The Coming War on General Purpose Computation

Here's the video of my keynote last night at the 28C3, the Chaos Computer Congress in Berlin, entitled "The coming war on general computation."

The last 20 years of Internet policy have been dominated by the copyright war, but the war turns out only to have been a skirmish. The coming century will be dominated by war against the general purpose computer, and the stakes are the freedom, fortune and privacy of the entire human race.

The problem is twofold: first, there is no known general-purpose computer that can execute all the programs we can think of except the naughty ones; second, general-purpose computers have replaced every other device in our world. There are no airplanes, only computers that fly. There are no cars, only computers we sit in. There are no hearing aids, only computers we put in our ears. There are no 3D printers, only computers that drive peripherals. There are no radios, only computers with fast ADCs and DACs and phased-array antennas. Consequently anything you do to "secure" anything with a computer in it ends up undermining the capabilities and security of every other corner of modern human society.

Update: Here's a transcript, courtesy of Joshua Wise.

Update: Christian Wöhrl has produced a German translation, too.

The coming war on general computation


  1. Emerson, don’t touch me.  What a line.

    btw in way of edit: the audio is not synched properly. Bummer.

    1.  Shifted the audio in VLC player with an audio delay of about -450 ms to fix.
      Mac: F and G keys to adjust (on the fly while video is playing)
      Windows: J and K keys

      1. This, by the way, is a pretty good example why walled gardens are getting more popular than the open wild.

        1. “This, by the way, is a pretty good example why walled gardens are getting more popular than the open wild.”

          What is a “pretty good example”? An out of sync video or a helpful comment about how to adjust VLC?

          And by the way, the video is out of sync on walled gardens, too. Thank goodness we have VLC for walled gardens too, but it did take a few years.

          1. The video is out of sync not because out of an act of the gods, because someone didn’t feel like doing a complete job. 

            And instead of fixing it at root, people are supposed to fix it themselves via the magic of VLC.

            That’s basically like sloppy writing and letting the reader fix the mistake and stumble across badly edited text.  

            Thing is. most people have better things to do than to fix at shouldn’t be broken in the first place.  Most will  just skip a broken video.

            VLC is on walled gardens? Which ones?  Walled gardens depends on DRM and copy-protection and are incompatible with VLC’s GNU license – Apple had to remove it from their walled garden.   

          2. “And instead of fixing it at root, people are supposed to fix it themselves via the magic of VLC.

            “That’s basically like sloppy writing and letting the reader fix the mistake and stumble across badly edited text.”

            In the future, we might not even have the option–or right–to fix it ourselves in VLC.  That’s a problem.

        2.  VLC is pretty much the exact opposite of a walled garden. With closed-source software you’d be stuck with out-of-sync audio unless your benevolent overlords saw fit to bless you with the ability to tweak it.

          1. No, I’m not really stuck with out-of-sync audio.   I just ignore that particular  piece of bad production value and carry my time and money to someone with better product values. 

          2. How’s that different from the benevolent open source contributors giving me the ability to tweak it?

            Because I can see a lot of stuff the benevolent proprietary overlords give me that no open source contributor has given me. For example, it took Gimp how many years to add CMYK support?

            If I needed that before that, I would have to resort to the benevolent proprietary overlords that had it for ages.

            So, it cuts both ways, you know.

        3. @retepslluerb:disqus 

          There is another way to look at this.  Obviously Cory doesn’t have time to futz around with syncing the video.

          In a walled garden, Cory would have less options and would be forced to ditch sharing the out-of-sync video until a later date when he has time to adjust it and meet the “standards” of the walled garden.  Might also have to edit/censor the content as well which will take even more time.

          In the meantime, people who would like to view the content go without it entirely.  And when it finally does come out in the walled garden (if ever), the content is no longer timely which can have multiple negative ramifications for the viewer depending on what they would have done with the timely information/knowledge had they received it earlier.

          But here in the “open wild”, as you say, we have the freedom to view the content in a timely manner using open source tools like VLC while also freeing Cory to stay committed to his busy schedule.

          I open the video in VLC and hit the F key 9x on my Mac.

          Amount of time to press F key in VLC?

          About 3 seconds.

          Freedom to produce & watch timely, uncensored content unrestricted by walled gardens?


          1. Unfortunareky, you overextend the analogy.  Walled gardens do play all these contents.  Music, Video, Text – all play fine in those horrible lands of iOS and Apple, Amazon and Kindle.  Even that choppy one. 

            That certain kinds of software to not get on these devices, – that is a side effect, not a means. 

            You simply didn’t get the metaphor, but that’s okay. My texts can be reread.

          2. Walled gardens do play all these contents. … Even that choppy one. … My texts can be reread …

            Ok, so then I reread this:

            This, by the way, is a pretty good example why walled gardens are getting more popular than the open wild.

            You’re contradicting yourself.

            Also, in the walled garden you’re pretty much stuck with the out-of-sync video.  Out in the wild, you’re free to use tools like VLC to correct the sync.

            If anything, this video shows why open source is vital.

      1. Many drugs are “prescription-only” in countries where pharmaceutical companies wield great political power.

        Go to many developed cities in the world and you can walk into a drug store and buy most of the drugs that are “prescription-only” over the counter.  It has less to do with the “safety and convenience” of the consumer than the profits of the manufacturer.

        Walled gardens are not “more popular”, they are more prevalent because more companies use them as sources of revenue.  Plus, a certain “walled garden” comes on very shiny devices.

        1. Many drugs are “prescription-only” in countries where pharmaceutical companies wield great political power.

          Where have you got that bizzaro idea from? 

          That doesn’t even make sense. 

          Pharmaceutical companies would like nothing more than to offer their drugs over the counter to everyone wanting them.

          1. That’s a joke right?

            I take a prescription that costs about $40 a day , and in countries where it’s an over the counter drug , it would cost about 20 cents.

            If I had the time and didn’t have the insurance it would be cheaper to fly to France than walk to my Brooklyn pharmacy for a refill.

    1. I think we are suffering from a lack of imagination, companies don’t trust users to use their tech in a way that best fits their lives.

      I disagree. I think that companies are worried that people will use the tech in a way that inconveniences them (i.e., the company). It’s a lot easier to support a user when they’re locked into a room that you’ve gone over with a fine-toothed comb, making sure that it contains nothing that you don’t want it to.

      Also, maximization of profits.

      As an example of the later, my son got an X-Box for Christmas, which is basically a hobbled general-purpose computer. I was pretty frustrated when we set up Netfilx, because to use Netfil on the computer requires a subscription not only to Netflix (which we have), but also a subscription to X-box Live. This makes absolutely no sense, other than for MS to grab profit for absolutely no work or reason. At least on the WII there is no such silliness.

      1. Oh, they could just simply not support you.   „You“ (as in „the customer“) can’t have it both ways.  The root password comes wit responsibilities.  Or a billable phone number.

        1. Having, for example, replaced the OS on my MP3 player with an open-source alternative (Rockbox), and having run Linux on my home machines for the past 16 years (invalidating the warranty on these devices), I’d give up support for freedom. Unfortunately, we’re not always given that choice, and some manufacturers consider the very act of rooting illegal!

          1. Same here.  I have two MP3 players here running Rockbox, two desktop PCs and two laptops running Fedora, and a Droid X2 running the Liberty ROM.  It scares the hell out of me that we have lawmakers who only represent lobbyists, and we have lobbyists trying to equate my use of Linux with piracy.  And the nonchalant attitude of people, represented here by retepslluerb (sorry, I have to) scares me as well.  It’s the digital equivalent, IMHO, to “you have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide” when people support measures such as the Patriot Act.

            I don’t WANT a future where I have to store my data on Google or Microsoft’s cloud, and have to interact with it on a locked-down tablet.

          2. They can illegalize whatever they want. Then it’s on us and only on us if we will actually respect the bought law.  The law game is tilted towards them. The tech game is tilted towards us. Two bits of technology together with one bit of civil disobedience can buy a lot of freedom.

          3. I too have used Rockbox for my media players, now I use OpenInkPot for my e-readers. Worth noting the Chinese e-readers are the best for hacking because they are built by hacker themselves, and the MP3/media players wouldn’t have Rockbox if it wasn’t for the help given to them by Creative. Not all companies are against openness. Canon camera’s have open firmware available too, Canon are not promoting this software, just offering developers the right amount of guidance where needed, in return canon can learn more about the consumers who use this, so know to incorporate the extra features in newer revisions of there kit.

      1. Well, let me just sell you my iPhone app, not available in the App Store.

        Oh, right, I can’t. Well, I could, but I doubt it would do you any good.

  2. Apple’s App Store vetting process means that unless you break your device, you’re only allowed to run what they want you to. It’s worked very nicely for their phones and you can bet they’ll implement on their PCs soon.

    1. No, that’s not true. If you buy the developer’s license, you can develop and run anything on the iphone, without their approval. If you want to distribute in the app store, then that’s a whole different story … How does their process compare to Microsoft’s for the xbox? or Sony’s for the playstation? Or Verizon’s for any of their pre-android phones? Or Walmart or Amazon? Or Steam?  A curated store is not novel.

      Why do you think they’ll implement it on PCs soon?

        1. I believe the $99 is to register as a developer and post apps to the App Store, but the dev tools are free if you just want to do something on your own device.

          1. sadly, no. It’s free to get the dev tools, write a program, and use it only on the emulator, but it’s $99/year to actually run it on your phone.

            Hey, today I put in $50 of gas to use a car I paid $20,000 to use.  It’s not an analogy; I wish it was free, but it isn’t. They are excellent tools. I also wish I could answer how they compare to Visual Studio, but the pricing for that is so complicated, they wrote a 46-page whitepaper to describe it :

          2. “Hey, today I put in $50 of gas to use a car I paid $20,000 to use.  It’s not an analogy; I wish it was free, but it isn’t.”

            You’re right; it’s not an analogy.  A better analogy would be if you bought a Toyota, and if you wanted to put an aftermarket car radio, you either had to have it done at the Toyota dealership, or have a certification to be a Toyota mechanic to buy the screwdriver for the Toyota-head screws.

        2. No, if you pay Apple $99 per year, you can use their keys to install your own custom-written software onto the device… and they’ll throw in an IDE for free.

          You will have to pay a carrier about $1,000 per year to use your $400 device, though, and there’s no getting around that.

          1. You don’t. You can buy the iPhone unlocked in most major markets.  Why Apple keeps that model in the US market, I don’t know. But it’s most likely attributable to the peculiarities of that market, not a deep wish of Apple itself.    

          2. Replying to myself since we’ve hit the limit: “Unlocked” does not mean “unlimited free cellular usage.” I’m not sure what the two have to do with the each other.

          3. You can buy an unlocked (or used) iPhone, pop in a SIM card and use it. Cell phone plans can be pretty cheap: €13/month for more minutes than you could ever use and unlimited data around here, for instance.

            Now if you wanna buy the latest iPhone through your carrier you do indeed pay through the nose. But you have a choice.

          4. I think that install my own custom written software onto my device falls under “use” in my book.  But now I can see how people think different.

          5. “You can buy an unlocked (or used) iPhone, pop in a SIM card and use it.”

            You could, but depending on your carrier, they may enable a data plan without your permission.

            Annoying, since it’s entirely possible to use the things on a wifi network, courtesy wifi is available darn near everywhere, and carriers like it that way since wireless bandwidth is at a premium.

        3. But now you’re just quibbling about price. That’s unrelated to the original incorrect claim that you can only run what they want you to. The truth is you can run whatever you like, if you pay $99.

          1. It’s $99 more than it should be. In the tired world of car analogies (winter tires, on this hemisphere), it’s like having to pay Ford to take hitchhikers or to put unapproved items (like a folding bike, or a said hitchhiker) into the trunk.

            According to your logic, the option to pay Big Bucks to the vendor and signing a NDA is still an ability to run whatever I like – and the cost sticker pricingme out is just “quibbling about price”. 

            Running own code on a device is not a payware privilege, it is an unalienable right. Giving up warranty is an acceptable cost.

        4. “I think that install my own custom written software onto my device falls under “use” in my book. ”

          Really? Do you get that kind of “use” to all of your devices? 

          Because last time I checked, for tons of devices you can not get the ability to write you custom software (much less an IDE and documentation) at ANY price, except if you hack all the toolchain yourself from scratch.

        5. Why is no one ranting about not being able to put their own programs on PS3s, Xboxes, Wiis, DSes, cable boxes, etc.? 

          1. And digital cameras and washing machines (hey, a net-connected one would be great for houses with shared laundry room), and all sorts of other devices that have a computer in them anyway, just not in a visible way. These days if the thing’s function is just a little bit complex, it is economical to put in a computer, whether a full-scale OS-containing one or just a microcontroller.

            Things (ALL things) should be sold with their schematics. Does not have to be in paper form in the manual, but at least a downloadable PDF would be helpful. I would also certainly not complain if compilable source-codes for the firmware were available too. Just imagine all the sorts of possible hacks – without the slightest bit inconveniencing the “regular users” whom nobody forces to download and read the specs. And imagine the ability to figure out that the given device is a piece o’ crap by looking at its schematics before it is bought.

    2. Apple’s App Store vetting process means that unless you break your device, you’re only allowed to run what they want you to. It’s worked very nicely for their phones and you can bet they’ll implement on their PCs soon

      You don’t use Apple products, do you?  Actually, Apple has already implemented the walled garden on their PCs.  It’s called the App Store.  But, I’m also running open source VLC on my Mac without restriction.  As a matter of fact, Apple even has a widget for VLC and dares to link to a download of VLC on their website.

      I can run more things on my Mac than I can with Windows without restriction. I know this because I run OS X, Windows XP, Windows 7 and Linux.  Even the Mac operating system itself doesn’t have a serial number or some cumbersome, draconian “genuine advantage” scheme like Windows does.

      I bought Angry Bird through the App Store on my laptop while freely running VLC anytime I want outside of the Apple Store.  I just download VLC from wherever I want and drag it into my Applications folder (or anywhere else) on my Mac… and voilà.

      With iPhones, you are free to use any web apps made for iPhone that aren’t approved by Apple at all.  Just make your iPhone web app, stick it on the web… and voilà.  No walled garden on the iPhone at all.

      I agree with Cory in his keynote here and think we should all heed his warnings… but let’s not demonize Apple out of ignorance of their products either.

      I have nits to pick with Apple, but I try to base them on educated opinions.

  3. I’m pretty sure that to install software without the App Store you need to Jailbreak your iDevice, which voids the warranty.

    Game consoles are not sold as general purpose devices. Sony’s Linux revocation falls under the same rubric as Apple’s garden walling.

    1. Game consoles are not sold as general purpose devices.

      Neither are smartphones, or even iPads. But Macs are, and it would make no sense for Apple to lock those down.

    2. nope; if you’ve got the source code and have the dev fee, you can compile and install on your device. There’s also the ad hoc method, where you can distribute anything (no approval) to up to 100 other users:

      No, but, back to my question … how is Apple’s exclusive curated store any different from the others? [ninja edit: sorry, I didn’t see your second paragraph or it got edited in; my question is now moot]

      (also are, you using the reply button on my posts? your posts are starting as separate threads)

    3. Does it matter more what a thing intrinsically *IS*, or what it is sold as?

      For example sorbitol is commonly sold as a sugar substitute. That does not preclude its use with potassium nitrate as a popular solid rocket propellant, aka “rocket candy”.

      Why for example all digital cameras do not come with some script language interpreter like the CHDK is for Canon ones? Even better, an access to low-level hardware functions would allow relatively easy repurpose of the devices into lab-grade imaging/dataprocessing equipment, e.g. for low-cost medical imaging. Even just a serial console with basic commands could be enough for some such cases. And many many other “non-general purpose devices” are crippled by design in similar ways. The hardware is there, the software misses a few functions, and there is no way to put them in. MADDENING.

  4. As I read the title of this article I thought of something completely different from what the author did: web based computing.  Suppose you use for online storage of your pictures, book marks, video files and so on.  Imagine you also use’s online office suit to do your word processing, email, scheduling and so on.  Your computer doesn’t have a hard drive, loads of memory or DVD/CD-ROM, it’s just an Internet terminal and all your applications and storage are on the web.  Now imagine that for no reason you can understand decides to end its office suit service or worse, arbitrarily cancels your account.  In the best scenario you’ve lost a major part of your computing ability, in the worst scenario you’ve lost everything. Even if neither of those things happen you’re still enslaved to  Before you say to yourself, “That’ll never happen” it already has to some people.

        1. People that use the “trolling” accusation — especially on simple statement of opinion as the parent post, are idiots.

          Seriously, Kagehisa, you haven’t heard of people with accounts blocked/cancelled out of cloud services? Or of companies closing down the cloud offerings? Do you live under a rock in the Death Valley or something?

          Just the first things that came up after a simple search for “google locked me out”. There is tons more stuff, for other companies, from Paypal to Apple et al…


          1. I’m unclear on your response to Ito Kagehisa given that his comment is a response to retepslluerb’s gnomic “Whom?”.

          2. I think you confused the intended recipients of your reply. Yours reads like it should be directed to me.

            I do in no way doubt that people do lose access to their accounts. “Free” services are especially prone to this, as their incentive to correct this is nil, as their business models usually do not allow good end-user support. Note that I don’t write “customer”, because free users aren’t customers.   Google – to pick up on your examples – has actually a quite good customer services, from what I hear of my colleagues who pay for these services. 

            Yes, it sucks, if those services become unavailable. But only a cheapskate or an idiot – or an idiot cheapskate – would base his business on stuff like this, especially when he or she doesn’t keep a secondary backup.  

            One can still be dependent on a single company.   Any developer who does just iOS stuff, for example, though I’ll note that it’s most of the time actually easy to stay within the prescribed rules.   Or when you are dealing exclusively with Trader’s Joe/ALDI  and manage to lose that contract. 

            But otherwise, no, there haven’t been many instances of being “enslaved by bigCompany”, unless the “enslaved” were betting on a free ride.

  5. It’s not a war. Regardless Cory’s hysteria, Apple and others of its ilk (I agree that Apple has the strongest walled garden approach on general purpose machines), they do it not out of a deep desire to control their users, but because the open source and open development models have failed miserably when it comes to end-user products.  

    They produced great OS and tools (Linux, GNU, all the Apache stuff), which is a godsend to all who are interested  in that stuff, but left all others high and dry.   I wish it weren’t this way – I preached about the GNU license 20 years ago as soon as I heard about it – but for now, I hardly see an improvement.    They very seldom take the next step.   Which, isn’t surprising, since any good end-user program will take more work (and esp. drudge work) than server , os tool or enterprise components.  

    1. I make my living supporting open source software, and the one thing that can make me run back into Microsoft’s waiting arms is using anything derived from OpenOffice. The open-source community has done something amazing: They have created a program more user-hostile than Microsoft Word (and, in the case of NeoOffice, you are now required to pay for the abuse anyway).

      I have to disagree that a good end-user program takes more work than a good server-level program; good kernels, databases, web servers are all mammoth undertakings.

      However, the tendency of open-source software projects to bikeshed endlessly, and the fact that UI design is near-impossible to crowd-source, tend to work against good open-source desktop software.

      1. Of course they are large undertakings.  Things is, a consumer program needs the same components, software techniques, unit tests, etc *plus* accessible documentation, design,  polished UI and workflow tests.   All the stuff I skip when I work just for myself. 

        Also, end-user accessible open-source software with good interfaces do exist.  Transmission and Handbrake come to mind. Both powerful *and* moderately easy to use.  But they are rare.

        I actually haven’t watched Cory’s keynote *), but if one of his points is that having *only* walled gardens and corporate controlled CPUs would be bad, he has my full support.     The Apple-model dominating the world would be quite horrible.    On the other hand, no one ever posted “I gave my mother/granddata a Linux” and he/she started to…” . Actually,  almost every story I head about the proverbial older relative using Linux and being happy with it comes with the “I set it up so she can’t change anything and she uses X, Y  and Z only”  catch.  But I digress: There’s certainly competition between the two camps, but it’s not a war.  If it *were* a war, I’d be asking myself, why the ciivilians *run* to one camp, with their money in hands and buying iPads and Kindles like crazy.

        *) Disagreement I can stand, but I found many of his articles about this topic and privacy to be factually wrong, sloppily researched  and spun in a yellow-press manner. Therefore, I do not spend time on those anymore. 

          1. Of course theres still UI design going on.    Using the native system UI toolkit is just basics. It doesn’t automatically lead to good interfaces. 

            There’s nothing magical about the widget classes Apple uses instead  of those used on Linux oder MiscrSoft. (I think they are mostly *prettier*, but that’s just  personal taste.)

            It still takes a lot of brainwork, to think about what you want the user enable to do, which choices should be easily accessible, which shouldn’t be there at all, how to arrange them in a pleasing and sensible manner, and so on. 

            Both the HandBrake and the Transmission team did that work and as a result you get usable programs which also look like they belong on the respective OS. 

            Less well-thought programs are jDownloader and calibre.  Ungainly monstrosities (and I use them daily).  Really powerful stuff, but needlessly overblown in terms of what accessible through the interface and how it’s arranged.

        1. I actually haven’t watched Cory’s keynote…
          Disagreement I can stand, but I found many of his articles about this topic and privacy to be factually wrong, sloppily researched  and spun in a yellow-press manner. Therefore, I do not spend time on those anymore.

          This is an incredible statement. Not only have you spent time on Cory’s post but you are the main poster on the comment thread.

          You complain that Cory’s articles are sloppily researched but, by your own admission, have not even bothered to listen to what he has to say before disagreeing with it.

          You also state that many of his articles are factually wrong and contain spin yet your posts contain numerous errors, all of which seem to favour a particular perspective.

      2. I, too, prefer MS Office over OpenOffice, but the “open-source community” has little to do with what OpenOffice is like.

        What’s now known as “” started out as a commercial (and multi-platform, which was pretty cool) piece of software called “StarOffice” developed by StarDivision. After StarDivision was bought by Sun, they released the source code but most development and pretty much all important design decisions were conducted by Sun.

        Of course, when Oracle acquired Sun they did what they do best: abandon products that are halfway decent. We’ll see how it fares as an Apache project.

      3. “and, in the case of NeoOffice, you are now required to pay for the abuse anyway”

        Thankfully, there’s really no reason to use NeoOffice anymore.

      4. OpenOffice is about as user-friendly an office suite as I can imagine.  At least OO has never seen fit to screw up the UI (a la MS) or add all sorts of bells/whistles hardly anyone needs.

    2. Apple has the strongest walled garden approach on general purpose machines), they do it not out of a deep desire to control their users, but because the open source and open development models have failed miserably when it comes to end-user products.

      Ironic you bring up Apple in this context…

      Um, Apple’s OS X is a testament to open source itself.  It runs on top of a variation of UNIX.

      And, the best video player for Mac is open source VLC and QuickTime codec enablers like Perian.

      To say open source has failed miserably is a miserable failure of proper judgement.

  6. Here is the awful truth: Most people don’t want general purpose computers, any more than most people want kit cars. They want to send email, or fuck around on Facebook, or check out cat videos on YouTube. They do not want the level of detail or control that comes with a modern PC, anymore than they want to have a manual timing advance on their steering wheel.

    As technologists, we have to stop thinking that if we just rant in people’s faces long enough, the sheep will awaken and everyone will be out there happily trying to find drivers for their NVidia cards that they can then compile from source and link with the kernel. That war was over before it even began. People have been putting up with nonsense like that because it was the only way to get the other good stuff that came with computer ownership, but we have been deluding ourselves to think that painful acceptance meant pleasurable participation in our world.

    I want a general purpose computer. I want a command-line, and sudo, and the source for the OS, and a compiler, and everything else that means “computer” to people who are coming from the hacker tradition. I am not most people. Most people are perfectly happy with a sealed monolith that does just the stuff they need it to do.

    (And it’s not just the general public. How many system administrators refuse to install anything from source, instead relying on their particular Linux distro’s package manager? How is that substantially different from just accepting packaged applications?)

    There are plenty of fights worth fighting: A fight for an open internet, a fight against insane DRM. But a fight against the appliance computer is like fighting automatic transmission.

    1. Most people are perfectly happy with a sealed monolith that does just the stuff they need it to do.

      No, most people rant about how awful “computers” are. They are not happy at all. They just don’t understand enough to know that the fundamental problem is they have accepted a sealed monolith that looked like it would do the stuff they needed it to do.

      1. No, most people rant about how awful “computers” are. They are not happy at all. 

        Exactly my point. General purpose computers today are not sealed monoliths; iPads and iPhones (for example) are. The vast majority of people are perfectly happy to have the buttons and dials and switches removed in exchange for a device that is reliable.

        1. They aren’t, really.  There’s plenty of software coming to those devices.

          People, as a rule, do not write their own software.   They do also not grind their own flour, raise and slaugther their own taxes. They also don’t do their own dental work and often outsource doing their taxes.

          1. I would love to see a demonstration of the “raise and slaughter your own taxes bit.” I’ve never even heard of such a thing before.

        2. And it’s important to remember to always do whatever makes the vast majority of people perfectly happy.  This is why we need to continue with color-line slavery, state-mandated religious practices, elaborate sumptuary laws, public witch-burnings, and… oh, wait – we don’t have those things any more?  Never mind, I guess I don’t have a point then.

          1. Yes, I am constantly exclaiming, “The fact that I hate that my computer crashes is exactly like the Salem witch trials!” I’m not sure why I get those looks from the other people on the bus, though. They must hate freedom.

          2. Anyone who rides the bus definitely hates freedom!  It’s one of the core libertarian principles, I think.

          3. And it’s important to remember to always do whatever makes the vast majority of people perfectly happy.  This is why we need to continue with color-line slavery, state-mandated religious practices, elaborate sumptuary laws, public witch-burnings, and… oh, wait – we don’t have those things any more?  Never mind, I guess I don’t have a point then.

            I’m not sure what you mean. The reason we do not have those things any more is because NOT having them *makes the vast majority of people happy*. I.e the fact that we progressed as society.

            Do you believe that we don’t have those things DESPITE the majority of people still wanting them? That would be idiotic, and even worse than slavery and witch hunts — that would mean the general public is treated like slaves by a minority of legislators “who know better”.

    2. From what I understand Cory isn’t fighting against appliance like computers, but pointing out that if you want a single use computer it needs to be built as a single use computer.  Not be a multi-purpose computer that’s locked down.

      In fact I think that was one of his main points during the discussion.

      Did you watch the video?

    3. I think you’re missing the point here. Yes, people are happy with driving their cars and not bothering to know how to fix them or improve them, like not knowing how to add nitros and change their engines to a V12, but they CAN if they want to or learn how to. Or maybe get a friend who knows how to or even pay someone else to fix it or improve their car. The fact is the ability is still there, its not locked down. The problem arises when a car manufacturer or government locks-down that car (legally and technically) so that NOBODY except them can work under the hood so to speak. And that it refuses to drive you if you don’t put it the authorized brand gas, or reports you if you try to add a new bumper or do something ‘illegal’ with it.

      1. I agree, and attempts to get rid of the general purpose computer entirely (such as mandatory secure-boot) should be fought tooth and nail. However, the reality is that *no one at this juncture is proposing this*.

        1. However, the reality is that *no one at this juncture is proposing this*.

          And nobody ever will. You see, such type of lockdowns will/are already happening slowly and silently. Walled gardens, extreme DRM,  the permeation of IP laws so that you don’t own property, only license it ( the PS3 comes to mind). Things like cloud computing (you pay for the privilege of ‘streaming’ something which you already own,  basically a tax ) Those things are slowly making it happen for most people. Sure, you can’t get rid of the PC  completely, and open source will always exist, and people will always hack the devices they have so they can at least use them like they want, but make no mistake, it is a war. Now the problem we have is, its not a traditional war, its not even a battle, its a trend, a trend we who believe in the penguin and the CC should be monitoring.  For that is the way they win the war, by not declaring one. The US hasn’t been in a war a long time, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t ruining covert actions and waging ‘conflicts’

      2. I think you’re missing the point here. Yes, people are happy with driving their cars and not bothering to know how to fix them or improve them, like not knowing how to add nitros and change their engines to a V12, but they CAN if they want to or learn how to. Or maybe get a friend who knows how to or even pay someone else to fix it or improve their car. The fact is the ability is still there, its not locked down.

        Only they cannot do much for a lot of stuff inside a modern car. We are not talking ’56 vintage american junk here, we’re talking cars with 5-20 cpus inside…

        1. There are modchips available for some cars. The ECUs of many cars can also be tweaked for other set of tradeoffs than what the manufacturer intended (or was forced to by laws).

          There are also “piggyback ECUs”, which modify signals from the various sensors and trick the car’s ECU to behave as the owner/operator desires.

          Various OBD/OBD2 interfaces and the corresponding software for using them are also available on the market.

          The methods change, but the car-hacking stays.

    4. Cory did address the fact that fighting against the appliance computer isn’t easy (and I have to say, I really liked his analogy with smoking).  However, one doesn’t have to stop people using appliances in order to win the war – you merely have to (1) stop laws being passed that make general purpose computing illegal and (2) keep the open market viable enough that it’s still worth businesses offering open products.

      Your analogy about automatic transmission isn’t a bad one – the important part is you can still (legally) buy a standard transmission and it doesn’t look like it’s about to disappear.

  7. Google, among others, is seeking to handle this issue with their Chromebook. Cory might define that as not being a General Purpose Computer. But in reality it is just an appliance which allows you to use the Internet as the GPC. By it’s nature, the Internet is just about as general purpose as you can get: if there is any service that can be profited from, somebody is going to put up a site and offer it to you.

    I find this kind of funny, because I’ve been working with computers long enough to see the paradigm go from massively centralized mainframes to distributed servers back to centralized mainframes then to ultra-distributed PCs. And now we seem to be heading toward Cloud Computing, which might be better referred to as The Great Mainframe In The Sky.

    1. I would argue exactly the reverse. I see the Cloud as the scariest trend in opposition to GPC. If the capital investment and complexity requirements for Cloud infrastructure keep on increasing as they have been (and there is no reason why not), then we will soon be left with an oligopolistic handful of juggernauts (say Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Facebook) whose datacentres would host all of the actual computing (and actual data) we would just view through our Chromebook-like dumb terminals.

      If we go all-in to the Cloud, there will soon not really be any machines that small groups of individuals could afford to purchase to run whatever services they want to create. Those services would have to be run on a giant’s infrastructure, but only at that giant’s pleasure. Because of the single (as opposed to distributed/mirrored) point of target (one of the big players), other big players could come in and negotiate whatever they want for your service. Pulling it down through special agreements like UMG, passing legislation like SOPA, etc.

      The only hope for GPC is radical networked distribution.

    2. Where do you see a trend toward cloud computing? I see a trend towards cloud storage with limited synchronisation features.    Because people want to use the same data on different machines and having a backup is actually a good idea.

      Most of the actually processing seems to be done one the users’ machines.

      1. Where do you see a trend toward cloud computing?

        Well, it depends on how you define “cloud,” but given the number of startups who are running to Amazon AWS as their platform, it’s not a trend, it’s a stampede.

        1. There are many legitimate businesses that require a client-server-model  and it makes absolute sense to run those on Amazon or whoever else sells scalable server time and space. 

          Granted, many of the current startups do seem to favour services based on that model, but there are umpteen others who don’t.   Just look at the stuff in the AppStore and Mac AppStore, for example. Lots of new businesses which just sell software that run on their buyer’s machines. Those are startups, too, but not the kind that suggests the mouthwatering IPOs like a next Facebook or Twitter. 

          1. There are tons of Cloud Computing businesses starting up that replace computing on your PC, I see them all the time. But probably the biggest example of a trend in that direction is the “music cloud” that all the big players are getting into. These are meant to replace iTunes-like apps that run on your PC or mobile device. Just stream the songs you want from your account in the cloud, wherever you are. Until you are someplace with no internet connection, that is.

            Don’t think that I am in favor of this, I’m not. As an old school programmer I want maximum control over my environment, and I am willing to work at learning the technology well enough to have that. But the lazy public is not generally that way, and is willing to be herded by big companies in exchange for convenience. And so I predict clouds, and stormy weather, in our future.

  8. I’m still incredibly worried about UEFI secure boot and its potential for misuse.  People keep saying that it won’t be misused, that it will be easy to turn off, etc… but I’m not so sure.  It would be a valuable security feature if we were given the option to add and remove keys to our own machine.  On the other hand, if we are only given the option to turn it off, it’s an unneeded (and unwanted) feature in my eyes.

    And in the long-term, I’m worried that even the option to disable it may disappear.  If it turns out that most people never need to disable it, manufacturers may remove that option, or maybe relegate it to more expensive “business” models.

  9. One of the primary objections to openoffice is that no “open-source community” has got anything to do with it. It was written by Sun, for Sun, and they didn’t let anybody else play. This has a lot to do with why it sucks.

    Holding it up as an example of open-source projects is simply ignorant. Openoffice was a typical corporate project in everything but license.

  10. Hmm. Good thread. Please keep the dialogue and explication going. I specialize in comparatively nerdy stuff, so I know quite little about the development of computers (I should have kept up that programming on the apple IIe’s back in grade 7). The echo commentary is filling in a lot of blanks. Thank you.

  11. Audio out of sync at least with the mp4 download I’ve played.  Shifted the audio in VLC player with an audio delay of about -450 ms to fix.  (On Mac you can use the F & G keys to move audio around in VLC)

  12. I got the message that we need copyright reform for personal device security, but where is Lessig’s point that we aren’t getting copyright reform without public campaign finance? A bigger boss, still!

  13. Amazing, I thought I was the only worried about computers becoming like mobile phones, locked into carriers and app stores… :)

  14. What happened at ~33:25? Video cuts @boingboing-c4ca4238a0b923820dcc509a6f75849b:disqus  off and skips to another question.

  15. The war will not be against computers, but”Rogue” programmers, a type of “terrorist hacker”, or anybody with programming skills who is not in a “safe”, approved job, or working on “official”, supervised projects…

    1. “One life, you’re Thomas A. Anderson, program writer for a respectable software company. You have a social security number, pay your taxes, and you… help your landlady carry out her garbage. The other life is lived in computers, where you go by the hacker alias “Neo” and are guilty of virtually every computer crime we have a law for. One of these lives has a future, and one of them does not”

      That ring a bell?

  16. I’m an old-timer who remembers Mainframes in Remote Data Centres.  Of course, now we have “Servers in the Cloud” which is totally different. ;-)

    But what has never changed is that most of the money, and just about all of the profit, has always been in the “Big Iron”.  PCs, as one article famously put it, have shown up everywhere – except the bottom line.  There’s never been a single study that has shown that your average office worker is any more productive because someone dumped a PC on his desk.  Typically all that has happened is that 15% of their time has been taken up with “futzing” with the computer.  Plus one day out the work week “doing e-mail”.  Some one who used to just, say organise logistics, for $100,000 a year now organises logistics for $65,000 worth a year and screws around incompetently doing document layouts and system administration tasks for $15,000 (the stuff that used to be done by the minimum wage clerical and secretarial staff) and another $20,000 sorting through internal spam.  That’s assuming that no one ever does anything like play video games during the work day.

    The theory was that as soon as people discovered the joys of doing their own backups, virus checking, network diagnostics and  software package updates that the joy of being TOTAL MASTER OF YOUR DOMAIN (echo, echo, echo….) all of the two-fingered typists would abandon managed systems to the point where they’d be extinct.  Actually only about one-percent of one-percent would find that situation tolerable, let alone desirable, but if you questioned the dogma of the day you were labelled a dinosaur and fired. 

    Hopefully all of that insanity is over and most people can go back to doing the jobs that they actually have some small competency in, such as laying out a poster or running a fleet of garbage trucks, and IT can go back to being a profession again.

    1. “There’s never been a single study that has shown that your average office worker is any more productive because someone dumped a PC on his desk.”

      I don’t mean to be dismissive of your comment; but there are millions of jobs that require the use of a computer.  Forget efficiency.

      1. There are millions of jobs that require *programs*.  

        That’s a difference.

        The PC as one of the cheapest and most accessible GPC platforms is everywhere, because it was and is able to tun all these programs. 

        However, it’s not the best platform for all these programs. That’s why people turn to walled in tablets, smartphones, readers and gaming consoles in many cases.

        It’s also why general computing  isn’t in any danger of going away.

    2. I don’t know where you work, but I’ve worked at the world’s largest multinational industry and electronics megacorp with hundreds of thousands of employees in almost 200 countries. There’s no way you can convince me that sending internal snail mail instead of email around the world would be more effective. Or trying to gather information that is available at the push of a button on the worldwide intranet, not to mention the millions and millions of dollars saved in international phone and fax charges. At any given time I’d communicate (internally) with five different countries on three continents in three languages.

      Also, try telling a Japanese office worker that word processors instead of handwriting isn’t an advantage. (There were no practical typewriters due to the large number of characters; you’d write most things by hand (slooow). If you needed an official document typed up, you’d send it to a specialist typesetter/typist and wait a day or two. And spend mucho bucks.)

      (By the way, the answer to your stated problem is a competent IT department and automatic document formatting/good templates. It’s been figured out. Seriously.)

      1. Don’t see a single one of the activities that you talk about that can’t be done on a Mainframe/Server in the DataCentre/Cloud.

        If you feel that dumping PCs onto people’s desks (a completely different thing than using software) was ever some sort of general productivity improvement please post a link to a single study that concluded this.  Anecdotal evidence such as yours proves nothing; especially since your situation is hardly typical.

        The presence or absence of the mythical competent IT department is irrelevant in a PC shop because each user can screw with their system to their heart’s content and you can’t stop them.  If you *could* lock down their systems enough so that they were all identical then what you would have is a walled garden with an incredible amount of hardware duplication and really bloated licensing costs.

        The end-user and not any central IT department do all of the important systems administration in your typical office.  The deployment of PCs was sold on the basis of getting rid of the IT department entirely.  The budget for training the end-users in any of the skills needed to so replace them was always zero dollars and zero cents and people certainly got full value for that!

        1. Dude, _you_ claimed something, provided no sources and demand that people who doubt your claim should provide sources? Genius!

          Yes, many of the things mentioned here _could_ be done with cloud apps; this just wasn’t true in the past. Many things need low latency to work well. A great many things _are_ available remotely, some work better locally.

          And then you have things that you can’t explain away: before word processors with input methods for complex characters on personal computers, printing a Japanese contract took a day, after that ten minutes. There just was no mainframe option, an no usable one could have been developed back in the day. Not untypical, as you claim.

          Regarding “bloated licensing costs,” the reality in large enterprises is that they just get a general catch-all license from Microsoft that is based on the rough number of _users_ and doesn’t require them to account for individual copies. That’s a contract, subject to negotiation like all contracts. Like it or not, Microsoft provides solutions that work well and with minimal futzing around (and I used to be a hardcore Linux guy).

          In closing, I’ll just say that in my experience most problems with PCs (only laptops in our case, by the thousands) are hardware problems; in which case you give the user a working identical laptop, swap the HDD and send the computer in if it’s something serious. Honestly, IT _can_ be managed so that users experience minimal problems. Failure to do so does not mean it’s impossible.

  17. All attempts at restricting computers and communication will fail. They will be unpleasant of course.

    The digital (computation and communication) has become the lifeblood of our civilization. We have adapted to this really quickly. It could be argued that the sum of all communication and computing systems has become an autonomous organism not unlike say slime mold. And like slime mold, it adapts autonomously to its environment. Any restriction is like an obstacle for the slime mold, it’ll search remedies and optimization for the annoying hindrances put in its way.

  18. Cory, any chance we can have access to the speech in a text form? There are some really nice passages that I would like to keep

    1.  I think it would get the message out to a lot more people, too. I’m much more likely to read something in text form than to watch an hour-long video.

  19. It’s about time war was declared on general purpose computing. It’s insane to have the capability to hack a computer built in to the battery. Or the ability to turn off a car’s brakes remotely. Or industrial safety systems connected to the net. The sooner geeks stop being so bl**dy precious and hardware restrict the functionality of devices to what they are actually designed for and eliminate the possibility of hackage, the better and safer we’ll be.

    Windows has always been an insecure and buggy horror exactly because it can do far too much, just to satisfy a fraction of a percent of power users. My washing machine, on the other hand, does it’s job just nicely and doesn’t need a reboot every few weeks. Sony learned the hard way when they built in geek pandering OtherOS into the PS3. Fair enough, Apple and the like have gone too far, but the sooner everything that’s not in a lab is turned into an *appliance*, the better we will be.

    I am the 99.99% (who want reliable, hack proof devices and don’t give a sh*t about power users)

    1. The problem with your desired universe is that most – if not all – the cool, interesting, and valuable things you want to do with your reliable hack-proof device were first conceived of and experimented with on cheap, open platforms where you could try just about anything. The leading edge of the ecosystem needs that flexibility in order to find the best ways forward to the next new thing. That’s innovation – it’s risky and it’s necessary.

      If you insist that most people use the locked down devices, then you kill the market for the cheap open devices, turning it into a market for expensive open devices.

      At that point, the diversity of options for the next new thing plummets. There won’t be very many cool new things, because you – and yes, I do mean YOU – said you didn’t want innovation or risk. And you will get what you asked for. Unfortunately, I think that if it ever came to pass, you would also discover that it wasn’t the most important thing to ask for.

  20. @Nikolaos_Venturas  Sorry, disqus is a hazard to discussion.  It keeps auto-changing your nym to “nathan hand”, for example, in this attempt at reply.  And apparently it’s got a reply limit, too. And now it’s eliminated all my paragraph breaks… editing again.

    The things I mentioned were widely and complacently accepted until they were struck down by a very small determined group who were not willing to accept “the vast majority is happy with… blah blah blah” as a reason for inaction.  Instead, these small groups mounted successful long-term campaigns to change what the “vast majority” wanted.  The greatest example, of course, is slavery – (and I’ve already been castigated for bringing a huge social issue into a discussion of, er, …a huge social issue, so I may as well keep going).  The vast majority of humans were perfectly happy with the institution of slavery, they just didn’t want to be slaves themselves.  For most of human history a world without slaves has been nearly inconceivable, yet, today the people who still practice slavery are a backwards minority, and many otherwise enlightened people think (falsely) that slavery has actually been eliminated.

    Cory is attempting to be one of those key voices, who through sheer damned persistence, cause change in “the vast majority” of people’s attitudes.  Blithely dismissing the changes he wishes to see as impossible or meaningless, because they do not coincide with the Mobbe’s current attitudes, is failing to see the whole point of what he’s doing.

  21. Best Line: 
    Freedom in the future will require us to have the capacity to monitor our devices … to maintain them as honest servants to our will, and not as traitors and spies working for criminals, thugs, and control freaks.

    Good Speech.

  22. Cory et. al fail to get out of the “geek mode” paralysis that defines the technocrats generations and realize the bigger shift (or shit) that is happening, which is: soon things in computing will get so damn complex that they will no longer be just computers, and will run on their own, think and act without human intervention, and self-improve outside of human’s direct control other than perhaps listening to our suggestions and desires.
    Everything around us will compute one way or another, interact with us, learn our habits and how to get to us in the most efficient manner. Which means everything out there will soon program itself and evolve to an unimaginably intelligent scale on its own. It will happen.
    So it will no longer be the “geeks” with their computers anymore wanting freedom to run cracked stuff on their toys. It will be the environment itself reacting to us and us interacting with it as if it was our peer – which we know it won’t be! Not to mention the millions of robots of all kinds feeding themselves from and into this universally connected intelligence in order to do tasks they will decide on their own that would be appropriate.
    If this doesn’t make the whole “hacktivism” look like a mediocre cry for more rain I don’t know what else does. Just accept that the future will not play by any rules set out by anyone who resists it. It is futile. Funny to listen to the discourse nevertheless. But useless in the long run.

  23. One aspect in which I think Cory is inaccurate is whether the present and future measures work.  Just because these can (and are) circumvented does not mean that they have failed.  After all, we have laws against murder that are circumvented regularly and yet we consider them worthwhile.

    What these laws do is add friction to the cost of reproducing information.  Means of duplicating information have been around for a long time: manual copying, photocopiers, cassette tapes, VCR tapes, etc.  However, all of these non-digital means of copying had a friction that was natural to the medium that retarded the market in copies to the point that a content industry could continue to exist.

    With the digital era, that natural friction disappeared.  More to the point, it became quite possible to make money off the copying of other people’s content (c.f. Napster, Megaupload, etc.)  The copyright enforcement laws (which are different from the copyright extension laws) are an attempt to re-introduce friction into the digital copying era such that there is a consumer (as opposed to moral) argument for actually recompensing the content creators and distributors for their efforts.

    As well, these laws (as well as the ridiculous suits against pirates) have one additional purpose.  They attempt (semi-successfully) to induce a sense that there is a moral impropriety to copying content without permission. 

    (For those who claim it doesn’t work, I’ll give the example of drunk driving laws, which when they were first properly enforced caused quite a bit of outrage when decent citizens where given *criminal* records for following a fairly commonly accepted social practice.  However, over the decades, the citizenry gradually did accept that anything that was punished this harshly by law must be morally wrong (or at least iffy), and after a long while, drunk driving is generally considered a moral wrong.)

    So, in the end, I don’t think we’ll see either side achieve “victory”.  Too much will be lost if either side “wins”.

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