Freedom and Summer Reading: Vernor Vinge

I might have mentioned this before, but the best thing about working at a newspaper is … the news! You get to read so many things first! But here is something which I maybe should not be copying but which is interesting anyway:

Governments and companies want to control the Net. For example, Apple controls the iPhone and restricts the ability of outside creators to put their own software on it. Professor Jonathan Zittrain at Harvard Law School wonders if the original ethos of the World Wide Web is under threat. Plus Jane O’Brien reports from Washington on a battle over Internet access.

It set millions free to express themselves. It’s changed the balance of power between governments and citizens and between corporations and consumers, and for many in the developing world it’s now becoming the most important route to education, information and culture. That’s the optimistic view of what the Internet and, more particularly, the World Wide Web is capable of delivering. But the digital utopians who believe that a collaborative and open web is their gift to the world now warn that it is in mortal danger. Governments are learning how to control the Internet, whether it’s repressive regimes, shutting down blogs and censoring search terms, or regulators attempting to curb illegal file sharing, and companies like Apple are deciding that consumers would prefer a controlled but user-friendly environment to the anarchic freedom to use whatever software they like on their digital devices. Then there’s the battle between the content owners eager to pipe video across the Internet direct to millions of homes and the telecoms firms, demanding they pay extra for clogging up the network, an infringement of Net neutrality, according to the purists. And there’s the rub. As the web grows ever more important to our lives, the economics behind it still look very shaky. Those trying to make the sums add up say we may have to sacrifice some of our early dreams of freedom if the web is to continue to grow. But the digital utopians will continue to fight for principles they say must not be watered down.

The iPhone is one of the beginnings of a whole generation of products and not just products from Apple. That’s a really interesting hybrid because the first generation of the iPhone was one in which you wouldn’t run any outside code at all. Everything on the phone would be from Apple. It was just an Apple product, end of story, just like your automobile might be from a particular automobile maker. But then Apple got the idea of having outside code, just like the old Apple II, except that outside code all gets funnelled through the App store, and Apple gets to decide who can be a vendor in the store, gets to take a cut if the software is sold – Apple will take 30 per cent, and, most important, gets to say what software from a vendor will be offered in the store and can even retroactively pull it from the store, and if it came down to it pull it from all the phones that are out there. And I think that has very big implications both for the degree of control a company like Apple can have and for the degree of control that a regulator can have because somebody now can offer up to Apple a court order, and through it decide that certain code or content will not be made available anymore.

The issue has come to a head now because of the legal row with Comcast. The US cable giant tried to slow traffic to a popular file sharing website because the downloads were taking up too much bandwidth. The government’s communications regulator, the FCC, said the company wasn’t allowed to do that. But a federal court ruled that the FCC didn’t have the authority to tell an Internet provider what to do.

But wireless companies like AT&T who were at the cutting edge of mobile broadband say putting their services under rules designed for a 100-year-old phone industry is ridiculous.

You’ve got somebody that’s a high end user that’s using one of these game applications that takes a lot of spectrum, and you have two or three of those people on one tower. That literally could bring down the tower and disable all of the handsets that were using that tower for phone calls, for emergency calls, or whatever else.

The deal is that anything as potentially revolutionary as the Internet is going to come under scrutiny and, eventually, authority. The sorts of questions that are cropping up now probably aren’t anti-freedom, just… cautionary, I think.

It does make me wonder about the nature of companies, though. First Microsoft, starting off from the products of a couple of high school dropouts. Then Apple, the boldly eccentric alternative to pretty much everything. Then Google, quirky little nerdy search engine. And now? Microsoft, practically the devilspawn amongst the Internet intelligentsia that believes it’s a behemoth of a monopoly. Apple, locking developers out of its apps and making 30% off them, self-proclaimed wunderkind and saviour (have you noticed how all their products are “magical“?) And Google, blithely capturing passwords and rupturing privacy while collecting data for Street View. Are we all just doomed to Hyde organizations becoming Jekyll after a while?

Summer Reading

In other news, I have been reading some recommendations by various people. One is Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End. I think I wrote about this before, about how it was an extremely interesting world in terms of communications and how different generations deal with technology. People communicate, are collected and the results of their joint communication are analyzed in ways that dimly suggest our world, but are quite a few steps away. But the trouble with Rainbows End is that is leaves so many loose ends. Who the hell is Rabbit, really? Will the protagonist’s ex-wife ever meet him again? And so on, and unless there’s a sequel, I’m not sure what the point is. The last line is the most confounding of all, because the author himself doesn’t seem to know what to do with his protagonist. * If there is a sequel, I’m not sure I’ll be on fire to read it.

Now I’m reading John C. Wright’s The Golden Age. I don’t quite know what to think of this. The idea is extremely interesting, but the execution is kind of questionable. It’s a point of time 10,000 years into the future where humans have huge brain modifications, interact with other species with similarly complicated brains, and experience no pain, crime, or death. It’s Utopia. But one man has discovered that he has committed some kind of crime or undertaken a project so terrible that he has himself locked away his memories. So the whole thing is a kind of mystery set in the future.

It’s a find idea – except that the language is laughable at times. Wright aims for a certain highfalutin mode of writing, like “He donned the disguise of a Harlequin clown, with lace at his throat and mask on his face… ” Which is fine. The contrast of technological wonder and slightly archaic language is nice. But he’s not able to sustain this very effectively: “Okay, Aurelian! What the hell is going on?!” This, from a character who says things like “My mind is filled with falsehood. My marriage is an illusion, my life a lie.” If it was unintentional, it’s pretty sloppy. If it’s not, it’s misguided – the two styles clash terribly. It won’t prevent me from reading it or going on to read a sequel, since the story is complex and really interesting overall, but it’s annoying as all hell.

Next is a toss-up between a kid’s book – the Redwall series, which I loved – and 2001.

*Yes, apparently there are “tentative plans” for a sequel. But that makes me think he’s just being lazy about dotting i’s and crossing t’s. Meh, we’ll see.


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