posted Dec 06, 2000

Fending Off the Pay-Per-View Society
General IP Issues
12/6/2000; 1:05:37 PM

'It is disconcerting, of course, to be told that our society might be passing up a chance at a digital heaven and opting instead for hell. The warnings are all the more alarming when they come from people like Moglen, who understand digital networks so much more profoundly than the rest of us do.

'But there is reason to be circumspect about their predictions. As Moglen himself volunteers, he has been ''on the wrong side of history'' before. In 1979 he wrote a paper criticizing the early Macintosh experiments with using a mouse, which he referred to as the '''caveman interface'. You point and you grunt,'' he says. ''My notion was that computers were a different kind of intelligence, and that human beings had much to gain from learning how to converse with [them] in ways that would be more sophisticated, not less.''

'What yesterday's hostility to the mouse shares with today's hostility to the encrypted world is a defiantly anti-commercial, utopian vision. For Moglen, the copyright issues spawned by the digital revolution are just the prelude to a greater revolution. ''People are beginning to grasp that a networked society might well be organized in other ways,'' says Moglen.'

Two comments:

1. The reason that the extreme scenarios and predictions have never played out is because there were people who believed enough in the possibility to fight it before it happened. Certainly there is enough evidence that if you give a group of humans the power to completely control another, they will. The dystopia won't happen because a lot of people are fighting it. Just as we are not surprised by self-fulfilling prophecies and do not consider them "an amazing prediction of the future", which should not disregard sulf-negating prophecies just because they never seem to come true.

2. I appreciate the words of caution. However, I'm not sure I can agree with his logic. The implicit logic is like this:

  1. Dystopian and utopian predictions have occurred in the past.
  2. None of them have come true.
  3. The present isn't that different from the past.
  4. Therefore, it is likely that neither of these predictions will come true.

The logic is frequently correct, but in this case, I challenge statement three.

I think there is good reason to believe that this particular issue will be different. Usually, the 'forces' on society tend towards the center; if the industrialists get too strong and abuse their power, unions form.  If the workers get too strong and abuse their power, companies start going out of business when competing with worker groups that don't insist on so many 'rights'. The middle ground position, where each side compromises with the other, is the most stable.

In the digital arena, though, they tend towards the outside. If you can copy a file, you can copy it, whether it's copyrighted or not. If you can't copy a file, again, it doesn't matter if it's copyrighted.  Unlike most social situations, by far the most unstable position to take is the middle-of-the-road position. Allowing somebody to only copy a file if they have permission is a difficult problem that still has no known adequate solution; and by the nature of digital networks and communication with people, any flaw in the system will be exploited to the fullest. One of the biggest problems with any digital rights management systems (which will be vital if we're going to take a middle-of-the-road solution) is the attack where you change the rights on a file to "full permissions to everybody". Once you've done that, you can ship that file around in any way you want.

A central position in these debates is a remarkably difficult one, technologically, economically, and ethically. Given the unusual nature of this topic matter, we might not want to wait for the Powers that Be to decide that the easiest solution is to simply head straight for the dystopia.

(One final bonus comment: I would not say that Moglen's predictions about interface have failed to come true... indeed, leading usability experts are returning to the complaint that mouse interfaces are point-and-grunt, and trying to design interfaces where people have a bigger "vocabulary" to interact with the computer, such as by using "gestures" that can mean things, rather then "click", which only ever has one meaning. Also, compare what you can do to a GUI and a well-crafted command line, and the command line wins hands down.)


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