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#28c3: “The coming war on general purpose computation” as THE 2011 speech

Take all of the political speeches of all EU Commissioners, all Members of the European Parliament, all Presidents of any of the EU institutions in 2011 and all other talks of EU officials, EU lobbyists and so forth on innovation, technology, the internet, globalisation, democracy in the 21st century.

Now replace all these speeches with the following 30 minutes #28c3 talk (plus 25 minutes of Q&A) by Cory Doctorow on “The coming war on general purpose computation“.

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Similar to general nature of the Chaos Computer Congress I’ve blogged about yesterday, it’s a speech (transcript) that is only at first sight about technology but in reality it is about the future of society and the future of politics.

I admit that I haven’t heard about Doctorow before, and I thus also first ignored his speech. This ignorance would have been fatal, as the speech is, on the last day of the year, the first one that made me actually think about things I haven’t thought about before. The speech is also, compared to anything that I’ve heard coming out of EU mouths this year, well-crafted both in style and in substance, and thus a pleasure to listen to even if one might disagree.

It’s hard to summarise Cory’s talk concisely, but the central thought I take away is that one of the main political struggles with regard to computer technology in the next years will be to prevent policy makers – our representatives – from favouring limited-use machines over general purpose computers.

This will be particularly important because limiting the purposes and tasks that computers are allowed to do – out of fear for things that could be done that are anyway impossible to prevent – through political regulation will come with implementing measures in the form of technical solutions such as sophisticated surveillance technology. These extensive surveillance and prevention techniques will be used to prevent citizens from freely using computers, undermining the positive social and political developments that computers have brought to our society.

This is even more problematic as these measures will fail such as implementing copyright has failed, because capable users will always find ways to circumvent pseudo-legal and related technical limitations.

And so finally the limits set to computers through regulation will only affect those most in need of the freedom to make free use of computers to organise, to educate, to share and to communicate freely without being dependent on the good will of large powerful players who want to define how individuals should (not) behave in order to protect their economic or power interests.

In this sense, the big fight over (the right to) general purpose computing is one of the fights for the freedom of citizens, and Cory Doctorow’s speech is thus a call for a liberal society that was disguised as a talk about computers and copyright. That’s a political vision EU politics was totally unable to provide in a year dominated by Eurozone summits that haven’t lead to anything, and in particular not to motivate true innovation and the active involvement of citizens in politics and democracy.

Thus let’s forget about the PR exercises of Europe 2020 or the Digital Agenda, and let’s get back to real visions about society in 2012 EU politics and care about the fights that actually matter. Thanks, Cory Doctorow for reminding us!

9 Responses to #28c3: “The coming war on general purpose computation” as THE 2011 speech

  1. avatar Ralf Grahn says:

    On the contrary, dear Ronny, let a few more among us us finally become interested in seemingly abstruse topics, such as EU2020, the Digital Agenda, an open internet and net neutrality, citizens’ rights on and off line… where the failures or successes at European level are going to shape the future of our continent and our lives.

  2. avatar Ronny Patz says:

    The problem with “EU2020” or the “Digital Agenda” is that they are a pseudo-policies, meta-frames that can contain anything, useful policies and useless ones. They disguise concrete matters for the sake of proper political debates about what is more and what is less important. They are anti-priorities and they are thus anti-political.

  3. avatar David says:

    You’re right about EU2020 and also EU2030, both were conceived after the debacle of the referendums on the Constitutional /Lisbon treaties on the strict understanding that democracy, that is the institutional framework, should not be discussed. (My commentaries are on the web site under News and Comments).

    The long-term question Doctorow brings up is that if we can foresee a world of extraordinary information freedom with reduced possibilities to control copyright etc, how does the world live in peace from bomb-makers, jihadists, child exploiters, crime and piracy (in the old fashioned sense of brigands and thieves)?

    The answer as always is by improving the moral character of citizens and their courage to face dangers, debate and trounce the blackguards. ‘World peace can only be safeguarded by taking creative measures commensurate with the dangers facing it.. ‘ Schuman Declaration. Where are the attempts of leaders to raise the moral fibre of the citizens rather than deliver sops?

  4. avatar Ralf Grahn says:

    Quite right regarding the wise men and women of Europe 2030. The national leaders (European Council) clipped the wings by expressly forbidding “institutional” issues, i.e. irritating questions such as democracy and political rights of EU citizens.

    However, is it fair to accuse donkeys such as the EU2020 and other programmes for failing to be unicorns? The donkey is useful as it is – a beast of burden.

  5. avatar David says:

    The ten year perspectives are an old Gaullist trick for the politicians to bamboozle the public. They did this in previous decades, so they would have a fig-leaf of legitimacy — if only the covering of a report written by their buddies and paid-for think tank staffs. They quote the EU2020 etc as if it were public endorsement and assume the public is too lazy to say repeatedly that the EU2020 does not have any public legitimacy. They know that in the past the public got tired of repeatedly exposing this fraudulent practice — because it was ignored. They need a fig leaf so the EU leaders have carte blanche to spend money as they wish and ignore their own lack of democratic legitimacy such as closed Councils, ignored referendums and lack of a single European elections.

    It should be demolished by saying that EU2020 is hopelessly inadequate because it does not predict or deal with MAJOR events, energy blackmail and the ‘Friday revolutions’ aka the Arab Spring, (also the ‘Christian winter’ of new persecution and killings across the Middle East, Africa and Asia) the Iran bomb etc and the problems of democracy in our neighbourhood. It does not deal with the type of issues that Doctorow is raising. It has no solid understanding of reality of what Europe needs for a democratic process, nor how it is being undermined as a civilisation at the moment. Europe’s leaders are willingly making themselves blind to problems, not only these but also the foundational problems of the euro and public finances.

  6. avatar Ralf Grahn says:

    @David We seem to agree on the need for European level democracy and accountable government, so I largely agree on the the flaws of much of what is done in the name of the European Union.

    However, if we happened to live as democrats under more or less enlightened autocrats (Holy Alliance) we could still be interested in the cooperation and programmes taking place in the real world.

  7. avatar David says:

    @Ralf Grahn. The politicians do not appear enlightened about the dangers facing Europe (such as those above) nor are they exhibiting the least democratic attitude compared to the Community democracy they signed up to. They are only ‘democratic’ when they have defined their own framework and the public is within it. When it comes to, say, the trillion euro questions, dubious tax-haven companies, energy blackmail and even existential questions, they refuse public participation in the five institutions that were designed for them in the Community system. Refusing the development of democratic institutions of the Community system is a fundamentally UNdemocratic act. The Community was designed to get rid of autocrats and that eventually is what will happen. As Europe’s leaders are heading fast in the wrong direction, it will be very painful for everyone.

  8. avatar Ralf Grahn says:

    @David It is not easy to live under the present, primitive rule of the European Union, or to watch the destiny of our zombie currency, the euro.

    If you are interested, you could read my mid-December thoughts, now published by New Europe:

  9. avatar cleannaal says:

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