Sterile Platforms and Cheese Straws

Last night I joined M at the RSA for a fascinating and entertaining lecture by Jonathan Zittrain to launch his new book The Future Of The Internet: And How To Stop It. Sadly this purpose was rather undermined by the fact that they gave away free hardback copies of the book, which Jay-Z was then happy to sign at the free-bad-wine session afterwards, where I also saw Becky Hogge from ORG, and also ORG’s Michael H as well, though only in the crowd.

The talk was based on the idea that the old computing paradigm of a mediator coming between you and the technology was creeping back more and more. The locked-down Apple iPhone, the mobile phone with web access on the manufacturer’s terms, the DVR with the forced ads and remotely-deleted content, the list goes on. It started with the punch-card-based census machines created by precursor-to-IBM founder Herman Hollerith, and the sales model he used, i.e. it wasn’t a sales model. The machines were rented to the Government, and all training, maintenance etc was left to Hollerith. The user was dependent on the supplier to use the machine. They didn’t own the machine, they were in a relationship with the service provider, who, based on the contract, could conceivably alter the machine or it’s function at any time.

JZ gave a nasty possible outcome of this with the judgement in favour of Tivo against Echostar, which resulted in all the Echostar boxes being remotely erased and disabled. Suddenly the machine people had bought was just a brick. A similar extension of this is the recent screwing by MSN of their music store customers. You bought the music, or you thought you had. MSN has announced that they will be shutting down their license server, which means that after that, if you buy a new computer or hard drive, which would mean re-licensing your music to that new device, then you won’t be able to. The key here is that you need a license to listen to stuff you thought you own. You don’t own it, you are in a relationship with a provider who lets you listen in limited ways – and now, it appears, for a limited time. This is what is called Digital Rights Management. DRM BAD. Don’t buy from iTunes, MSN Music, or any other online music store that doesn’t sell simple MP3 (or OGG or whatever) files with no DRM. You will regret it.

The irony of the talk was that is was sponsored by AOL, who were one of the classic ‘portal’ companies who provided net connectivity, software and a crippled browser designed to allow you access to AOL content (and by extension, content from Time Warner) and pretty much nothing else. They were a service and content provider. Sadly their avalanche-style marketing methods were unpopular, and if you wanted to cancel the service you were paying for, you were yelled at and treated like an idiot, and their software was traditionally a bitch to uninstall.

It was heartwarming to see all the old machines JZ displayed on the screen during his initial concise history of computing, from the Jacquard Loom, to the IBM System/360, to a PC clone with a DX2-66 chip complete with speed display and turbo button (like my old Gateway – long since dumped, although I think I have the floppy drive from it somewhere). I recognised most of them, to my eternal pride/shame. I said to M as we exited the hall, “You don’t see many 360’s around these days”, and guy next to me said, “First machine with virtual memory you know”. We shared a moment.

I didn’t recognise the fascinating Friden Flexowriter, which was a typewriter which recorded your typed words on a paper tape, then could replay the tape to produce copies of the document. By cutting, pasting and looping the tapes, you could do mail merges, spamming, tedious art installations, everything.

A big angle JZ spoke about was the hacker/nerd asthetic – the re-purposing of technology, and the discovery of wonderful new uses of a technology by “mischievous asocial poorly dressed nerds” and so on. The university mainframes running the early game Spacewar! spring to mind. The machine it was written on (the DEC PDP-1) had one of the first CRT displays, and it came with a simple kaleidoscope routine to show the graphics off. Pretty, but uninspiring. So the nerds, having just read Smith’s Lensman series, created a space battle game which put the capabities of the machine to good use. It was so successful that DEC, the manufacturers of the mainframe, included the game with the machine as a demonstration.

The talk ended on a kind of “we have to be careful” note, which is fine. A lot of the problems people fnid themselves in with sterile technology is market-driven. I think JZ’s final point was, “Nerds! Come out of the corner!”

Great talk. I’ll be reading the book very soon (bit of a queue to get through first). Great to see M as well, and by the way, if you’re reading, here are a couple of links about what I was trying to tell you about.