussion that took place at Princeton in 1965. It starts with some words by Günter Grass, the Nobel Prize winning German writer. (Passage found via “The Volokh Conspiracy” website).

    “For the past hour, I have my eyes fixed on the doors here,” he said. “You talk about fascism and police repression. In Germany when I was a student, they come through those doors long ago. Here they must be very slow.”

    Grass was enjoying himself for the first time all evening. He was not simply saying, “You really don’t have so much to worry about.” He was indulging his sense of the absurd. He was saying: “You American intellectuals — you want so desperately to feel besieged and persecuted!”
    He sounded like Jean-François Revel, a French socialist writer who talks about one of the great unexplained phenomena of modern astronomy: namely, that the dark night of fascism is always descending in the United States and yet lands only in Europe.

    I offer apologies to any Europeans who might be offended by Revel’s translated and paraphrased comment. In the past few months Günter Grass made a belated disclosure of his Waffen-SS membership during World War II so his remarks are given a new twist.

  4. Fascinating post, Garson. Just to emphasize some points from my previous musings, the U.S. is not fascist today and is not likely to be tomorrow. But in my hardly infallible opinion, the DMCA does contribute to the risk. It’s a step along the way. Just wait until it is used selectively against political foes of those in power. Thanks. David

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