Jordi Inglada
04 Feb 2012

Computers run the world, I run computers, therefore ...

The war on general computation

Although I am not particularly fan of Science Fiction, I follow Cory Doctorow's production because of his views on free culture and free software. He has written many essays about the problems with copyright law and how copyright enforcement is a waste of time. He is himself an example of a creator who is able to make a living making available his work without copy restrictions.

Doctorow has also written about the links between free culture (Creative Commons) and free software, and I don't think I am wrong saying that it all boils down to the same thing.

I recently listened to one episode of the Cory Doctorow podcast about the war on general purpose computation. It was a re-run of the talk he gave at the 28th Chaos Communications Congress in Berlin around last Christmas. The YouTube video with subtitles is available here.

Doctorow has been recently interviewed on CBC about the same topic.

To make a quick synthesis of the talk, we could say that the content industry, in its blind war on copyright infringement, will tend to try to eliminate general purpose computers – that is computers that you can use for whatever you want – and replace them by appliances – that is devices (stripped down computers) which serve one single purpose: content consumption.

At first sight, this may seem some conspiracy theory, but, actually, Apple has started applying the model. For instance, if I write a program for an iPad and I want to sell it to you, the only legal way I have is to go through the Apple Store (and Apple takes 30\%). Otherwise, you have to jailbreak your device. The same kind of trend is coming to Apple desktop and laptop computers. And not much different is the Secure Boot which Microsoft wants to force on computer manufacturers. Google's Chromebooks and other Android tablets limit you ins a somewhat similar way.

Listen to Doctorow's talk to get the full picture. One of the consequences of this war on general purpose computation is that it might even become illegal – I don't think impossible, however – to run free software on most devices available in the market.

The scientist

Since most, if not all, of the science depends in one or another way on computers, for the scientist, this has major implications.

The 2 main pillars of science are independence and reproducibility. These means that a scientist must be able to explain and verify any single result or statement she makes public. In the case of results produced using computer software, being able to look under the hood of the programs used for scientific computation is a fundamental need.

Of course, I am not advocating for the fact that the scientist should code everything herself. This would be too inefficient. But there is when open source software comes to rescue. One can rely on existing tools (libraries, etc.) without having to accept the black box approach of proprietary tools.

I am always astounded to see colleagues using tools for which they don't have the source code. The argument is always that they are being pragmatic, and that theoretical principles about software freedom can be traded against convenience. I can't agree with this.

The day when a bug is detected in one of these software and that you don't have other possibility to get things working correctly than waiting for the new version, you understand that there is a problem.

The day when you can not work because there is a limited number of licenses available in the lab, you understand that there is a problem.

The day you see your students using an illegal version of the software, because they want to improve their skills by working at home, you understand that there is a problem.

And these are only a limited number of real life examples that I have seen around me several times.

Yes, many open source tools lack the degree of polish that proprietary tools have. Some have poor documentation. Some are less user friendly and impose a steep learning curve. The good point is that you can contribute by improving the tool yourself. If you don't have the required skills to do it, you may convince your boss to use the same amount of money she would put into a proprietary software license to hire someone who has the skills to improve the free software you need. After that, do not forget to make your improvements available, so that others benefit from them and consider doing the same.

OK. Enough about work. Let's go home.

The geek dad, or just dad

Most households have at least one computer. Many households have several of them. Nowadays, kids have access to computers from they early age.

Several weeks ago, my children (5 and 7) discovered a web browser in the computer they use for games at home. They also quickly discovered the search engine and the possibility to search on YouTube for videos of their favorite cartoon characters. (In another post I will write about how to explain copyright law to a child who is upset because she can't find on-line the cartoon she wants to watch).

I quickly realized that I hadn't thought about how to filter what they access on the net, so I started looking for something to install.

I know that my ISP proposes a service for that. I know that there are on-line services you can subscribe to. But when it comes to my children, I am not going to give any company the permission to log their web access.

So what I did was installing a free software called DansGuardian which acts as a proxy and filters http requests sent by a browser. It took me 5 minutes to install it and, 10 to understand how to configure it, and 10 more to select the filtering settings I want. OK. I had to read the documentation and mess around with configuration files, but I know exactly what happens, and it's me who looks at the http logs and not an unknown person. Yes, you can say that I am a control freak, and you are right, because, by now, my children are only allowed to use the web browser when their mother or me are with them.

I will call this parental responsibility.

This responsibility includes also teaching critical thinking and giving the freedom to learn. Unfortunately, they don't learn that at school. They don't learn computer skills either. Granted they have computers in the classroom (hey, we are a modern country!), but the teachers are not trained to teach them anything other than to play pseudo-educational games.

The Linux computer my children use has the same kind of software available. They mainly use Tux Paint and GCompris. So what's better with respect to what they have at school?

It's free (as in freedom), so I am confident on being able to run the software on a low end computer if I want to. I can change things that they don't like or that I don't like. For instance, I added their pictures to the set of available Tux Paint stamps. The software is available in many languages, many more than many proprietary software. And this is very useful for kids to learn, even if their mother tongue is a minority one (there are many of them in Europe). Even best, if the language was not available, a parent could translate the software, since all the text messages and the recorded voices are stored in separate files.

This gives a massive freedom to learn, but that's not all. One thing children like very much is taking toys apart. This is not a destructive obsession, but just a need to know how things work. What's the point of playing with software which can't be taken apart to see how it works?

If the war on general purpose computation becomes a widespread reality, our children may not be able to learn to program, or at least, not without spending lots of money in order to buy expensive tools for that. And too bad for those who don't have the money.

They may not be able to put their own pictures on Tux Paint without proving that they own the copyright, and that would be dramatic.

Tags: free-culture free-software
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