THE WARPED PERSPECTIVE
for open standards and open protocols was never greater than it is today. This is
because the speed and the coverage area of standards of communication is approaching
a single, global domain.
Hundreds of years ago, travel and communication were bound by limits of geography,
cost, and time. This meant that a single manipulative enterprise could not dominate
over all the people all the time. Governments were limited in their ability to enforce
law at the level of the individual household, and over a restricted geographical
area. Pilgrims and entrepreneurs alike could escape the hostile force of ruling
authorities by venturing across the ocean to new lands. Companies were limited in
the scope of their power, and refugees from oppressive monopolies and "company
towns" could escape to different geographical locations or different career
paths. The ratio of group power to individual freedom was relatively small.
However, the new millennium brings with it a single, globally-interconnected network
which quickly propagates both ideas and the protocols needed to communicate those
ideas. Information is both content and carrier (in the form of software). The same
medium that can provide enlightenment can also spread darkness and confusion, deception
and slander. When it comes to the protocols themselves, the same medium that offers
the hope of freedom and mutual compatibility can also quickly spread chaos and corruption,
mismatches and frustrations.
In an engineering sense, we are talking about an environment that does little to
provide compensation for sudden shocks to the system -- a car with no shock absorbers,
or an airplane with no stabilizers. In a biological sense, we are talking about
a single ecosystem for information, with no alternative "genetic pool"
to provide diversity and a shield from sudden catastrophe. In a sociopolitical sense,
we are talking about a single global community which is subject to rapid changes
in values, priorities, and goals, without a counterbalancing conservatism to question
and moderate the changes.
In other words, the new era makes the world community a plum ripe for the picking.
While we dream on in a lazy, self-assured stupor about the gradual disappearance
of tyrants and strongmen, we must keep in mind that these historical despots drew
on a source of power that was essentially based on the narrow viewpoints of geographical
and cultural isolation. What kind of tyrant would a global era bring? A global tyrant
would necessarily appeal to the lowest common denominators of society, or at least
to universal needs and wants. Devoid of religious or cultural considerations, the
tyrant of the future is materialistic, tasteless, and socially inept. Instead of
relying on personal charisma or the narrow biases of historical cultural rivalries,
the new tyrant uses the more subtle appeals of technological and economic opportunism.
This is why the need for openness and accountability is so great. If an ordinary
tyrant uses language to wage a culture war, those who fight back can use the same
language, for nobody owns a language. Those who deceive can be overthrown with logic,
for nobody owns logic. But the tyrant of technology uses government-guaranteed technological
secrets to include or exclude people, companies, even churches and other social
institutions. Nobody owns numbers, nobody owns letters, nobody owns the laws of
physics or the rules of mathematics. But tyrants can own protocols, they can own
file formats, they can own interfaces, they can own filters. The virtual tyrants
both now and in the future can control by using the laws they create, even if they
can no longer leverage their strength to control by means of natural law.
Which, of course, is what makes the virtual tyrants so dangerous. They become both
author and enforcer of virtual law. They become not only judge, jury, and executioner
(as in the case of the UCITA law permitting remote disablement of software), but
they also become investigator, traffic cop, and arresting officer. Laws like UCITA,
as well as global intellectual-property regimes such as WTO and GATT, provide the
virtual tyrant with the means to both establish and enforce virtual regimes upon
legions of individuals and companies. People become customers of those whom they
do not want to do business with. People become indebted to those from whom they
never borrowed. People become employees of those whom they have never met. They
are taught by those whom they do not believe, and are trained by those whom they
do not wish to obey.
And all of this is done invisibly, behind the scenes, in the virtual world of software,
and using the unobserved power of protocols and commands and dataflows.
Virtual tyrants can be disempowered only in a world where protocols, commands, and
dataflows are as publicly-owned as numbers, letters, and rules of logic. The inner
workings of software programs need not be open, but their interfaces with the outside
world must eventually be as open as the deep blue ocean.
Most recent revision: October 30, 2000
Copyright © 2000, Tom Nadeau
All Rights Reserved.