The Price of Convenience is Non-Ownership and Loss of Privacy.
This is as far as I ever plan to stray from writing purely technical posts. It just strikes so close to home. I am completely conflicted on this subject. As a user of all of these things I rail against limits imposed on me by the greedy companies and the governments that serve them. As a business man and developer, I really want to get paid and get upset when people assume that using my work has value to them but not in a way worth paying for. Most of us don’t remember not having a phone. We were connected, to our neighbors, friends and for the right price, the world. Some of us in rural areas had to make compromises and shared our phone line with others, the ever favorite “Party Line”. It was a line but not much of a party. What you could rely on though is at some point you listened in on your neighbor and they in turn listened in on you. We gave up some privacy for the awesome ability to call someone whenever we felt like it. Things have come a long way. Now, you are expected to be accessible via cell phone pretty much 24×7 and with that comes all the wonderful data services so people also expect you to be reachable via email, chat or whatever you like. More and more we have a tether to each over like never before in our history. If I can’t reach out and touch you, something must be wrong! My mom didn’t panic if she called the house and I didn’t answer. I was out side running around and knew to check in every so often.Now, If I get an email, don’t answer it within minutes I also get a text message checking up on me. If that goes unheeded the phone rings, that may escalate to all my friends or co-workers phones ringing assuming one of them is near by me. If that all comes up a draw the worst is assumed. Long gone is the pleasure of just dropping out for a few days, or even hours without someone noticing your absence. We are on the cusp of a permanently connected society, for those lucky enough to afford it in the beginning, and later mandated for those that need watching. The second effect of all this technology is more and more things becoming non-physical in nature. With this loss also goes the traditional methods of controlling them, and by that extension creating scarcity and demand for those items. It also means that the physical thing has less value compared to the idea behind it. From the beginning of software, and digital only creations, had to balance the desire to protect them and extract value from them. This has been at odds with peoples desire to share those items freely like they would anything else.
So we tried to restrict the digital goods. To me Software As A Service has been around since day one, just not your ability to enforce the concept completely. This idea is now being transferred to every thing we “use”. I once owned books, now I have a right under the license to read it but not share it, I can’t resell it or even give it away. Fair use is going to go away, because in a world where anything can be duplicated for free the item has no value, listening to the song has value, reading the book has value so whenever you “loan” that book or song to someone it has inherently lost its value. Mainly because the notion of “loaning” something by duplicating it strips away scarcity all together. Everyone had to put in a key to unlock something that you have already purchased. The physical item has zero value, the use and ideas behind them are the commodity. But, this fell well short when we became “mostly on”. The amount of people now hammering away at the old key system meant it fell in hours or minutes compared to the days or months before.
This gave rise to our favorite worst solution, Digital Rights Management. This misguided concept was an attempt to make the digital artifact, music, books and other entertainment, act just like the old physical things, but with more restrictions of course. Tighter control equals more profit.But, this very quickly showed a flaw, if the company in question went under or simply wished to stop supporting it you lost the use of it. All digital equated to non-ownership.This was just a stop gap until a better solution, total control, came along. Total control isn’t really possible unless everyone is “always on”. Once that is archived you have a since of freedom again, I can loan someone a book or a song control is transferred to them I loose the use of it but retain “ownership” of it.
Or do I?
Ever since we started keying software the concept of licensing use, not actual ownership of a thing became real, even though that license may be a perpetual one ownership is never implied. I don’t own a copy of Windows, I have the right to use it under terms that I have been dictated to by the owner of the work in question. If I violate these one sided terms I loose the privilege, and my money by the way, to use the software. Just as if I had purchased a pirated copy, my money would be forfeit unless I could get it back from the scoundrels that sold the software to me. These concepts aren’t new, again they just weren’t really enforceable at the single person level. The companies and governments would target larger organizations who were making illegal copies for the sole purpose of making money for next to nothing. The closer we get to always on we in essence become the organization of thieves, not selling to other people, just simply denying the owner of the work to make any money off of the item. Always on can now give us the illusion of scarcity and bring back the things we use to do with physical only items. These two things, persistent personal connection and a purely digital object has come together in the perfect storm. The buzz this week has been the news that Amazon has total control of items you purchased via their store and whisper net to transfer to your Kindle. The thing that to me has really struck home all the ideas of license, ownership and your rights to a thing come into clear focus. Amazon shouldn’t have sold you the ability to read a digital representation of an artists ideas, you know a book.Is that a problem? Nope, they simply reach into your Kindle, remove the offending material, refund your money for the loss of the privilege to use this item and poof, things are all better. People weren’t happy with this at all, this wasn’t like they broke the terms of service, or even that Amazon went out of business and the DRM they use is now off line. Amazon simply made some mistakes, they sold you the use of something they had bought the right to use but the person who sold them the rights didn’t have it to sell. Amazon won’t do it again though, honest.
Wow, this isn’t going to get any clearer or easer as time marches on. What will we do when we can manufacture things directly in our home, the physical things we need like chairs, TV’s or computers. If someone screwed up could they reach in and dissolve that item, refunding your money? Another little blurb that has been making the rounds is Starcraft2 not having a “LAN” mode you can only play it through their service called battle.net. It’s just like an MMO without the massively part. But people are up in arms about it. I think it will blow over.
Lastly, the RIAA as stated DRM is not the way. No joke, the enforcers on the music side of things who whole heartedly embraced DRM have now turned their back on it. Oh, they aren’t suing people anymore well, not most people. Why bother with law suits and DRM when you can just reach in and take it back. Eventually, if everything plays out, there simply won’t be a way to get an illegal copy of anything. Always on, also means always accessible. I’m not saying it will happen tomorrow but it will happen. Some people will say that loosing revenue of those who want to enjoy something “off line” will keep this from happening. Hog wash, the gain of revenue by the act of control greatly offsets that loss.
This is the future, and it is now.
As long as a society, we become more and more connected the concept of ownership will slip farther and farther away and be reserved for those things that have true rarity. Just to be a total geek about it, I think Star Trek:TNG has it right. When you can manufacture anything at the push of a button and energy is fundamentally free the need for money really looses its value. The world moves back into a much more pure state of barter for those things that have real value. Do I think this will be the ultimate outcome? Nope, to pull from another great thinker service equals citizenship. At any point in our past when a culture has more consumers than producers and services have as much or more value than goods, it collapses. I don’t think that will happen this time. We have the missing ingredients, the always on connection and the ability to give up privacy, and ultimately, freedom to those that control the use of an item, or enforces the ability to use it. So, until Star Trek zips in and I don’t need money anymore I guess I’ll just have to try and find the balance.
I, for one, welcome our new digital overlords. They tell me we have always been at war with Eastasia.