Cory Doctorow at How the Light Gets In

7 Jun

I spent some time last week in Wales, taking in the incredible landscapes and countryside but mainly making my first pilgrimage to the Mecca of books and literature that is Hay-on-Wye. As well as attending the Hay Festival of Literature and the Arts, I also attend a couple of talks at the How the Light Gets In festival of philosophy which runs parallel to the literature festival.

Of the talks I saw at How the Light Gets In, Cory Doctorow’s was undoubtedly the most interesting. Doctorow is a science-fiction writer, journalist and blogger (and star of an xkcd comic) who’s written extensively on the internet, intellectual property and user control of technology.

To my shame I haven’t actually read that much of Doctorow’s work, just a few blog posts here and there, but I was keen to hear what he had to say. The title of his talk was ‘Political Power at the end of an Ethernet Cable’ and I was a bit worried that it would be an overly optimistic account of the radical potential of internet technologies. This was far from the case.

Doctorow did highlight the positive aspects of networked technologies by pointing towards their abilities to lower transaction costs in communication but also in cooperative production. Internet technologies, he argued, have characteristics that are different from other media in that they are designed with some level of decentralisation in mind.

This potential for decentralised communications networks was about as optimistic as the talk got, at least in terms of mainstream internet technologies. Doctorow did good to mention the emergence of closed networks built on top of decentralised ones (think of Facebook or Google which provide filtered and partial images of the internet as a whole) which you eventually need to join in order to participate in social life; a tendency that increases in rate the more people join the closed network. Part of the network effect, he said, was that centralised spaces emerge out of decentralised ones.

One feature of the closing off of decentralised networks by big tech companies is the fact that the act of making technologies produced by rival companies communicate with one another, thus breaking out of closed networks, becomes illegal. The precise economic and political history of this illegality wasn’t discussed, so it wasn’t clear why the interests of tech companies are represented the way they are in legislation. A critical perspective would suggest that this is due to the influence of capital over policy, but the dynamics of this were left out, at least for this talk.

Ultimately, Doctorow’s case against these legal locks on technology was based on a liberal or libertarian account of being able to do what you want with the things you own. Rather than represent the role of these tendencies towards centralisation in relation to capital accumulation and exploited labour, Doctorow’s approach was based on critiquing their impact on individual liberty. A problem surely, but not the only one.

Doctorow went on to make the point that by making the removal of digital locks on software and hardware (one must ‘jailbreak’ a piece of technology in the way one would unblock a phone that was linked to a certain network in order to use it freely) illegal has the result of making telling people about flaws in the software or hardware they own illegal as well. Why this is the case wasn’t clear but he emphasised the dystopian outcome of it being legally impossible to inform people about bugs in the things they own.

Another issue raised during the talk was the one of Facebook’s new ability to listen through a phone’s microphone, ostensibly in order to gather information about your entertainment tastes (those that you aren’t already satisfying on your phone) to improve your Facebook experience. Again, the emphasis was put on how this infringes on privacy and not on the commodification of our public and private lives as Facebook gathers data that it sells to advertisers, as Christian Fuchs discusses in his critical introduction to social media and elsewhere.

The good news, again from a privacy and individual liberty perspective, is that encryption of online communications (through tools like PGP) is completely unbreakable. Doctorow illustrated this by describing how if every star in the known universe was a computer and all those computers were working constantly for as long as there has been since the big bang, they still wouldn’t be able to attempt a relevant fraction of the possible combinations there are to unlocking your encrypted communications. As Doctorow put it, ‘the universe wants us to have secrets’. Of course, when one brings quantum computers into the equation, the situation is radically altered. Quantum computers could try every possible combination simultaneously, as Simon Singh discusses in his brilliant The Code Book. These are as yet theoretical, though one company, D-Wave, claims they have built one, and indeed part of their funding came from the CIA.

Among other things, Doctorow also discussed some of the projects aiming to make using the internet more secure from a privacy perspective. The most impressive of these tools are the Tails operating system, which makes computers completely anonymous and untraceable unless tracking hardware is installed on them, the TOR browser bundle and the OTR or Off-the-Record messaging service which can be used in conjunction with TOR. Something that wasn’t mentioned during the talk but which from the perspective of advancing the everyday communism of things like internet file sharing would be absolutely crucial would be to successfully anonymise torrent downloads. While I’ve heard about programmes that do this I can’t vouch for their capabilities and have been unable to get any of them to work for myself (Pirate Browser goes some of the way but doesn’t actually make the downloading anonymous – it just allows you to circumvent blocks on sites like the Pirate Bay). Software that anonymises interactions is important for privacy, it is things like this which could counter attempts by industry and national governments to clamp down on file sharing and piracy and that would maintain the genuinely radical and alternative space that exists on the internet.

One of the most worrying things Doctorow highlighted in his talk was the efforts of firms like Hulu, Netfilx and the BBC to make digital locks on web browsers an industry standard in order to make ripping from online media players impossible. In a sad move, Mozilla, the company behind Firefox, is also supporting these initiatives and so it looks like that won’t exist for much longer as an alternative to Safari, Internet Explorer and Chrome.

So while Doctorow’s talk certainly wasn’t a hopelessly optimistic account of politics in the digital age, there was a sense that the only problem radicals face online is the infringement of a liberal idea of privacy. While this is no doubt a concern and a reality of doing anything online, the issues of economic exploitation as well as the changes in how we interact with one another online (and how that impacts on offline interaction) need to be addressed as well. Perhaps Doctorow does this in some of his writing on the topic. I’ll certainly be having a look as he was nothing if not engaging and his talk certainly was informative and entertaining.

 

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