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Doctorow: The coming war on general-purpose computation (lwn.net)
198 points by ableal 1613 days ago | past | web | 53 comments



This is exactly the sort of stuff RMS was saying decades ago, but most people wrote it off as "unrealistic" and "paranoid". Its looking more like the right to read every day.

Control of Computers/information systems is going to become one of the only real ways to exercise control over people in the future, because it will encompass everything else.

Its sad to see people welcome locked down shit like apple products, here with open arms.

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Well, Microsoft is locking down Windows 8 pretty hard, too. First with UEFI, then with the Windows 8 store where they'll only let you install apps from the market in "tile mode" and they'll even be able to remove apps from your PC. I know they still allow you to do everything in the non-tile mode now, but what happens when they remove that mode in the future?

How long will it be until RIAA tells Congress that "Microsoft is not doing enough to stop piracy (even though they have the capability)", just like they are doing now with Google, and then gets them to remove "unlicensed" songs from your PC?

I think stores are fine. They are a pretty good way to show you the best apps for the platform, and they also help a bit with safety, but they should still allow you to download and install whatever you want from the Internet if you choose to.

Android has a pretty good model here. They have the Market, and then if you really want to, you can get apps from other sources, too. Although, I don't think they should even ask you if you want to "enable 3rd party sources" in Settings. It should be enabled by default, and maybe just give you a warning whenever you want to download a 3rd party app, just like they do in Chrome.

The point is I don't want to lose any of the freedoms of what I can do with my computer, just for the sake of having a store that streamlines app discovery and makes me safer when I use it. I should have both.

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> First with UEFI

I want to point out a couple things here, since there seem to be a lot of misconceptions. 1) UEFI is not the problem -- it's one specific feature called 'secure boot'; UEFI is a very good thing overall, so we should point out the bad part and not the awesome whole, 2) MS isn't requiring that secure boot be required, or even that they have a signing key for it -- they're purely requiring that it be on by default, 3) the reference implementation and all known shipping versions of secure boot have a switch to disable it if the user so chooses, so it's not much of a lock-in facility -- it could be in the future, but it's not now, and MS isn't making it into one.

That said, despite being a huge Windows fanboy, Windows 8 is seriously making me consider switching back to Linux. This sort of lock-down is terrible for everyone, most people just don't realize how bad it is.

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UEFI may be an improvement over BIOS, but it sure is no Open Firmware...

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What's that, a terrible implementation of an average idea? The versions of Open Firmware in the wild are notoriously buggy, often to the point that they are barely capable of more than booting the original OS designed for the machine.

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> the reference implementation and all known shipping versions of secure boot have a switch to disable it if the user so chooses

Matthew Garrett reported a while back[1] that some vendors will not provide an option to disable secure boot.

[1] http://mjg59.dreamwidth.org/5850.html

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The main difference, to me, is that Doctorow has a less offensive way of making the case than RMS and hence might actually be taken seriously.

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I don't find Doctorow 'less offensive' because I honestly didn't consider talks by RMS to be offensive at all, rather they were just a bit eccentric because he would go off on tangents about what might happen if we didn't align with his views, it felt a bit like an arrogant begrudged rant.

But now we see bills like SOPA and ProtectIP, and now we already have computers that you can't run any program you want on it, and all these other stories hinting that there are companies out there as sinister as RMS suggested. I find RMS less and less eccentric with each of these things that comes to light.

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It's easier to write off RMS's eccentricities when you already agree with his message. It is also easier to write off his message because of his eccentricities if you don't. Yes, it is ad hominem, but it happens.

That said, RMS has been able to get attention. Whether we would be in a better place with an "normal" RMS is impossible to say. Maybe having both Doctorow and RMS is critical to the fight.

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Control of Computers/information systems is going to become one of the only real ways to exercise control over people in the future, because it will encompass everything else.

What if another nation, say China, decides that it doesn't need to lock down general purpose computing, and instead promotes the availability of unfettered general purpose computing within their borders as a competitive advantage? (Though, sadly this might be due to the sufficiency of political/network dampers on freedom.)

This would make for an interesting world: one divided between a totalitarian regime with free computing and democratic countries with locked down computing.

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Democratic countries are rapidly becoming "not"

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The critical difference between what Doctorow is saying and people buying Apple products is choice. Now you can choose an open solution without being a criminal.

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If Mac OS X goes awry in the future, I'll abandon it. For now, it's my favourite platform. Unless there's a transactional instant where evil descends and alternatives go poof, I'm not too worried.

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its never like that, somebody doesn't just decide to flip the evil switch, and from that day forward everything is horrible.

Its a long process of acclimatization, don't believe me? Take a look at android, which in most respects is far more locked down than any desktop operating system, yet is hailed as "open".

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For me, the "evil switch" is only app store apps are installable. That is the day I switch from OS X and why I am not going to give Windows 8 a chance even though I think they may have got it right this time.

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I’m first and foremost worried about laws, not companies selling products.

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These "appliance-like" computers are a new category, and the ongoing topic of their ease-of-use vs. flexibility is not black and white.

As long as I also have a proper computer, I welcome the simplicity of the tablet. If it looks like I will no longer have the option of buying or owning a proper computer, I'll join you with the pitchforks.

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ease-of-use vs. flexibility is a false dichotomy, at least in the way we're using "flexibility" here. Apple made it seem like ease of use and crippling software for lock-in and DRM reasons are in some way related because they did both of those things so well but they are independent decisions.

It's a great argument for the anti-technology side because it seems to make sense to those that aren't technical, but let's not start spouting that fallacy on hacker news like it's actually true.

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I disagree. I think there is a very real dichotomy between ease-of-use and flexibility, where flexibility is defined as the ability to run arbitrary software from arbitrary sources.

Ease-of-use in the real world is only partially a user-interface design issue, even though that is what software devs spend all day talking about. Turning on a device and being sure that no viruses are going to infect your computer, no malicious people are going to steal your email, and your device will probably just work is a giant ease-of-use feature. It makes your device easier-to-use when you don't have to worry about what your software will do, and that only comes when every single piece of software on your device comes from an authorized source that has been vetted by fairly reliable people who have the power to remotely fix problems on your device (for example, removing apps that turn out to be malicious). Don't kid yourself, even though you might disagree philosophically, removing developer flexibility is very much an ease-of-use feature for consumers.

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Ease-of-use wasn't the best phrase for what I meant. Perhaps fully coherent experience is better. But I still believe the gist of it, so proceed to pity me. I think a more containable example of this balance is the iPad having no removable storage (like an SD card). On one hand it means fat margins on selling higher capacity models, but it also eliminates a whole class of issues around not being able to rely on apps (or their data/media) always being present.

I would welcome more freedom on the iPad. If a switch showed up in the advanced settings that allowed side-loading of unsigned apps, that would be great. But it's not a deal breaker for what is a completely auxiliary device compared to a proper computer.

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You can always jail break your iPad, which in America is legal, I think :)

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I know about jailbreaking, but it's incidental.

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by that point, the interests have already become strongly entrenched, and its almost impossible to stop.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

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for me that point has arrived with Lion

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Now you can

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It is unrealistic and paranoid.

Do you complain that your microwave oven firmware isn't hackable? Do you think that it's no fun that you can't reprogram your car's fuel system? Do you bitch that your TV isn't user serviceable? How's that "locked down shit" HP calculator?

A computer is no longer a general purpose tool but a special purpose appliance for most people.

So long as there's a market for open systems, they will be made, but don't expect grandma to want one.

Why is this so hard for some people to accept? For most people "open" means they'll have to assume responsibility for protecting themselves against threats and managing things they don't want to.

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What Doctorow criticizes is a general problem, not a problem in general-purpose computation; we see the exact same fallacious thinking in the TSA. Terrorists attack the United States with a hijacked aeroplane, so they ramp up security in airports - and mainly in the airports. The hijackers were passengers, so they focus their attention on the passengers, and the passengers only. The target was American buildings by means of hijacked aeroplanes, so they focus their attention on who and what goes on the plane - not what may happen in a crowded airport itself. A nutty attacker hides a bomb in his shoes, later his underwear, so we have to take off our shoes and get patted down or x-ray scanned respectively.

These are people trying to catch the specific perpetrators of yesterday, as if they had a time machine and could go back and stop that individual, not people who are trying to get to the root of the problem and deal with it. When governments impose taxes on optical media, because they "help" people pirate music, they might as well tax shoes and underwear while they are at it. When external hard drives came into vogue, NAS's in particular, Western Digital blacklisted media extensions like .mp3, because that would facilitate piracy; whether the government, lobby groups or they themselves came up with this I don't know. In this digital web age, people have moved their attention from physical media to digital media online, and now "the internet" is the complicit perpetrator.

The good and bad news is that this is a general error in people's line of thought, and it is a good thing that this is a problem that you don't have to be a geek to understand nor care about, because it will affect you whenever you travel, have a darker skin than most people, or use the internet. You can bury your head in the sand, but this will and does affect every person in the Western world you can imagine. Blame the media groups, blame the TSA, but most of all, recognize that we can't just focus our attention at the proverbial shoes and underwear, but have to grasp the scope of the root problem at the core of this, and how people soon enough will find something other to try to regulate and police to no effect and benefit for us all. Today it's the TSA and MPAA; tomorrow we will have to suffer a new organization of fools and another slew of politicians.

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They are "Fully Prepared for the Past": http://systems-thinkers.org/resources/resource/the_systems_b...

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The TSA recently got billions more dollars to search peoples' shoes. I'd say they know exactly what they're doing, and they're very good at it.

Follow the money. When a proposal has an abstract/amorphous benefit to everybody, and a direct benefit to a small group, realize that the intentions are to benefit the latter & not the former, no matter what bullshit they try to feed you.

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The official reason for the Iraq war was to prevent 60 year old technology becoming available to a government that our government decided would inevitably use it in a way that would be harmful to us. The war on drugs is a war on the possession and manufacture of even older bio-technology.

The control of and access to technology is one of the main fulcrums of human history. That's because control and access to technology inherently determines control and access to military, economic and political power and often those in power are always looking to consolidate and guard their privilege.

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General purpose PC's will only disappear if the market for them disappears.

Ultimately it is

1. the nerds who educate (or fail to educate) the consumer market about what is possible using a general purpose PC and

2. the consumers who buy electronics, including general purpose PC's,

who are in control of the future production and general availability of them.

Common sense says that factories will only produce what can be sold. They respond to demand.

Touchscreen, keyboardless tablets and "smartphones" that cannot be connected and controlled with a more flexible general purpose computer are limiting not enabling.

This is however not the message being sent to consumers.

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> General purpose PC's will only disappear if the market for them disappears.

I think this is the key point.

In some sense, the market for them has been disappearing. The rise of web and mobile apps has shown beyond any doubt that a lot of traditional software is far too big and complicated for a typical home user's needs, and that Joe Public can in fact be quite happy sharing his life story on a cloud-hosted blog, keeping up with his friends via Twitter, playing simple puzzle games on Facebook, and watching streaming movies on his iPad. Notice that all of these are just variations on consumption/communication using on-line services. Heavyweight tools like e-mail and word processors just aren't necessary for what most people care about in their daily lives at home. In fact, I suspect that for the average home consumer, open access to data (both their own personal information and multimedia content they have paid for) and the whole walled garden debate are going to be far bigger issues than open access to general purpose hardware and software.

On the flip side, there will always be enthusiasts who do want more flexible hardware and software for their own enjoyment. All of those activities I mentioned above use software written by geeks, running on infrastructure built by geeks and funded in large part by businesses. And businesses themselves have widely diverse requirements and build many software tools both in-house and to sell to the public and/or other businesses. In short, the entire global IT economy is built around geeks and business, and geeks and businesses need general purpose computing. No amount of lobbying by special interest groups is going to beat the combined might of a global economy that now depends fundamentally on progress in IT for its recovery and future success. If a few sites on the scale of Google and Facebook do go dark for a day in protest against SOPA, I think a few politicians, a lot of Big Media executives, and the entire Web-surfing population of the world are going to learn that lesson very quickly.

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"In some sense, the market for them has been disappearing."

Agreed! That's what I thought the keynote would be about before I began watching. Users cared about general purpose computers before, because the only way you could accomplish a task was to run it on your own computer. Now, the thin clients are essentially here, and the ability to run an arbitrary program is not very important to many people.

Or so they think, anyway. I'm worried about the point where devices at home are not Turing-complete, and they just connect to authorized services. Only certain companies would really have the ability to program anything at all (because they'd be the only ones with real computers), and it would be easy for the government to step in and control them.

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How about government registration for general-purpose computers? (I do not support that idea. Rather, it is the next step in this line of reasoning.)

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It’s worth watching the talk (linked in the article, but special pointing out seems appropriate): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HUEvRyemKSg

I like to call it the secret keynote of 28C3.

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Isn't it already the case that many scanners, printers and image editing software have built-in restrictions to prevent the copying of currency?

How are those restrictions implemented? I don't mean in a technical sense, I understand the dot pattern recognition. But how is it that the vendors build it in? Are there legal requirements? (and if so, how do Open Source implementations manage) Are they purely concerned about liability? Are they paid to by the proprietors of the technology? (so that the can sell it to mints).

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The funny part is that Apple is not my current worry. I am very scared of Microsoft's new policy for Windows 8 apps using Metro / WinRT. I am not a lawsuit fan, but I hope someone sues them to force open access. I can see app stores on devices (phones / tablets), but not forced on a PC.

The power a forced app store gives the platform provider is too much. Microsoft could delay a competitors approval while they add new features to their own product. Beyond that, the notion that only the platform provider should have a "relationship" with the customer is bogus.

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The tablet/phone/PC dynamic is artificial. A computer is a computer. We already see the prototypes of the computer of the future, which is a smartphone you can plug into a dock with keyboard/mouse/screen and use as a PC.

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Why? Computers are really cheap, and everything is in the cloud. Why do I need to plug a smartphone in? Any screen soon will probably have a smartphone class CPU in it. For that matter keyboards could too at little cost... Arguably a tablet is just a prototype screen with a smartphone CPU.

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In a perfect world every device would sort of be a general-purpose GPU/CPU hybrid that you can chain via an optical link like Intel's Thunderbolt.

In the real world, no two devices are going to be compatible because every manufacturer is shipping an embedded OS with a locked bootloader that doesn't run the program you need to read your data. So you have to plug your smartphone in because you have no idea what OS is running on the monitor.

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I can sorta go with a tablet being a general purpose computer, but my phone has to be a phone first. I really cannot have it not work as a phone. One too many ND winters as a youth being stupid and stuck in a car waiting for someone to drive by taught me that.

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I'd agree with you if you'd replace "phone" with "communications device." I'm not convinced that voice calls will remain the dominant interpersonal communication medium once we're a (human) generation into ubiquitous smartphone deployment.

Anecdotally, I'm sure we all know people who just use their "phone" as an email/SMS platform, and I could easily imagine a near future where palmtop devices primarily do various forms of text messaging, and then additional addons (perhaps a headset and a voice plan) are required to make voice calls over the legacy PSTN.

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Applications are not limited to Metro on Windows 8, nor is it locked down in the way you suggest.

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If I want to use the new API which should be the go forward API of WinRT and Metro, then it is locked down to only the app store apps on Windows 8.

"Dowrkin revealed that Metro apps will only be available through the new store" http://www.winrumors.com/microsoft-details-and-demos-the-win...

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Previous thread http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3400449

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It's already happening now. SOPA is the present day war against general-purpose computation.

Uninstall that program citizen before armed men break down your door and take your device. Drop the device citizen, don't make me taze you. We need to invest hevily on infrastructure and devices that make the war against general purpose computation very difficult to block everything from a central location.

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Waiting for the day that publishing software would require government approval ...

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Probably won't ever happen -- that's a little too obvious. But approval from some giant corporate entity that is thoroughly in the pocket of the government, and approves or denies applications at the government's whims? That's not very hard to imagine.

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Isn't that the definition of a patent?

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A patent isn't a restriction on publication, actually the patent itself is publication. It's a restriction on commercial use.

The original intention of patents was that, rather than keeping your trade secrets secret, you can file them with the government. The government will grant you an exclusive monopoly to it for a limited period of time, which is a stronger but more temporary protection than is given to trade secrets, but more importantly it will publish your patent so that once it expires it becomes part of common knowledge. It was essentially intended as a means of open-sourcing technology.

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Never considered it from that angle. (You may have just convinced me software patents are indeed a bad idea; I was on the fence.)

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SOPA is a war on communication, not directly on computation.

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This is the correct interpretation. Computation has nothing to do with SOPA. You could have the world's most locked down phone and still run afoul of SOPA because you're republishing copyrighted material with it.

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