Tuesday, 17 June 2014

The Evitable Conflict*

The recent loss of a court case for Google and the current protests by cab drivers against Uber are two examples of a coming conflict between a new technological elite and what could be termed as the old world. The old world represents the physical, the status quo, patents, copyright parliamentary democracy, some multinational corporations and entrenched bureaucracy. The technological elite believe in the free flow of information - think open source.

One example of this conflict is the way car dealers in America feel threatened by the way Tesla Motors does business selling cars over the web and not in dealerships. They wish to force Tesla into selling cars the way they have always been sold.

Another example is the music industry. Many record companies felt threatened by the advent of the Internet, because it allowed people to easily send music tracks to each other. Instead of embracing this new technology they branded it a “fad” and fought it tooth and nail until it magically disappeared – it didn’t. If they had have listened to some of their younger employees they could have developed their own peer-to-peer file sharing network and actually made more money over this period. Now programs like bit-torrent are entrenched and the record labels may disappear for real.

This technological elite, for want of a better term, believes that information should be free. Not free in a socialist sense just that our society would be richer, with greater freedom and economic activity for it. This group likes to push the boundaries. They believe that the Internet is a force that will unite humanity and make us truly equal. Anybody who has an Internet connection now has access to the sum of human knowledge. The biggest reason why there is such inequality in the world is simply that education is not shared equally. The Internet will change that if we are able to give everybody equal access to it. With the cost of electronic devices plummeting this may just be possible.

It is amazing what can become accomplished with the current crop of open source software and hardware. But many of the products we use are still proprietary. When hackers started to use the Microsoft Kinect in all sorts of computer vision and robotics applications Microsoft freaked out. But eventually Microsoft realised that this could actually help sell more products and actually started to assist hackers and are now releasing a version built specifically for them.

Some computer game makers actively assist users to “mod” their games. Some users can add features to the game and help make a game much better, in every way, than it would otherwise have been. This benefits the user experience while also selling more games.

Imagine what could be accomplished if every company and government allowed free access to formally closed information. Tesla motors obviously believes in this philosophy as they have just released all their patents to be used by anybody.

It is obvious to me that there are many laws that are holding us back socially, technologically and economically. You may say that corporations and inventors need to be able to protect the investment that they put into develop programs and products. But this has always been a balancing act between the free flow of information and protecting investor interest. It is a myth that getting rid of the patent system will destroy innovation – the open source software movement proves this.

The secret to our future prosperity lies in the free flow of information. I can show you two Melbourne based businesses that prove that free flow of information is good for the economy. Nine years ago a group of students in Italy developed a cheap easy to use microcontroller called Arduino. It was an early example of open source hardware. Since then it has become a lot cheaper with some clones being delivered to your door for $8.00.

A group of Arduino hackers from Melbourne wrote a book called Practical Arduino it sold well but the authors were soon inundated with requests for kits and stuff to help with the projects in the book. So they started a business called Freetronics and have gone on develop their own versions of the Arduino called the Eleven, EtherTen and others.

Another company called M9 Design have created an Internet of Things (IoT) device called the "MeshThing" which can be used to create low-cost networks throughout an environment such as home, business or anywhere. The MeshThing will one day be a part of many IoT devices from sensors to wearables to applications nobody has thought of yet. Their aim is to reduce the barriers to entry for developing IoT gadgets and other solutions based on open standards. It would not have been possible to do this without the groundwork being laid by the global Arduino, Contiki and open-source hardware and software communities.

Another important link in the chain supporting this network of makers and hardware/software hackers is the development of Hackerspaces such as the Connected Community Hacker Space in Melbourne. The Internet, the open source movement and Hackerspaces all feed off each other - snowballing.

These people are developing electronic hardware that once upon a time was strictly the dominion of multinational corporations.

Our society needs to open up - the world is changing faster than it has ever changed before. People are smarter than they have ever been before. We need to embrace this change not fight it or use it for evil. We all now have the capacity to change the world, so let’s do just that.

*Yes, I did steal the name of this post from the last story in Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot - now a major motion picture!

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