This post is part of The Future of Coordinated Thinking: Series Index
Communications technology is the medium of modern consciousness: freedom of speech, thought and association are near synonyms for freedom of and with respect to the technology of communication. Our pursuit of knowledge, justice, and our own personal objectives depends on our ability to access information and each other, unencumbered by government, corporate, technological or accidental restrictions.
Therefore, the technology of communication should:
- Be free and open source.
- Be owned and controlled by the users, and should help the rightful entity, whether an individual, group or the collective, to maintain ownership over their information and their modes of organizing information.
- Have open and logical interfaces, and be interoperable where possible.
- Help users to understand and master it.
- Let users communicate in any style or format.
- Help users to work towards a system that facilitates the storage, transmission and presentation of both the totality of knowledge and of the ways in which it is organized.
What follows is an exploration and clarification of these six points:
- 1. The technology of communication should be free and open source.
- 2. The technology of communication should be owned and controlled by the users, and should help the rightful entity, whether an individual, group or the collective, to maintain ownership over their information and their modes of organizing information
- 3. The technology of communication should have open and logical interfaces, and be interoperable where possible.
- 4. The technology of communication should help users to understand and master it.
- 5. The technology of communication should let users communicate in any style or format.
- 6. The technology of communication should help users to work towards a system that facilitates the storage, transmission and presentation of both the totality of knowledge and of the ways in which it is organized.
1. The technology of communication should be free and open source.
First: what is free software? A program is free if it allows users the following:
- Freedom 0: The freedom to run the program for any purpose.
- Freedom 1: The freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish.
- Freedom 2: The freedom to redistribute and make copies so you can help your neighbour.
- Freedom 3: The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements (and modified versions in general) to the public, so that the whole community benefits.
You will, dear reader, detect that this use of the word free relates to freedom not merely to something being provided free of charge. Open source, although almost synonymous, is a separate concept promoted by a different organization: the Open Source Initiative promotes open source and the Free Software Foundation, free.
A note, I think that we should obey a robustness principle when it comes to software and licenses: Be conservative with respect to the software you access (i.e. obey the law, respect trademarks, patents and copyright; pay what you owe for software, donate to and promote projects that give you stuff without charging a fee); be liberal with respect to the software you create (i.e. make it free and open source wherever and to the extent possible).
Fundamentally, the purpose of free software is to maximize freedom, not to impoverish software creators or get free stuff; any moral system based on free software must build effective mechanisms to give developers the handsome rewards they deserve.
To dig further into the concept and its sister concept, why do we say open source? The word “source” here refers to a program’s source code, instructions usually in “high-level” languages that allow programmers to write programs in terms that are more abstract and closer to the ways in which humans think, making programming more intuitive and faster. These programs are either compiled or interpreted into instructions in binary (the eponymous zeroes and ones) that a computer’s processor can understand directly.
The program in binary from is very hard (perhaps impossible in some cases) for humans to understand. As such, what we call open source might be termed, software for which the highest level of abstraction of its workings is publicly available. Or, software that shows you how it does what it does.
Point 0. matters because the technology of communication is useful to the extent that we can use it: we shouldn’t use or create technology, for example, that makes it impossible to criticise the government or religion.
Of course, one might challenge this point, asking, for example, whether or why software shouldn’t include features that prevent us from breaking the law. I have ideas and opinions on this, but will save them for another time. Suffice to say that free software has an accompanying literature as diverse and exacting as the commentary on the free speech provision of the First Amendment: there is much debate about how exactly to interpret and apply these ideas, but that doesn’t stop them from being immensely useful.
Point 1. is extremely important for any software that concerns privacy, security or, for that matter, anything important. If you can’t inspect your software’s core nature, how can you see whether it contains functions that spy on you, provide illicit access to your computer, or bugs that its creators missed that will later provide unintentional access to hackers? See the WannaCry debacle for a recent example of a costly and disastrous vulnerability in proprietary software.
Point 2. matters for communications in that when software or parts of software can be copied and distributed freely, this maximises the number of people that have access and can, thus, communicate. It matters also in that if you can see how a system works, it’s much easier to create systems that can to talk to it.
However, the “free” in free software is the cause of confusion, as it makes it sound like people that create free or open source software will or can never make money. This is a mistake worth correcting:
- Companies can and do charge for free software, for example, Red Hat charges for its GNU/Linux operating system distro, Red Hat Enterprise Linux. The fee gets you the operating system under the exclusive Red Hat trademark, support and training: the operating system itself is free software (you can read up on this firm to see that they really have made money).
- A good deal of programmers are sponsored to create free software by their employers, at one point, Microsoft developers were the biggest contributors to the Linux kernel (open source software like Linux is just too good to ignore).
Point 3. might be clearer with the help of a metaphor. Imagine if you bought a car, but, upon trying to fit a catalytic converter, or a more efficient engine, were informed that you were not permitted to do so, or even found devices that prevented you from modifying it. This is the state that one finds when trying to improve most proprietary software.
In essence, most things that we own could be better, and in the realm of communication, surmounting limitations inherent in the means of communication opens new ways of expressing ourselves and connecting with others. Our minds and imaginations are constrained by the means of communication just as they are by language; the more freedom we have, the better. Look, for example, to the WordPress ecosystem and range of plugins to see what people will do given the ability to make things better.
There are names in tech that are well known among the public: most notably Bill Gates and Microsoft, Steve Jobs and Apple; we teach school children about them, and rightly so, they and those like them have done a great deal for a great many. However, I argue that there are countless other names of a very different type whose stories you should know, here are two: Jon Postel, a pioneer of the Internet who made the sort of lives we life now possible through immense wisdom and foresight, his brand: TCP/IP; Linus Torvalds, who created the Linux kernel, which (usually installed as the core of the GNU operating system) powers all of the top supercomputers, most servers, most smartphones and a non-trivial share personal computers.
Richard Dawkins has an equation to evaluate the value of a theory:
value = what it explains ÷ what it assumes
Here’s my formulation but for technology:
value = what it does ÷ the restrictions accompanying it
Such restrictions include proprietary data structures, non-interoperable interfaces, and anything else that might limit the imagination.
Gates and Jobs’ innovations are considerable, but almost all of them came with a set of restrictions that separate users from users and communities from communities. Postel and Torvalds, their collaborators, and others like them in other domains not mentioned, built and build systems that are open and interoperable, and that generate wealth for the whole world by sharing new instrumentality with everyone. All I’m saying is that we should celebrate this sort of innovator a lot more.
2. The technology of communication should be owned and controlled by the users, and should help the rightful entity, whether an individual, group or the collective, to maintain ownership over their information and their modes of organizing information
I will try to be brief with what risks being a sprawling point. In encounter after encounter, and interaction after interaction, users sign ideas, identities, privacy and control over how we communicate to unaccountable corporations. This is a hazard because (confining ourselves only to social media and the Web) we might pour years of work into writing and building an audience, say, on Twitter, to have everything taken away because we stored our speech on a medium that we didn’t own and, for example, a network like Twitter represents a single choke-point for authoritarian regimes like the government of Turkey.
On a slightly subtler note, expressing our ideas via larger sites makes us dependent on them for the conversation around ideas, also: conversations should accompany the original material, not live on social profiles far from it, where they are sprayed into the dustbin by the endless stream of other content.
3. The technology of communication should have open and logical interfaces, and be interoperable where possible.
We the users should pay for our web-hosting and set up our own sites: we already have the technology necessary to do this. If you care about it, own it.
What is interoperability, the supposed North Star here? I think the best way to explain interoperability is to think of it as a step above compatibility. Compatibility means that some thing is can work properly in connection with another thing, e.g. a given USB microphone is compatible with, say, a given machine running a particular version of Windows. Interoperability takes us a step further, requiring there to be some standard (usually agreed by invested organizations and companies) which 1. is publicly available and 2. as many relevant parties as possible agree to obey. USB is a great example: all devices carrying the USB logo will be able to interface with USB equipment; these devices are interoperable with respect to this standard.
There are two main types of interoperability: syntactic and semantic. The former refers to the ability of machines to transmit data effectively: this means that there has to be a standard for how information (like images, text, etc.) is encoded into a stream of data that you can transmit, say, down a telephone line. These days, much of this is handled without us noticing or caring. If you’d like to see this in action, right-click or ⌘-click on this page and select “View Page Source” — you ought to see a little piece of code that says charset=”UTF-8″ — this is the webpage announcing what character-encoding system it is using. This page is interoperable with devices and software that can use the utf-8 standard.
Semantic interoperability is much more interesting: it builds on the syntactic interoperability and adds the ability to actually do work with the information in question. Your browser has this characteristic in that (hopefully) it can take the data that came down your Internet connection and use it to present a Webpage that looks the way it should.
Sounds great, right? Well, people break interoperability all the time, for a variety of reasons:
- Sometimes there’s no need: One-off, test or private software projects usually don’t need to be interoperable.
- Interoperability is hard: The industry collaboration and consortia necessary to create interoperable standards require a great deal of effort and expense. These conversations can be dry and often acrimonious: we owe a great deal to those who have them on our behalf.
- Some organizations create non-interoperable systems for business reasons: For example, a company might create a piece of software that saves user files in a proprietary format and, thus, users must keep using/paying for the company’s software to access their information.
- Innovation: New approaches eventually get too far from older technology to work together; sometimes this is a legitimate reason, sometimes it’s an excuse for reason 3.
Reason three is never an excuse for breaking interoperability, reason two is contingent, and reason one and four are fine. In cases where it is just too hard or expensive to work up a common, open standard, creators can help by making interfaces that work logically, predictably and, if possible, document them: this way collaborators can at least learn how to build compatible systems.
4. The technology of communication should help users to understand and master it.
Mastery of something is a necessary condition for freedom from whatever force that would control it. To the extent that you don’t know how to build a website or operating system or a mail server, you are a captive audience for those who will offer to do it for you—there is nothing wrong with this, per se, but I argue that the norm should be that any system that makes these things easy should be pedagogical: it should act as a tutorial to get you at least to the stage of knowing what you don’t know, rather than keeping your custom through ignorance. We should profit through assisting users in the pursuit of excellence and mastery.
Meanwhile, remember virtuality: the faulty used car might have visible rust that scares you off, or might rattle on the way home, letting you know that it’s time to have a word with the salesperson. Software that abuses your privacy or exposes your data might do so for years without you realizing, all this stuff can happen in the background; software, therefore, should permit and encourage users to “pop the hood” and have a look around.
Users: understand your tools. Software creators: educate your users.
5. The technology of communication should let users communicate in any style or format.
Modern Internet communication systems, particularly the Web and to an extent email, beguile us with redundant and costly styling, user interfaces, images, etc. The most popular publishing platforms, website builders like WordPress and social media, force users either to adopt particular styling or to make premature or unnecessary choices in this regard. The medium is the message: forced styling changes the message; forced styling choices dilute the message.
6. The technology of communication should help users to work towards a system that facilitates the storage, transmission and presentation of both the totality of knowledge and of the ways in which it is organized.
Humanity’s knowledge is swiftly being digitized, but much of it is still stuck in proprietary formats (PDF, Word, etc.) or behind arcane payment and publishing systems (such as academic PDFs). Information-creators should be properly compensated for their work, but this imperative should not interfere with the ease of access and logic of arrangement of humanity’s knowledge.
Perhaps more importantly, the relationships, connections, analogies and groupings among pieces of information are fundamental to human learning and particularly for holistic thinking and mind-changing experiences. Technological accidents (particularly the Web’s one-way links) mean that much of this information is discarded. We should strive to preserve this information upon its creation, recover what was previously lost, and build media to allow people to access it easily.
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