Thank you all. Thanks for having me. I don’t know if you know this, but the arts destroyed the Internet in 1998. In 1998, Congress passed a law called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, that was supposed to defend artists’ rights. And the idea was that we would make it a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a $500,000 fine for a first offense to break a digital lock that protected a copyrighted work.
That was supposed to make sure that when you bought a DVD you would have to buy the movie again on your phone and not just rip it and put it on your phone. Somehow that was going to protect artists. This completely failed. You may have noticed copying hasn’t slowed down since 1998. It’s never going to slow down. Your grandchildren will marvel at how hard copying was in 2015 and say, “Tell me again grandma and grandpa, about 2015 when you couldn’t buy six hard drives for a dollar at the Walgreens that could hold all the works of art ever created.”
But, what it did do is it created this powerful incentive over the last seventeen years, during which we’ve been infiltrating everything in our world with computers, to design computers so that there was something copyrighted in the middle of them and a digital lock on the outside that made it a felony to reconfigure that computer. And it has turned our world made of computers into a world made of computers that act like inkjet printers, where it’s a crime to do anything with it that undermines the profit and business model of the people who made it.
When I say we live in a world made of computers, I don’t mean this sort of Tron sense where everyone dresses in jumpsuits and you can walk into your house and say, “Tea, black, hot,” or wave your hand to make the lights go on. I mean literally the most salient fact about many of the artifacts in the 21st century is not what they’re made out of or how they were licensed, but what the informatics inside of them are. You take a willowy starchitect tower in the financial district of any of the great cities of the world, and you ask yourself how does it stay upright when it’s so tall and willowy? And the answer is it’s got dynamic load adjustment through computer-controlled seismic reinforcements. If you change the software on them to bad software, the building falls down. Bankers work in case mods.
So the most salient fact about our world is that it has computers in it. And to understand that, think about John Deere tractors. This year, John Deere went to the US Copyright Office and said tenant farming is still alive and well because you can’t own your tractor, you only license your tractor because we own the firmware in your tractor. It’s only licensed to you, and we want it to be a felony to unlock your tractor. They want it to be a felony to unlock your tractor because while your tractor’s rolling around your fields, the torque sensors in the wheels are doing centimeter-accurate soil surveys and then that information is not available to the farmer, it’s available to Monsanto who are the exclusive licensor of it. And if you want to use automated seed broadcasting, you have to buy your seed from Monsanto, the sole owners of that data. But the real reason that they’re interested in it (the Monsanto thing’s just sort of the mustache-twirling warm-up for the full-on Doctor Evil) is because doing centimeter-accurate soil surveys of entire agricultural regions gives you enormous insight into the future crop yields, which is a multi-billion dollar source of potential intelligence to Monsanto down the road.
So Monsanto asked the copyright office to affirm to the farmers of America that they couldn’t own their tractors, and GM chimed in to say, “That’s true of your car, too. We own the informatics in your car. The copyright should forbid mechanics who haven’t signed a license from us from finding out what’s going on in your engine. That way, as a condition of the license we can make them buy original GM parts.” It turns out that when GM said “That’s not your father’s Oldsmobile,” it wasn’t an advertising slogan, it was their literal belief about that car in your driveway.
You may have seen an article in the New York Times about six months ago about subprime car lending. Now that subprime housing is gone, we need a new thing to securitize, and it’s poor people who need cars. So they make these loans to people who aren’t good credit risks for cars to securitize those bonds and keep their values as high as possible. They fit the ignitions with location-aware network ignition overrides that enforce the terms of the license. If you’re a day late on your loan payment, your car ignition system, which has a separate audio system, starts to bark at you, “You’re a day late on your payment.” Somehow Orwell has turned into not just a manual for statecraft but also for financial services design.
And what these cars do is they enforce terms like if you cross the county line, your car won’t start again. The Times profiled this woman who took her kids out to the woods for a walk, and they came back and were out of cellular range, and they crossed the county line. She hadn’t realized it and it was dark and maybe there were wolves. And her car wouldn’t start and they had to walk to the road to hitchhike. So the most salient fact about your car is its informatics.
I saw this amazing demonstration a couple of years ago from this guy called Hugh Herr, who runs the MIT prosthetics lab at the Media Lab. Herr’s got great visuals. I don’t do visuals. I’m a word guy. He shows you picture after picture of people whose lives have been profoundly transformed by integrating their bodies with computers. He’s got arms and hands and feet. I think he’s got brains that have been used magnetic induction to control otherwise untreatable forms of depression and so on. And then his last slide is this amazing showstoppper. He shows you a slide of him climbing a mountain, clinging to it like a gecko, super ripped, all in Gore-Tex, and from the knees down he’s wearing these prosthetics, because his legs end at the knees. He’s wearing these mountain climbing prosthetics. And he says, “Oh didn’t I mention?” and he rolls his pants legs up, and he’s robot from the knee down. And he said, “I’m a mountaineer. I lost my legs to frostbite,” and he starts running up and down the stage with his robotic legs, jumping like a mountain goat.
It’s a great demo, and the first question anyone asks is, “How much did your legs cost?” He names a price, you could buy a brownstone on the Lower East Side. The second question anyone asks is, “Who can afford those legs?” And he says, “Why, anyone. If it’s a choice between a forty-year mortgage on a house and a forty-year mortgage on the legs, you’ll take your legs.” Now think about subprime lending and what it means when your legs are designed to take orders from remote parties. And when it’s a felony to change the way that your legs are configured.
We heard a lot about Nest tonight. It’s a good iconic Internet of Things-is kind of thing. But I want you to think about what it means to have the HVAC system in your house, which has the power of life and death over you, to be designed to take orders from remote parties and now allow you to change how it’s configured. You may remember during the Euromaidan uprising in Kiev, people who went to the demonstrations, their phones (because their phones are designed to transmit information even if it’s against their will so that the accurate billing records can be kept) had their identities captured through a thing called a Stingray device while they were at the protests. They got back home, their phones buzzed, there was an SMS that said, “Dear citizen, you’ve been recorded as an attendee at an illegal demonstration. Think before you do it again.”
What if the next time that happens they come home and they see, “Dear citizen, you’ve been recorded as an attendee at an illegal demonstration, and that’s why we turned your heat off in February in Kiev.”
I’m a science fiction writer, and science fiction writers are notoriously bad at predicting the future. Science fiction who claim that science fiction predicts the future are like people who fire shotguns into the side of a barn, draw a target around the place where the pellets hit, and then talk about how great their marksmanship is. Science fiction writers who try to predict the future are like drug dealers who sample their own products. It never ends well.
But people always ask me to make a prediction in the form of optimism or pessimism about the future. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of technology. And that is by way of prediction, right? The thing is that this is a prediction that is of no consequence at all. Because whether you’re optimistic and you think that we are being the ancestors our descendants deserve and that our children will look back and say, “How is it that you pivoted the world at this critical juncture and made computers into a force for human liberation?” Or whether you fear that Orwell will look like a Teletubby by comparison in twenty years, you should do the same thing every morning, which is get out of bed and do everything you can to make computers into a source for freedom and human liberation. It doesn’t really matter whether you think it’s bad or good, because the one thing that we know is that if we abandon the field and just allow people who would like to use computers as a system of control to use it, that they will just march on using computers as systems of control, with no resistance at all.
So rather than optimism or pessimism, I’d like you to have hope. And hope is why when your ship sinks in the middle of the ocean you tread water. Not because you have any realistic expectation of being picked up but because everyone who was ever picked up after their ship sank treaded water first as a necessary but insufficient precondition. The other thing about hope is that it gives you strength. So if your ship sinks and someone you love is with you and they can’t kick for themselves, you put your arms around their neck and you kick until they’re able to get more energy. And we are people who maybe appreciate some of these ricks ahead of time, who understand that there are other dimensions apart from the immediate instrumentality of technology that we should be thinking about, and we are surrounded by people who will someday appreciate that. Because although we haven’t reached peak surveillance, we’ve reached peak indifference to surveillance. There will never be another day in which fewer people give a shit about this because there’ll never be a day in which fewer people’s lives have been ruined by this. And so we just need to keep kicking while it happens.
We need to seize the means of information, and not because the Internet is the most important fight we have. We have way more important fights on our horizon. There’s the rising seas and justice for Aboriginal people and racial justice and gender-oriented justice and widening wealth gaps. All of these things are far more urgent than the Internet. The thing is that if we allow the Internet to be defined as our jihadi recruiting tool or a more perfect pornography distribution system or a glorified video-on-demand system, we miss the fact that it’s the nervous system of the 21st century. It is the thing that wires together everything we do. And all of those fights will be won or lost on the Internet because everything we do today involves the Internet and everything we do tomorrow will require the Internet. And this is why we can’t abandon the field. Not because the Internet’s the most important fight we have, but because it’s the most foundational one.
Thank you very much.