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The Coming War on General Purpose Computation (boingboing.net)
157 points by jamesbritt on Dec 28, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 26 comments



I certainly appreciate Mr. Doctrow's willingness to help get the word out but in my opinion a presentation at the Chaos Computer Congress is preaching to the choir.

True. OTOH these sorts of events create video by-products that can be distributed to other people (though Boing-boing is likely another choir).

Still, I found it interesting because of how he outlines the possible reasoning for such maneuvers (e.g. screwing with DNS is portrayed in the same light as dropping phone service for the head shop down the block), which can help folks like use when we try to explain to non-geeks why things like SOPA or walled-garden electronics are so bad.


I'm the choir you're talking about, on all of his major points, and I'd never heard the term "cognitive liberty" before this video. I'd like to think I'm well-informed on these topics, too.

These things are beneficial, if only for the same-page-ification that the choir requires from time to time.


This isn't coming. A decade ago Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-Disney) ran a bill that outlawed general purpose computers and made it a federal crime to posses a compiler without a license.

It's long since been here and will continue. Government officials desire the power to act with discretion to outlaw the computers they don't like and tolerate those they do. The especially want the power to decide after the fact and hold you retroactively responsible for anything they choose. The computer industry with its empowerment of the masses and startup culture is especially vulnerable to the usual bureaucratic power games so we will have to fight in order to lose our freedoms more slowly.

The legislators and bureaucrats aren't stupid and they aren't ignorant of the principle of Turing Equivalence. They love the idea that every computer can be demonized and outlawed at once. They especially love the idea that every programmer must hope for the forbearance of his superior in the bureaucracy, forever focused on pleasing the big man in Washington on whose pleasure his freedom depends.

It's like 1984 where Winston thinks that O'Brien will be his ally in reform because O'Brien understands the corruption, abuse, and evil of the system. Winston was wrong. The incumbents will not improve by being better informed. The horror totalitarian future you want to avoid is exactly the dream they cherish.


I see this viewpoint as containing the following characteristics.

* the idea that society-wide events happen because they are planned by an entity that is fully conscious of what it is doing

* the believe that entities actually exist that could actually reliably orchestrate society-scale things

* the idea that society-scale things can be planned at all, which entails that society-scale things can be predicted reliably

* the attribution of human characteristics to a vague group

* the idea that vague groups can be understood as having a singular consciousness

* the idea that vague groups can be understood as having a singular motivation exactly like that of a single human being, such as greed, avarice, lust, pride, jealousy

This type of thinking has been attractive to humanity for the last hundred thousand years or so. It's like Hellenistic polytheism in which the natural world could be understood as being comprised of human-like entities each of which can be understood the way you would psychologize a single person. You can understand the natural world as you would understand the complex interplay of visceral motivations of different human-like minds. You might find it similar to the world The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones, any given soap opera, any Shakespeare play; the game of the viewer is you have to keep track of these different shifting alliances, relationships, and the visceral motives (lust, price, envy etc) of all these different characters plotting and scheming against each other; it's like porn for a certain part of the mind, it's just part of being a social ape. It's doubtless that it's a vital part of being a member of any small troop of chimpanzees, keeping track of complicated relationships, who owes who what, who's allied with who, who's sleeping with who, etc.


The day I eventually realized that the reddit hivemind can simultaneously hold several opposing or orthogonal viewpoints and opinions was a day I came to understand the Internet-as-a-whole a lot better.


"""* the idea that society-wide events happen because they are planned by an entity that is fully conscious of what it is doing"""

"fully conscious" is a weasel-word to disqualify the fact the fact that A LOT of society-wide events DO happen because they are planned by an entity.

Not only an aggregate entity, like a government, but even a single man sometimes. A dictator, for example, can (and historically has) pass a totally arbitrary law or course of action of his own choosing. (Napoleon: "we shall invade Russia").

"""* the believe that entities actually exist that could actually reliably orchestrate society-scale things"""

"Reliably" is another weasel-word here. Maybe a plan cannot ever go 100% as planned, but entities DO exist that can determine a course of action society-scale and make it happen. For example, NRA and it's lobbyists can pen, lobby and have the congress vote for a specific law.

"""* the idea that society-scale things can be planned at all, which entails that society-scale things can be predicted reliably"""

See adobe.

"""* the attribution of human characteristics to a vague group"""

Human characteristics (like "ambition", "ambivalence", "will", "shameless" etc) are totally applicable to groups, even vague groups. Actually, those characteristics as as easily applicable to single human s as to groups of humans -- there's nothing that makes them inherently applicable to single humans only.

"""* the idea that vague groups can be understood as having a singular consciousness"""

Singular is another weasel-word here. They might not have a "singular consciousness", but they DO have an aggregate consciousness. I.e it's statistics, not an exact measurement.

"""* the idea that vague groups can be understood as having a singular motivation exactly like that of a single human being, such as greed, avarice, lust, pride, jealousy"""

Same as above.

In fact your arguments can even be applied to single human beings. Who said that the idea that a single human being "can be understood as having a singular motivation such as greed, avarice, lust, pride, jealousy" is not silly?

We choose to generalize, we choose to make broad statements on data aggregates etc, both on terms of single human beings and groups because IT WORKS, and because it helps us understand and judge reality better.

It's like when we study chemistry: yeah, underneath it it's all physics, but it's a nice level of abstraction to have and it helps us understand processes and act better for a lot of cases.


>> * the idea that society-wide events happen because they are planned by an entity that is fully conscious of what it is doing

> "fully conscious" is a weasel-word to disqualify the fact the fact that A LOT of society-wide events DO happen because they are planned by an entity.

> Not only an aggregate entity, like a government, but even a single man sometimes. A dictator, for example, can (and historically has) pass a totally arbitrary law or course of action of his own choosing. (Napoleon: "we shall invade Russia").

Perhaps there is a difference between the claims that "events however they turn out will generally be seen as having been intended" and "there are no events that were intended as such", the latter of which your response would be more applicable to.

Do you think that there's a difference between claiming "Napolean" wants X and whatever the referent of "bureaucrats" is as wanting X that could be worth discussing? That difference being a major thrust of my point.

Clearly the vague-group issue wouldn't apply very well to an absolute dictatorship. Even with that dictatorship your example could be seen a strong counter-example: Napolean's plan was to invade Russia but his plan completely blew up in his face and ended up with a result that was absolutely not part of his plan.

You say that "not only" vague entities can have plans and then discuss dictators, so perhaps it's harder to think of examples of that.

>>"""* the believe that entities actually exist that could actually reliably orchestrate society-scale things"""

> "Reliably" is another weasel-word here. Maybe a plan cannot ever go 100% as planned, but entities DO exist that can determine a course of action society-scale and make it happen. For example, NRA and it's lobbyists can pen, lobby and have the congress vote for a specific law.

Ok. Maybe sometimes something very specific and very short-term can be achieved reliably by a specific organization with the intention to do so. It is not true that there are no events that happen that were intended.

Perhaps if the poster had in fact given a very specific group with a very specific plan then we could have talked about the likelihood of that happening. I bet that would be a more useful discussion.

>> * the attribution of human characteristics to a vague group

> Human characteristics (like "ambition", "ambivalence", "will", "shameless" etc) are totally applicable to groups, even vague groups. Actually, those characteristics as as easily applicable to single human s as to groups of humans -- there's nothing that makes them inherently applicable to single humans only.

The poster made claims of EXTREMELY SPECIFIC human characteristics to vague groups. They know about "Turing Equivalence", "love the idea that every computer can be demonized", "love the idea that every programmer must hope for the forbearance of his superior in the bureaucracy, forever focused on pleasing the big man in Washington", "cherish" the "dream" of totalitarianism.

Even if some of the set of characteristics we could apply to humans could also be applied to groups, the burden of proof on something as specific as above would seem to be very large.

>>* the idea that vague groups can be understood as having a singular consciousness

> Singular is another weasel-word here. They might not have a "singular consciousness", but they DO have an aggregate consciousness. I.e it's statistics, not an exact measurement.

I don't know what an "aggregate consciousness" is.

It sounds like "consciousness" in that term may have a somewhat different sense than what we would normally mean by the word.

> In fact your arguments can even be applied to single human beings. Who said that the idea that a single human being "can be understood as having a singular motivation such as greed, avarice, lust, pride, jealousy" is not silly?

That's an interesting idea but actually I don't think people actually think that way by default. I think people do in fact very often think of each other as being motivated by greed, envy, lust, etc.

Even so, should ill-defined groups really be thought of as having motivations "exactly like" that of individual people?

In fact I think we have a tendency to attribute group motivations as being even more simple than that of a single person. A person could be greedy but could also be wracked by guilt; a person could want Y today but change his mind and want X tomorrow. It's difficult to think of a vague group attribution that anyone would actually make that includes complex or conflicting motivations or changes of heart, etc.

> We choose to generalize, we choose to make broad statements on data aggregates etc, both on terms of single human beings and groups because IT WORKS, and because it helps us understand and judge reality better.

I strongly disagree and don't understand why you could think that. "statements on data aggregates" seems like a poetic way of referring to what is just some sort of personal feeling or impression. I'm curious to know why you think "it works" perhaps in comparison to other ways of thinking you've tried. I think we think as we do largely because we are predisposed to do so based on processes adapted from those of our pre-human ancestors, not because we tried out several different ways and concluded this was the best among them. Even so, perhaps any different way of thinking could have different merits and flaws that we could discuss.

> It's like when we study chemistry: yeah, underneath it it's all physics, but it's a nice level of abstraction to have and it helps us understand processes and act better for a lot of cases.

I think this is an exceptionally poor analogy. Chemistry is extremely specific and precise and well-defined and makes clearly falsifiable claims even if we erased all knowledge of physics. If we could discuss such matters as precisely as in a chemistry paper we could tell immediately how we could try to figure out which claims could be true decisively. If someone wrote a chemistry paper with as much vagueness as the poster I was replying they would be laughed out of the auditorium.


A decade ago Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-Disney) ran a bill that outlawed general purpose computers and made it a federal crime to posses a compiler without a license.

Citation needed. Not to be a pain in the 4ss, but because I want to read more about this idiocy!



I'm sad to see a comment like this, claiming so much but providing evidence for so little, as the top-rated comment.


Reminds me of that recent thread by pg on a top-rated low-quality comment (it's the 2nd comment): http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3103530


It really doesn't say much for either of us that we both remember that 78 day-old comment, does it?


Given Hollings's legislative track record I'm inclined to believe you but do you have a source for that accusation?


It sounds like the proposed bill that Stallman complained about at the end of his right to read story. Here's that bill: http://w2.eff.org/IP/SSSCA_CBDTPA/20020321_s2048_cbdtpa_bill...

However, it doesn't really match the GPs description--I don't see anything about licensing compilers.


I was curious and went hunting, and I think it might be this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consumer_Broadband_and_Digital_...


Somewhat ironically, the way mobile computing is obsessed with simple 'apps' reminds me somewhat of the 'Unix philosophy' - lots of tools that do one thing, which you can chain/pipe together into workflows to great effect. I can see this taking off more if vendors and developers work more on simple 'piping' APIs. And other things like RDFs, Service-Oriented Architecture in general.

And it could be so much more richer than the usual piping of text that happens in Unix. Imagine, you take a picture with your camera phone; you pipe the image to some sort of visual pattern matching program which isolates the faces in the picture; which are then uploaded to an online facial recognition service and the identities sent back to you; which are piped to a social networking app to find which people list polka as an interest; and then finally to your email/messaging program of choice so you can invite them to your monthly polka event. THEN you can save this workflow and have it execute from just a single camera shot... or have the camera input come from a surveillance camera via bluetooth.


lots of tools that do one thing, which you can chain/pipe together into workflows to great effect.

Sounds like Android's intents.


I think if Apple has their way (uncertain) then everything will become a backplane for Siri.


Its not just we vs them, as he mentions the possibility to print biological structures is kind of creepy, so some control is necessary. You wouldnt want kids printing out viruses and such far fetched scenarios.

We hackers have a responsibility to not only fight against stupid laws, but to put in place sane ones, which respect freedom and privacy and also maintain public safety.


I think he mentioned that as printing out biological structures that would eat Monsanto's products. You can take this to mean it is creepy, but I think he meant it was a threat to Monsanto and when Monsanto realizes this, they are going to attempt to get legislation passed.


Is this war not already here? Perhaps it is not counted as a war since so few are defending general purpose computation.

I certainly appreciate Mr. Doctrow's willingness to help get the word out but in my opinion a presentation at the Chaos Computer Congress is preaching to the choir. [Edit:] BoingBoing is a little closer to mainstream, but there's a way to go.


If you watch the talk, you will see that it was written for the choir. He discusses the challenges and responsibilities that we as hackers will face in future, and how they will go way beyond the current copyright wars. It was something of a call to arms basically.

I was in the audience last night, and it was an excellent presentation. All of the talks I have seen so far have been excellent, and I encourage you to check out the 28c3 youtube channel, where prerelease versions of all the talks are being posted (with extremely low delays I might add.)

http://youtube.com/28c3

Also, you can watch live streams here:

http://28c3.fem-net.de/


Thanks for the recommendation. I did watch the first half hour's worth, up to the Q/A session. I didn't really hear any 'next action' though... was there any recommendation on what I should be doing about this now?


Not as such, it was more of a general thing about what might (probably will) happen in the future, designed to provoke thought in the community. As he was dealing in hypotheticals, however likely they may be, there was not much talk of specific actions, as far as I remember anyway.

The Q&A was also very interesting, and it included more concrete discussion of possible ways forward I think.


We should send the video to our representatives and other SOPA/PIPA supporters. Maybe some of them will get it.


They will "get it" only if the video is accompanied by campaign contributions.




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