For the Week of January 20, 2003
Salman Rushdie is my hero, and he should be yours, too. While I was seeking stories in the Internet, he was inside the story, given a death sentence for thought crime by the same forces unleashed on us at 9-11. And his writing puts my own (and everyone else's) to shame.
In comparing the movies "The Two Towers" to "Gangs of New York," Rushdie accidentally points toward a coming war for the Internet. "The truth looks more confused, more amorally Scorsesean," he writes. "The Two Towers," on the other hand, exists in "a universe of moral absolutes. Tolkien didn't like people calling his great work an allegory of the battle against Adolf Hitler, but the echoes of the second world war, the last just war, are everywhere."
You may call the ring a symbol of evil, or ultimate truth, but in the end it's really a McGuffin. (As Hitchcock once explained, a man puts a suitcase on a train and his seatmate asks what's in it. "That's a McGuffin," he says.) A McGuffin is just a plot device, something to care about because everyone in the story cares about it. Unmasking the McGuffin means ending the story.
No matter who sees "Lord of the Rings," or what perspective they take, their image of themselves is always that of the Hobbit. But the soul of the story is the Gollum. He is twisted by his past possession of the Ring, and made hideous by his determination to take it again. But unlike everyone else in the story he is conflicted. His conscience is complex, more fully human than that of any other character. (The great irony of the movie is that this is the only major character that is a computer's creation.)
Gulf War II advocates want to see this as an allegory of the coming conflict, with Saddam Hussein as Sauron, the evil wizard. But a Muslim might more easily see George Bush as Sauron, Middle Earth as Middle East. It's the West that has laid-waste to the forests, after all, to build its war machines. It's Americans who think they can strike their rivals' keep from a safe distance, as Saruman does in this movie. The West isn't surrounded and occupied by its foes. It's Islam that needs a miracle.
How can we be the evildoers? It only happens if we reject the diversity of the world, and demand that Hobbits, Elves, Dwarves and Men serve one ring of power. The Internet itself is Middle Earth, and more. It's the anti-ring, in which all may contend, or live in peace.
But this disorderly order is now threatened. Yoshio Utsumi, secretary general of the International Telecommunications Union, plans to introduce a detailed "international cyberspace treaty" later this year , and indications are the way is already greased for its passage. The United States, Russia and China are all for one set of rules, under which local (read state) laws will absolutely control what can and can't be said or done here. And over those rules will be a set of restrictive controls on copyright identical in form and substance to current U.S. laws like the DMCA, NETA, and the Bono Act.
Two things are wrong with that.
First, this treaty is being pressed without the will of the people, without the people even being consulted. Just as ICANN has been transformed into a tyranny, controlled by distant governments and mega-corporations, so this new cyber-law will be forced on us. And control of its administration will lie in local courts, subject to local bigotries. Democracy, liberty, and basic human freedom are not even being considered. It's the rule of the strong over the majority.
Second, of course, such absolute control is impossible on today's Internet. The Internet is a dumb network, and its users run the gamut from brilliant to ignorant. The Web isn't the Internet, neither is e-mail. Those, like Kazaa, are just software-based services the Internet provides.
The Internet is a technical protocol that moves bits and asks no questions. The bits might be introduced from any terminal. Get an IP number and you're part of the network, no questions asked. Disconnect and you're off. All those laws that have defined different rules for different types of bits - voice bits, video bits, sound bits, naughty bits - they don't exist online. Introducing such definitions means changing the nature of the network, making it as top-heavy and clunky as, say, Microsoft Windows. It means going backward, not for the sake of the many, but to protect the entrenched interests of the few.
On a dumb network like the Internet the hand of control must rest lightly, if at all. The rules that must apply are informal, based on netiquette and not statute. There are too many people moving too many bits for detailed controls to work. The copyright industries want to force all clients to have controls for their benefit, and prohibit the sale of any technology that doesn't act as their cash register. And while most consumers might accept such controls, enough wouldn't as to render them meaningless. Worse it's the entire leading edge of the market -- the hackers, the hobbyists, the gadget-freaks and the early adopters, who are rejecting these controls -- and without their endorsement the mass market won't buy-in.
Cyber-libertarianism, in other words, isn't just idealistic. It's the only way to run the Internet as it is. A detailed ITU treaty, enforced by unelected governments, wouldn't suit our diverse reality. That really would be one ring to rule them all, and in the darkness bind them.
The only responsible thing to do, as every Hobbit knows, is to throw that ring back into the fire from whence it came. It's the sheer diversity of the Internet, and Middle Earth, that makes it interesting. Any absolutism, from any quarter, whether religious, secular, or corporate, is just plain Evil.
SSP (Shameless Self-Promotion)
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In exchange, you'll get the PDF version of my second book, The Blankenhorn Effect: Boom, Bust & Beyond, which I'm presently finishing. This is a collection of columns from a-clue.com, organized chronologically and by subject, with additional commentary from yours truly.
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Takes on the News
See SPOT Run
Bill Gates is not an idiot. He knows the current PC paradigm is dying. That's why he was at CES last week selling watches and letting The Register lampoon him as craving "the lucrative refrigerator magnet market" .
But SPOT (the mini-operating system that is Microsoft's play (against Linux ) in the new paradigm) is missing some important Clue. First, it has no Clue about its applications, and without a real application any operating system is just Bob.
The other missed Clue was all over the CES show floor. As Walter Mossberg told CNBC during the show, the theme was "wireless." He didn't think they'd made it simple enough for the CES audience, although he did like the idea of moving digital pictures around wirelessly.
More important, this show represented the first clean sweep of a theme in ages and ages. Wireless dominated Supercomm, it dominated Interop, it dominated Comdex, and now it has dominated CES. All this without anyone having a Clue what they're talking about.
What we're talking about, as I've said several times here, is Ubiquitous Broadband, which demands new interfaces and new applications. Stop thinking of content as "news, weather, and sports" (as Gates himself did at CES). Think of it instead as grandma's sugar level, the baby's heart rate, and the contents of your fridge. Stop thinking of the operating system as commands you type, either with a keyboard or mouse. Start thinking of it as methods for knowing and acting on the data sensors give you.
An application on the New Paradigm will measure grandma's vitals, tell her (through a speaker) to take her meds, and alert both the ambulance and the family to any dangerous readings. It will interact (through a network) with your recipes and what's in the pantry, letting you know what you need to buy in order to cook whatever you need to make for dinner tonight.
The buzzwords might be Home Automation, but the applications can go anywhere. A computer is a chip. It interacts with other chips through a network connection. Anything can be intelligent.
Want to know the best way to come up with new applications for the New Paradigm? Go to the Auto Show. Get in one of those high-end models. It will have dozens of chips running a variety of applications designed to make driving safer and more comfortable. Think about what you can do with that idea in a home, in an office, in a city. SPOT is a dog, but at least Microsoft is barking up the right tree.
Solving Online Crime
The questions of Homeland Security begin with something the Bush Administration refuses to consider. That is a better, more reliable identity.
We have the technology. We have photos on credit cards, we have smart cards that have plenty of memory. Combine a photo with a biometric that can be checked quickly (like a retinal scan) and it's going to take a major effort to get past it. Health insurance should be the base application, so I never have to sit in a doctor's office and fill out a paper form again (and they don't have to type the information into a system again).
What's really needed is a government commitment to a smart card operating system, so there's a standard for readers. Then all other forms of identity - credit cards and drivers' licenses - could be written to the standard. Differences in readers would be based on application, a credit card reader not taking the same data as a doctor's reader. (Color code them so everyone knows what's being read, and why.) We don't need any government bureaucrats for this, either. Just put the IEEE to work and endorse what comes out.
Yes, Virginia, there are plenty of ways this can be abused. But these databases already exist. We're talking about putting control of them back into the hands of clients (that's you and me) so that the vast majority of us can be excused from suspicion, and so we can go about our business more easily, with less hassle than before.
Swipe your card in front of the air marshal and get on the plane unless the database has a specific watch out on you (as if your card was reported stolen). Give your card to the cop when he stops you and the ticket is written in seconds instead of minutes (increasing the cop's productivity). Hand it in at your doctor's office and your most recent scans and insurance information are all there. Use it at the ATM or grocery store. At first you'll have several cards, but as the standard becomes pervasive these should all become versions of one card. Permission to write to a card will be jealously guarded.
No, it's not perfect. Nothing is perfect. But the life-hassles we face due to a lack of provable identity are enormous, and growing all the time. It's time we bit the bullet, proved it simply, and went about our business.
Link License Reality
Here's a dirty little Web secret. Remember all those stories in the last year about sites going to court in order to prevent incoming links? Remember how Clueless we called those efforts?
Well, they were Clueless in part because they were unnecessary, and many content sites have recently figured that out. As a result, not all links work anymore.
One way to stop incoming links is to write code after the .html in a document name and to define a default for the plain link. For instance, take a look at this link between Google News and The New York Times -- http://www.nytimes.com/2003/01/10/international/middleeast/10BAGH.html?ex=1042866000&en=ff9ec0eefd27f369&ei=5062&partner=GOOGLE. In particular, notice the question mark. It's followed by extensive identifiers that let the Times know when and how it's getting the link, followed by &partner=GOOGLE. In other words, the Times has chosen to allow this link to its registration-only site because it comes from Google. The default is to disallow the link. If you're not a registered user of the Times and try to link to the above page (using just the code ending in .html) you'll go to a registration page - the link will be refused.
Another way to accomplish the goal is to simply move the page. A friend sent me a link to an interview with Gordon Moore in Fortune Magazine -- http://www.fortune.com/indexw.jhtml?channel=artcol.jhtml&doc_id=210013. Notice that the base link only goes to an index page - the identifier of the story comes after the second jhtml. A little programming let Fortune automatically pull this story back into its paid archive after a specific time passed. (The link no longer works at all.)
Clickability (a very Orwellian name - Click-Disability is more like it) is one of the outfits selling this technology. They work by putting identifiers in front of the HTML, as in this link e-mailed to me for an article in The Wall Street Journal -- http://online.wsj.com/article_email/0,,SB1032983027342754473,00.html. It only works through the e-mail it came in - take out article_mail in the middle of the link and you get a "page not found" message.
The result is that content owners are gaining more control over who gets into their sites, and who is kept out. The Web is being transformed into a set of walled gardens. What was lost in court is won through technology -- West Coast Law trumps East Coast Law.
Clued-in is the Norwegian court that cleared DeCSS author Jan Johansen not-guilty of all charges .
Clueless is the US Telephone Association , which launched a daily newsletter using spam. The people who are actually behind this spam-subscription campaign are Smartbrief , headed by CTIA head Thomas Williams . The USTA-Smartbrief-CTIA spam claimed it would unsubscribe its victims immediately through a link (so do all spams), and unsubscribe them automatically after three days. (It dropped me immediately.) But "opt-out" marketing is spam, and the USTA has proven through its Cluelessness, once again, that it is the sworn enemy of the Internet industry. Those who live in this space shouldn't forget that.
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