Imagine yourself sitting in a movie theater so dark you can't see your hand in front of your face. You know a thirty-foot-high screen is before you, but you can't see it. Your eyes are still adjusting to the darkness. Finally, you see the black vacuum of space, as if through a portal into another reality. Thousands of tiny points of starlight appear before you. Then, without warning, an almost painful sound erupts from the screen. The Star Wars theme blasts against your eardrums--so loudly that your back straightens reflexively. In giant News Gothic bold yellow letters, the following words appear and begin to scroll out of sight toward a distant point against the background of stars.
> A war against general-purpose computing rages. On one side are the lords of technology: Google, Apple, Microsoft, their allies, and the unseen ones who control them. The lords of technology fight for money above all else, while their unseen masters fight for power. In a never ending quest to maximize their wealth and power, they are determined to control every computer in the known universe. Opposing them are the few who see the war clearly. The rebels fight to keep general-purpose computing alive. They fight for online privacy and free speech and the tools that make them possible. They fight for computers, operating systems, and software that can be used both on and off line, beyond the all-seeing eyes of the lords of technology and their masters. They fight for continued access to their computers' file systems. They fight for control of the data on their hard drives. They fight for general-purpose hardware and programs like Handbrake and Kodi that give them the power to listen to music and watch movies that they already own, without having to buy them again and again from the likes of Apple and Amazon each time hardware standards, file formats, or delivery methods change. They fight for continued access to decentralized networks like ZeroNet, IPFS, and I2P, the last strongholds of free speech on the Internet.
> Between the two opposing forces are the non-technical masses. These are the online serfs who are completely unaware and will never become aware that their freedom and their money is being stolen by their masters, the lords of technology, who they serve unwittingly with their data and monthly fees. These are the instant messaging and cat video addicts whose only concern is that computers be easy enough for toddlers to use. These are the techno-toddlers who refuse to grow up...
A hooded Mark Zuckerburg enters the first scene as the Emperor. A muscular Jeff Bezos's is concealed beneath the black mask and cloak of Darth Vader...
Although this war is occuring in real life, you will never see it acted out on a thirty-foot-high screen by Mark Zuckerburg, Jeff Bezos, or anyone else. This war is not fought with light sabers and blasters. No blaring trumpets herald it. This war proceeds as quietly as possible. To modify T.S. Eliot, "This is the way the world of general-purpose computing ends. Not with a bang but a whimper." Chances are that you are not even aware of the war's existence. Perhaps you are sitting in front of your computer right now or looking at your phone and thinking, "This guy has got to be kidding. What planet is he from?"
What is at Stake
Despite the melodrama, the facts about the war are real. Edward Snowden predicted, "A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They'll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves an unrecorded, unanalyzed thought. And that's a problem because privacy matters; privacy is what allows us to determine who we are and who we want to be." Snowden also said that he exposed the actions of the US intelligence community because he feared that the time would come when even the most technologically sophisticated among us would be unable to retain their privacy. As I wrote in Toward a Technological Cage for the Masses, our general-purpose computers are being replaced with online-only netbooks and net appliances. Although this is being done to increase corporate profits, a more sinister end result is that we may soon be unable to run any software on any computer that has not been preapproved by giant corporations and their government agency masters. The process is slow, but it is accelerating. In this article, I wish to discuss what, if anything, we can do about it. More importantly, I wish to ask readers more knowledgeable than myself what can be done about it.
First, let me counter an argument that I have heard voiced by some. They say those of us with technical knowledge will always have access to general-purpose computers. First, this is not just about us, for we rely on the masses for our freedom far more that they rely on us for theirs. Second, this point of view is naive. The wonderful computer hardware that we have today has been made possible only by economies of scale. Billions of people buying computers over the last forty years have provided the funds to make everything we have today possible. The desktop, laptop, tablet, or cellphone with which you are reading these words would not exist without the trillions of dollars invested on the research and development required to make it possible. Long gone, are the days when two guys could design and assemble a computer from chips in their garage and create a profitable company around it. The continued growth of the computer industry in the right direction--toward freedom, instead of away from it--requires continued research and development in that direction.
Some may point to the existence of the Raspberry Pi as a counter argument. "Here is a computer built by a small company that is designed for tinkerers," they might argue. While I do appreciate the Raspberry Pi, and while I do own four, their argument is not proof that we will always have access to general-purpose computers, even if we are willing to build them ourselves. The Raspberry Pi was created in a climate that still fostered general-purpose computing. And even so, Raspbian relies on Systemd, despite the privacy fears of many.
Once the vast majority of users have been relegated to locked-down net appliances, laws can be passed against general purpose computers. Politicians can use the same rhetoric they have for decades against other expressions of freedom. They can argue that general purpose computers promote child pornography and terrorism. They can say that if we have nothing to hide we have no need of privacy. The technologically illiterate masses will likely believe them, just as they always have. The few who do not will be intimidated into silence. Glenn Greenwald wrote, "Through a carefully cultivated display of intimidation to anyone who contemplated a meaningful challenge, the government had striven to show people around the world that its power was constrained by neither law nor ethics, neither morality nor the Constitution: look what we can do and will do to those who impede our agenda." One thing that helps prevent the above rhetoric from being voiced and laws against general-purpose computers from being passed today is that many people still use general-purpose computers, so they recognize the fallacies in the above arguments. Governments have great difficult passing laws against behavior that large numbers of their citizens engage in. Governments have very little difficulty passing laws against behavior that few of their citizens engage in. What will happen when the average person doesn't know what a general-purpose computer is?
How to Take a Stand
The best way to preserve general-purpose computers is to ensure that enough of them continue to be purchased to give the computer industry a reason not only to continue producing them but also to continue the research and development required to improve them. Intel seems to have stagnated. Apple has gone in the direction of net appliances. Microsoft has begun to turn in Apple's direction. The only way that I see to encourage the masses to buy general-purpose computers that respect their privacy and free will is to create applications and content that are valuable enough to motivate them to do so.
Motivating the general-public to purchase more general-purpose computers will not be easy. If education alone worked, we would not have this problem. I am no expert, but the way I see it, multiple approaches must be taken. Software developers have a role in developing more user-friendly applications. Techno-toddlers must be able to easily use an application, or they will refuse to. Next, the content available through these applications must be valuable. It must provide something that is not available from Facebook, Apple, or Microsoft--something besides privacy and opportunities for free speech. Finally, economic incentives must be found to encourage the development of useful software, general-purpose hardware, and eleutherophilic computer networks.
Developers must become aware of the problem and willingly choose to create software that cannot be twisted into a dark reflection of the original by large technology companies. I honestly do not know if this is even possible. The implementation of TLS on the vast majority of websites on the Internet has solved some problems and created others. Users now have more privacy, but website owners are quickly reaching the point, via the use of TLS certs, where they must pay a fee and pass a screening process to get a license (i.e. a certification) to host a website. If not for the EFF and Let's Encrypt, this would likely already be the case for every individual who runs his own website today. Once a government agency or corporate bureaucracy takes over the process associated with licensing TLS certificates, it can make the process as expensive and onerous as it likes--until individuals can no longer afford to create their own websites. It can set new rules to prevent anyone it chooses from having a website for any reason it chooses. Since modern browsers already display scary security warnings for sites without valid TLS certificates, simply moving back to HTTP websites is no longer a viable option.
Decentralized networks arguably hold some promise of being free of corporate and government domination. Software that promotes the easy use of decentralized networks may be a short-term step in the right direction. If individuals could access and post information on ZeroNet, IPFS, I2P, or other decentralized networks as easily as they now can on Facebook, part of the incentive for using Facebook would disappear. Ideally, many users would not even realize they were on a decentralized network. However, corporations and governments can and are creating so-called decentralized networks and products that are actually under their control (e.g. Ripple, the Petro, Steemit, Unstoppable Domains, the Beaker browser, and Tron). These are decentralized network and decentralized app impostors. Other decentralized networks are being subverted by corporations. For example, Cloudflare now hosts a large percentage of the IPFS network and provides its own IPFS DNS service. This means Cloudlfare may now have the power to block many IPFS sites.
Linux is used everywhere today. Under the guise of Android, iOS, and MacOS, Linux is used to take control away from users and put it into the hands of Google and Apple. (Correction: MacOS is derived from BSD. BSD and Linux are both Unix-like operating systems.) Currently, these operating systems might make some sense for the technologically unsophisticated, but only because these OS's are more secure and easier to use than the alternatives. Creating multifaceted distributions of Linux (or BSD, OS/2, Haiku, ReactOS, or whatever) that are superficially easy enough for toddlers to use but with esoteric depths would be very helpful. These would give the masses easy, secure access to the Internet with little or no maintenance. Knowledgeable users would have full access to update, configure, and modify whatever they need to support their own needs. I recognize this is easier said than done, but given the existence of Android and iOS, I know it can be done. In fact, I believe that many Linux distributions are already close to accomplishing this. In my opinion, most of what they currently lack is a simpler default graphical user interface option, perhaps something similar to Eldy or the simple user mode that the ASUS EEEPC had in 2010. Perhaps an Android emulator and GUI can be created that look enough like the real Android that unsophisticated users will not notice the difference. These Linux distributions would also need to be marketed well.
My thought is that the best way for most non-programmers to fight on the right side of the war on general purpose computing is to read and create content on platforms and networks that encourage free speech and the use of general-purpose computing. Even deleting your Facebook account and creating a forum or personal blog on the regular Internet at a domain name that you control is helpful. But those who create content must do more than simply starting a blog, posting two articles, and then abandoning it. They should endeavor to create consistent content that others find valuable. To this end, I have a mirror of cheapskatesguide.org
on ZeroNet at https://127.0.0.1:43110/1CpqvBQWSzZSmnSZ58eVRA9Gjem6GdQkfw
, and I also have an unrelated site that exists solely on ZeroNet. With free and open-source software, just about anyone is capable of creating his or her own website outside the gilded cages of Facebook, Medium, and others. With just a little effort, the same can be accomplished on the Gopher or Gemini network.
Most bloggers get so little traffic on their personal websites that they see no point in continuing them, so they give up. Visit personal blogs and leave comments that let their writers know their efforts are appreciated.
While Android users can still be drawn to ZeroNet, we need to make an effort to do so. Currently, ZeroNet has an android app, but that is unlikely to always be the case. However, this is about more than just ZeroNet and other decentralized networks. This is about creating content that average people want to access that is not controlled by the giant tech companies. I ask those who read this article to put their talents to work to think of ways of promoting general-purpose computing and then to act on those thoughts.
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