Use It or Lose It

Many people concerned about the direction technology is taking us have chosen to disengage from it. Some do it because they are technophobes, humanists or romantics. Some do it simply because they doubt they can make a difference. Some do it because they disbelieve the hype of a better future. Maybe they are right. But they are like citizens who oppose the government but choose not to vote. The people who control technology are the people who use it. They set its direction; they set its priorities. If people of good conscience do not take a role, the future will be bleak.

The worst-case scenario of surveillance, draconian copyright laws, and digital rights management is grim indeed. It depicts a world in which technology is utterly in the power of multinationals and governments. Televisions only display approved content to approved viewers. Video recorders automatically delete programs when they are expired, censored, or simply not approved. Computers refuse to run software which has not been vetted by business and government; alternatives cease to exist. Devices spy on their owners, reporting viewing, reading, and listening habits to corporate and government intelligence agencies. Journalism becomes a walled profession: only it’s practioners have the technology which can publish, record, or film content which can be distributed to the public. Consumer technology is crippled, and the networks will not carry material produced by those who are not accredited.

Could this really happen? I want to doubt it. But then, I thought the region coding on DVD players (which prevents a Japanese DVD, say, from playing on a U.S. Player) would not survive the market, yet they did. I never upgraded from Windows 2000 to Windows XP because of software activation, which ties the software forever to the computer it is first installed on. I thought consumers would not stand for it. They barely noticed.

Look at history: Lawrence Lessig describes how the radio industry set FM back decades. In the first part of the 20th century, General Motors bought out and tore up street car systems across North America. Only a handful of cities hung onto a few lines; only now are we starting to rebuild our mass transit. We have destroyed fish stocks worldwide even as those who depended on them knew what was happening.

So maybe it could happen. The way things are going, some of it probably will. We need to fight as citizens, using our right to vote. We need to fight as human beings, exercising our values. And we need to fight as participants who seize the tools and use them for what we want to use them for. If we are not using the technology, we will not notice when we lose the option. When it inevitably becomes part of our lives, it will embody values which are not ours; its form will have been set and we will have little choice in the matter. But if we use the tools, if the majority of computers are used by people for their own benefit, it will bend to our will. When someone tries to take that away, we will notice, and we will not stand for the loss of our freedom. Every person who writes a blog, makes an independent film, or distributes their own music on the Internet is taking control. Every person who reads that blog, or watches that film or listens to that music makes it a little bit harder for the grim future to happen.

Some are already engaged. To everyone else, I say: use it or lose it.

2005-01-08

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