In this day and age, sophisticated critique of technology and science is much needed. What we don’t need is critiques like this long piece in the Baffler by Corey Pein which, I think, is trying to mount a critique of the lack of ethics education in computer science curricula but seems most concerned with asserting that computer science is not a science. By, I think, relying on the premise that “Silicon Valley activity and propaganda” = “computer science.” I fail to understand how a humanistic point is made by asserting the ‘unscientific’ nature of a purported science, but your mileage may vary. Anyway, on to Pein.
By now, you know the story. Tesla magically (remotely) updated the software of its cars during Hurricane Irma:
Tesla remotely sent a free software update to some drivers across Florida over the weekend, extending the battery capacity of cars and giving extra range to those fleeing Hurricane Irma.
According to reports, the update temporarily unlocked the full-battery potential for 75-kilowatt-hour Model S sedans and Model X SUVs, adding around 30 to 40 miles to their range.
“Cars with a 75-kilowatt-hour battery pack were previously software limited to 210 miles of driving range per single charge and will now get 249 miles, the full range capacity of the battery,” the company wrote on a blog.
As is evident from this description, the software regulating battery life is ‘autonomous’ of the user; the user cannot change it, or tweak it in any way to reflect changing user needs or driving conditions (like, say, the need to drive to a distant point in order to escape a potentially life-threatening change in the weather.) In short, the software that runs on Tesla’s cars is not ‘free‘–not in the sense that you have to pay money for it, but in the sense that you cannot do what you, as the user of the software, might or might not want to do with it: like share it, copy it, modify it. If the user needs ‘help’ he or she must wait for the benevolent corporation to come to its aid.
We, as software users, are used to this state of affairs. Most of the software we use is indeed not ‘free’ in this sense: the source code is kept a trade secret and cannot be inspected to figure out how it does what it does, the binary executables are copyrighted and cannot be copied, lastly, the software’s algorithms are patented. You cannot read the code, you cannot change it to better reflect your needs, and you cannot make copies of something you ‘own’ to give it to others who might need it. As software users eventually come to realize, you don’t ‘own’ proprietary software in the traditional sense of the term, you license it for a limited period of time, subject to many constraints, some reasonable, others not.
In an interview with 3AM magazine, while talking about my book Decoding Liberation: The Promise of Free and Open Source Software I had made note of some of the political implications of the way software is regulated by law. The following exchange sums up the issues at play:
3:AM: One aspect of the book that was particularly interesting to me was your vision of a world full of code, a cyborg world where ‘distinctions between human and machine evanesce’ and where ‘personal and social freedoms in this domain are precisely the freedoms granted or restricted by software.’ Can you say something about what you argued for there?
SC: I think what we were trying to get at was that it seemed the world was increasingly driven by software, which underwrote a great deal of the technology that extends us and makes our cyborg selves possible. In the past, our cyborg selves were constructed by things like eyeglasses, pencils, abacuses and the like—today, by smartphones, wearable computers, tablets and other devices like them. These are all driven by software. So our extended mind, our extended self, is very likely to be largely a computational device. Who controls that software? Who writes it? Who can modify it? Look at us today, tethered to our machines, unable to function without them, using software written by someone else. How free can we be if we don’t have some very basic control over this technology? If the people who write the software are the ones who have exclusive control over it, then I think we are giving up some measure of freedom in this cyborg society. Remember that we can enforce all sorts of social control over people by writing it into the machines that they use for all sorts of things. Perhaps our machines of tomorrow will come with porn filters embedded in the code that we cannot remove; perhaps with code in the browsers that mark off portions of the Net as forbidden territory, perhaps our reading devices will not let us read certain books, perhaps our smartphones will not let us call certain numbers, perhaps prosthetic devices will not function in ‘no-go zones’, perhaps the self-driving cars of tomorrow will not let us drive faster than a certain speed; the control possibilities are endless. The more technologized we become and the more control we hand over to those who can change the innards of the machines, the less free we are. What are we to do? Just comply? This all sounds very sci-fi, but then, so would most of contemporary computing to folks fifty years ago. We need to be in charge of the machines that we use, that are our extensions.
We, in short, should be able to hack ourselves.
Tesla’s users were not free during Irma; they were at the mercy of the company, which in this case, came to their aid. Other users, of other technologies, might not be so fortunate; they might not be the masters of their destiny.
In its ongoing battle with federal law enforcement agencies over its refusal to unlock the iPhone, Apple has mounted a ‘Code is Speech’ defense arguing that “the First Amendment prohibits the government from compelling Apple to make code.” This has provoked some critical commentary, including an article by Neil Richards, which argues that Apple’s argument is “dangerous.”
Richards alludes to some previous legal wrangling over the legal status of computer code, but does not name names. Here is an excerpt from my book Decoding Liberation: The Promise of Free and Open Source Software (co-authored with Scott Dexter) that makes note of a relevant court decision and offers arguments for treating code as speech protected under the First Amendment. (To fully flesh out these arguments in their appropriate contexts, do read Chapters 4 and 5 of Decoding Liberation. I’d be happy to mail PDFs to anyone interested.) Continue reading
Rarely, if ever, does the term ‘intellectual property’ add clarity to any debate of substance–very often, this is because it includes the term ‘property’ and thus offers an invitation to some dubious theorizing. This post by Alex Rosenberg at Daily Nous is a good example of this claim:
Locke famously offered an account of the justification of private property, one that Nozick brought to our attention in Anarchy, State and Utopia. The account worked like this: morally permissible private property begins with original acquisition, and that happens when you mix your labor with nature, and leave as good and as much for others. Alas, this “Lockean” proviso is impossible to satisfy. Or at least it is in every original acquisition other than the case of intellectual property. Here one mixes one mental labor with nature—empirical facts about reality, including social reality. Since there are an infinite number of good ideas, the creator of intellectual property leaves as much and as good for others, and therefore has an unqualified right to what he has created.
Brian Leiter’s ownership of the PGR satisfies the most stringent test of private property I know. It’s his creation and he excluded no one else from mixing his or her labor with nature to produce a substitute for or for that matter a complement to his creation.
In light of this fact, the effort to separate him from his intellectual property owing to disapproval of his emails and posts seems rather preposterous.
It has often been proposed–most notably by Richard Stallman, free software‘s most fiery proponent-that the term ‘intellectual property’ be junked in favor of more precise usage. That is, when you are tempted to use the term ‘intellectual property’ use ‘copyright,’ ‘patents,’ ‘trademarks,’ or ‘trade secrets’ instead. Doing this would enable immediate grappling with the precise nature of the issue at hand–in each named domain there are separable legal and policy issues at play.
For instance, the granting of copyright is not the recognition of an abstract property right. It is a utilitarian policy decision–to allow the collection of monopoly rent for a limited period of time–with a very specific objective in mind: the creation of more artistic works. If someone’s copyright rights have allegedly been violated, we may begin by trying to identify the concrete expression that was supposedly copyrightable, the identification of the nature of the infringement–unauthorized reproduction or the production of derivative works–and so on. Incidentally, matters become a tad confusing because Rosenberg talks about ‘mixing mental labor with nature.’ Locke did not have ‘nature’ in mind, rather he had in mind fallow land. Which is precisely not the nature of artistic creation, where the creator does not interact with ‘fallow land’ but mixes his ideas with the ideas of others to create a new work.
In the case of the Philosophical Gourmet Report, it relies for its content on the availability of a great deal of openly available material; collation, processing, and analysis turns this into a new work–the PGR, the new concrete expression. There is indeed a copyright in the particular concrete expression of the PGR–the individual blog pages and the material in them–its author’s commentaries, analysis, and summaries. The unauthorized copying of the content of these is indeed prohibited, as is the production of derivative works–for instance, an unauthorized abridgment of his explanation of the rankings. But the current proposals aimed at changing the ‘management’ of the PGR aim to do nothing of this sort. Prof. Leiter’s concrete expressions–the current content of the PGR–remain his; he could continue to produce them, retain his copyright, and proceed as before. And indeed, an entirely new set of rankings may be produced, using the same ‘raw material’ available to the current authors of the PGR, subjected to new analysis and commentary, and thus resulting in a new concrete expression, a new set of rankings. Also copyrightable.
Analytic philosophers–who are so proud of their claims to provide conceptual clarity–shouldn’t continue to traffic in a term as obfuscatory as ‘intellectual property.’
I discovered newsgroups in 1988, shortly after I began work as a research assistant with the Computerized Conferencing and Communications Center at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. I ‘worked’ long hours in our laboratory; email and newsgroups occupied much of that time (in between writing code, debugging code, and stepping out for coffee and cigarette breaks). I had arrived in the US from India in 1987, a bachelor’s degree in hand; I considered myself well-read, but this inflated estimation of my edification was soon to be revised.
In the late eighties and the early nineties, Usenet newsgroups were largely populated by those with some form of university affiliation: faculty, students, staff, post-doctoral fellows. (Commercial affiliations were not unknown, but these were outnumbered by academic ones; the .edu address was most commonly visible.) That demographic, unsurprisingly, voluble and prolific in its writing. (It is to the credit of the hacker community that so many of its members wrote often, and well, on newsgroups.)
The following hierarchy of newsgroups captures their eclectic and comprehensive nature:
- comp.* — Discussion of computer-related topics
- news.* — Discussion of Usenet itself
- sci.* — Discussion of scientific subjects
- rec.* — Discussion of recreational activities (e.g. games and hobbies)
- soc.* — Socialising and discussion of social issues.
- talk. * — Discussion of contentious issues such as religion and politics.
- misc.* — Miscellaneous discussion—anything which does not fit in the other hierarchies.
I read a few of the .sci, .soc, .talk, and .rec groups on a daily basis. These were the time-sucks of their day; you could spend hours and hours, reading, responding, and engaging in flame wars. They were how you filled lunch and coffee breaks; they could make you stay up late at night, and log in frequently to see if new articles had shown up, to see if anyone had responded to your post.
It was here, in Usenet newsgroups, that I read many, many well-written, articulate, clearly argued and defended, points of view that I had never read before: free speech absolutism, the legalization of drugs, Palestinian self-determination, women’s reproductive rights, privacy rights, gay and lesbian rights, free software versus proprietary software, feminism, interpretations of the American constitution. And many more. (I also spent a great deal of time reading and discussing cricket in the cricket newsgroup and the Grateful Dead in rec.music.gdead; ) When world-shaking events like the fall of Berlin Wall or Tiananmen Square occurred on the world stage, they provoked corresponding discussions in the relevant groups. I read furious debates; refutations and counter-refutations; angry tirades; racist and xenophobic rants; calm, reasoned, erudite quasi-dissertations.
I had often entertained conventional views on or all some of these topics before I encountered newsgroups; very few of them survived their encounter with newsgroup discussions. I read a great deal of revisionist history; I was offered many perspectives on world historical events that I had glibly thought I had understood well. I had been complacent; I was no longer so. The sense of instability in my beliefs was alarming, but it was also exhilarating. I learned that seemingly air-tight arguments and refutations often contained fatal fallacies and weaknesses that could be exposed by close reading and careful attention to their logical and rhetorical form.
Some discussions were tedious, and many were repetitive, and later in the mid-nineties as the Internet bloomed and blossomed, I found the newsgroups less useful. I stopped reading them soon thereafter. But I never forgot those early readings–which produced in me a kind of ‘shock of the new.’
Many, many thanks are due to all those unnamed teachers of mine.
Last week, as part of a panel session organized at Queens College of the City University of New York, I spoke briefly on ‘Free Software and Appropriate Technology.’ I began by introducing the term ‘appropriate technology’ by setting it in the context of India’s attempts to achieve self-reliance in energy production, an effort that in the 1970s involved a serious interest in nuclear power. This effort had become the subject of a fierce critique by Professor Dhirendra Sharma of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, who suggested in his book, India’s Nuclear Estate that nuclear power was an ‘inappropriate technology’ for India: it encouraged centralization of political power, made energy into a national security issue with its concomitant secrecy, encouraged dependence on erstwhile colonial powers and the signing of treaties that were detrimental to national sovereignty, and more to the point, was expensive, unproven, and unlikely to meet India’s growing energy needs. (Sharma’s efforts did not meet with favor in the councils of power; he was ‘transferred’ to the School of Languages from the School of Sciences as a reprimand, a bizarre move that did nothing to silence Sharma and merely directed more attention to his writings.) Over the course of a few conversations with Sharma I grew to develop an understanding of the notion of ‘appropriate technology’, which might not have been in complete accordance with those who first coined the term, but which did a great deal to provide me with an evaluative framework for thinking about technology and its connection with politics.
I then moved on to making the case for free software as an appropriate technology for India. As Scott Dexter and I noted in our book, Decoding Liberation: The Promise of Free and Open Source Software:
FOSS provides a social good that proprietary software cannot; for example, FOSS may be the only viable source of software in developing nations, where programming talent is abundant but prices for proprietary-software licenses are prohibitive. Countries such as China and India have seen in FOSS an opportunity to draw on their wealth of programming talent to provide the technological infrastructure for their rapidly expanding economies. Microsoft’s substantial investments in Indian education initiatives may be prompted by worries that free software might fill indigenous needs instead. FOSS has been cited by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez as a key element of achieving economic independence from the global North. At the 2005 World Social Forum in Porto Allegre, the Youth Camp focused largely on FOSS issues. This enthusiasm for FOSS extends to the industrialized First World as well, as many members of the European Union adopt it for governmental administration. [citations removed]
To emphasize the point made in the first sentence above: FOSS prevents lock-in with a monopolistic vendor; it provides an educational laboratory for a country where education in advanced technology is necessary to sustain its economic growth; it encourages autonomous development of software applications and local skills; its price is right, especially if local talent can train themselves on it; it is the ideal software base for the educational system; and so on.
The case is compelling, I think.
Sometime this week or the next, my fourth book, Brave New Pitch: The Evolution of Modern Cricket (HarperCollins India 2012), will make its way to bookstores and online book-sellers. My fourth book differs in one crucial regard from those that have preceded it: I have not co-authored it with anyone; its jacket lists but one name, mine, as the author. (Summing up, the blurb says: ‘In Brave New Pitch, Samir Chopra takes a hard look at cricket’s tumultuous present, and considers what could and should lie ahead.’)
This is a novel feeling, a journey to a strange land. Flying solo?
I like collaborators. Not dastardly Vichy-types but the diverse set of co-authors that have brought my writing projects, thus far, before Brave New Pitch, to fruition. While working on my doctorate I carefully managed my awe of my Putnam Prize-winning adviser while drawing upon his genius to help me navigate the complexities of mathematical logic. My dissertation–on new models of belief revision that accommodated inconsistent beliefs and relevance-sensitivity–bore my name on its spine but the stamp of his exacting attention to detail.
And then there was the military aviation historian whom I did not meet until after the publication of our book (a history, the first, of the India-Pakistan air war of 1965). We talked on the phone and generated a blizzard of emails (he lived in India, I in the US and Australia); his presence was always palpable in constantly redefining my notion of good history. We used no sophisticated file sharing software; we simply maintained a repository of book chapters, and sent the other an email when we edited a file. It worked; somehow, at the end of it all, we had a book, a good one.
Later, while working on a book about the liberatory potential of that gigantic collaboration called the ‘free software phenomenon’, I found a co-author four floors down from me; we went biking, drank beers, went on double-dates, and squabbled endlessly over writing. Every single sentence was negotiated, an exhausting experience essential to the form and content of the final work. We stored our files online, worked on them together. And I mean ‘together’; we put four hands on the keyboard, and miraculously, managed to write that way.
Later, while working on a book on how current legal theory could and should accommodate artificial agents, I negotiated with a collaborator who often preferred long periods of autonomous activity in isolation. For the first time, I used software for writing collaboration; it wasn’t perfect but it introduced some much-needed structure to the writing process. I became an expert at change-tracking software; I became used to repeated iterations and pass-throughs of chapters in response to close readings by my co-author.
I’ve negotiated many power relationships in these partnerships; from dissertation advisers to good friends (deleting either’s sentences requires sensitivity and tact). Each collaborator has enriched and complemented me, and, in becoming part of my cognitive resources, has been an essential agent in my self-realization. The muses only visit while we work; mine include my collaborators.