Something I read today…

I don’t know who wrote this, just another username on Slashdot, but it is well written and summarizes very well where we are in the computing world, and why I feel it’s important to fight now for our digital freedoms. The future is never hard to see, but sometimes overcoming disbelief and self-doubt can hinder understanding of the ramifications of what’s seen. Whoever wrote this is living in our future, and I would like to meet them someday.

“General purpose computing” is just a synonym for power, in the same way as violence, money, and land are.

When you had land, you could do whatever you wanted on your land, even if it was criminal. When you had money, you could get whatever goods or services money could buy, even if it was criminal. When you had violence, you could take others’ land and money, even if it is criminal (it isn’t always; Police, in principle, “claim” land and money using violence, but not criminally). Naturally, government came in to regulate all three.

When you have general purpose computing, you can have whatever the peripherals of your computer allow you to have, even if it’s criminal. Such peripherals include, but are not limited to, recording devices and displays, CNC machines (fab), and telecom (the internet, VOIP, etc).

The funny thing about computing though, is that it is not consumed in the process the way money and land are. Those have to be invested, because you really can’t build a factory on a plot today, and then change it to apartments for a few hours to meet demand. You can’t have your paycheck pay for food today, and then have the same money pay for rent tomorrow.

So now users have this virtual land that isn’t dedicated to a single purpose and can change at the drop of a hat from producing (or consuming) kitten videos to committing virtual crimes to emailing your mom and back again. It defies the concept of specialization of labor. It defies the concept of investment, because once you pay the overhead and produce something for that virtual land (software), everyone can use it without investing in it themselves.

In other words, it defies the models of money and land. It is its own kind of beast, and computing is our window into that world. What computers we use are our “avatars,” to use a tired term, and GP computing is the only avatar that isn’t artificially hindered. But an avatar that is unhindered is (for the purposes of law enforcement) no different from allowing all citizens access to weaponry, without even background checks. Maybe it will take care of itself, maybe it won’t; the arguments could go on forever.

I would say that the argument for GP computing is more akin to the right to bear arms than the right to free speech. It’s individually empowering, to the point of threatening other people. Either you respect that people will someday need it, or you get in the path of that train. Maybe you can derail it with your corpse, maybe not, I don’t know, but there are a LOT of people who won’t sit idly by as you take their (metaphorical) guns away.”

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