Control Considered Harmful

When society was arranged as a series of intermediaries serving disconnected clients, distinguishing clients from non-clients was a key element of business. But in a meshed, massively connected society, simulating that world using artificial...

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When society was arranged as a series of intermediaries serving disconnected clients, distinguishing clients from non-clients was a key element of business. But in a meshed, massively connected society, simulating that world using artificial control mechanisms simply does harm.

First, some links to explore:

  • What an amazingly dangerous world Apple are exploring here. They want to create a system that allows a cinema to switch of video cameras in consumer devices without the involvement of the owner of the device. The scope for abuse, together with the quantisation of analogue freedoms (explained in the last link below), makes this breathtakingly poor judgement.

  • Cory Doctorow makes an excellent point in this recent talk about how all technical measures need to evaluated not only by their effectiveness for their stated purpose but also by their potential for abuse and unintended consequences.

  • A movie lover’s plea: Let there be light
    Fascinating article that reveals how the movie industry’s control-freak paranoia that treats all third-parties as criminals has as a corollary the degradation of the movie experience for paying customers becuase projectionists turn out to be untrusted third-parties who have to be controlled with ridiculous degrees of technical measures. If it’s this hard to change lenses, imagine how hard it will be to preserve the movie in the future after the business model that’s driven the technical measures has died.

  • DRM is toxic to culture
    It's not just that the systems of artificial control harm the business and its customers; I also assert in this essay that it's harmful to society as a whole, and that any attempt to represent human discretion using digital means is a best doomed to fail.

Topological Change

The first mechanised communications - dating back to the start of the Industrial Revolution and before - helped to create a hub-and-spoke social topology in a world that had previously been generally hierarchical. The ability to communicate to a large number of people was necessarily centralised and recognition of a client-intermediary relationship became more important. As more communications became industrialised and businesses were established that exploited that, so did society become more centralised. Many models embraced the topology: author at the hub, readers at the spokes; suppliers at the hub, customers at the spokes; government at the hub, citizens at the spokes - and more.

The Web has changed that for good. The topology is changing from hub-and-spoke to a mesh that even crosses cultures and borders. Peer-to-peer is the new order in every system that is touched by the change, from the ephemera of the music industry to the hard reality of the Arab Spring.

If your business relies on the anachronism of hub-ness to make money, that's bad news for you. When businesses have a strong and authoritarian culture, there's little to mitigate their reptilian instincts. Instead of exploring new models that fit the new society, they try to artificially recreate the friction that used to exist in their business model. They implement digital restrictions, they attempt network filtering, they try to obtain extrajudicial controls over their customers. In every case, the people harmed are not those they believe are "subverting" their business, but actually themselves and their customers. 

Pioneers, Not Criminals

More than that, in plenty of cases the people framed as "criminals" are actually pioneers. Consider for example, the case of the original MP3.Com web site. It allowed music lovers - people with actual, purchased CDs - to "scan" them on their computer and then stream the music anywhere. Rather than welcoming this innovation as a way to serve customers better, the music industry found an obscene technicality on which to persecute and eliminate MP3.Com. It's taken until today for a rich and powerful company - Apple - to rediscover that innovation and announce it as part of iCloud.

As we see more and more attempts by the commercial and political giants of an earlier era to shore up their old world as it crumbles under the force of the new, we need to oppose it. The new topology simply needs a new approach, and allowing old leaders to establish new markets in the new world is akin to an abuse of a monopoly position.

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