LCE: All watched over by machines of loving grace

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KERRISK M., LCE: All watched over by machines of loving grace,, 14.11.2012

Type Article
Topics Business Model, Data Usability, Technology


Karsten Gerloff, President of the Free Software Foundation Europe, noted that "[t]he number of computers in our lives is increasing. Karsten noted that he could count at least 17 computers in his home: in his camera, freezer, alarm clock, network router, car IVI system, laptop, and so on. All of those computers can in principle perform any computable task, but, in many cases, the software turns them into appliances."

"At the same time as the number of computers in our lives has increased, the cost of communication has plummeted, and the range of knowledge to which we have access has vastly increased. (...) Karsten noted that these huge changes in the cost of communication and accessibility of information are based on two powerful tools: general-purpose computers that will do anything we teach them to do, and general-purpose networks that will transmit whatever we want. (...) However, the technological advances described above are under threat from those who see profit in turning our general-purpose computers into limited appliances, or into devices that are controlled by someone other than the owner."

"Restrictions on functionality are often added when marketing gets involved in the product-design cycle. At this point, product features that get in the way of business goals are eliminated. Here, Karsten mentioned a couple of examples. All digital cameras produce raw image output. However, after converting that format to JPEG, low-end cameras then discard the raw data. Photographers who want the option of keeping the raw data must instead purchase a more expensive "professional" camera that doesn't discard the raw data. In the telecoms world, mobile phone operators often try to block VOIP over their data services, in an effort to force their customers to make and to pay for calls over the operator's own service." However, at least for what concerns the example of the digital cameras, we must question if a trade-off can be found in this limitation: cameras have limited features, but in exchange manufacturers to keep lower prices, and therefore there is a greater accessibility to digital cameras for those consumers that don't want or can spend more money. This argument could be brought also with reference to other products.

However, we must also acknowledge that these kinds of restrictions have anyway a negative effect: "the real cost of these sorts of restrictions is the limitations they place on our ability to create and innovate, to come up with the next big idea." "Tim Berners-Lee didn't conceive of Wikipedia when he designed the World Wide Web, but the Web was designed in a way that allowed Wikipedia to happen."

"Given unrestricted hardware and networks, how do we implement our next big ideas? That is, of course, where free software comes in." See also My T-DOSE talk: The “Internet of Things”: Opportunities and Dangers (the slides are here, where it is stated "We need to build systems that are secure from the ground up. And we need Free Software to make sure that the answer to “who controls our computers?” — including the IoT — is “the users”."

Therefore, three elements - hardware, network, and software - can be manipulated in order to transform a potentially general-purpose computer in an appliance with restricted functionality.

"[T]he general-purpose nature of our networks and computers is not a given natural order. It can be reversed. And indeed that is what is happening in many areas as companies erect structures that centralize control. Thus "Facebook defines who we are, Google defines what we think, and Amazon defines what we want", because we feed them information, and they place us in a "comfortable bubble" where we no longer see other opinions and cease being curious."