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It'll Cost You Six Dollars to Delete This
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I'm a fan of Star Trek's Deep Space Nine. It's one of a few shows that I've stuck through for seven 20+ episodes seasons. It often avoided Trek's habit of exploring a cool idea for 44 minutes, then slapping the reset button before anything scary like "character development" could take place.
But it was still Trek, and dabbled in endearing goofiness and knee-slapping technobabble. I was watching a rerun a last week, and during a raid on a criminal's lair Jadzia Dax disables all the enemies weapons with a single command entered from a commandeered terminal.
When I saw this back in the mid-90s, I thought it was stupid. Who designs a weapons systems like that? On a rewatch, after 25+ years of streaming services and modern software, I figured she disabled the weapon's licenses.
That's what business has done to us since the mid-90s. DARPA created the Internet as a distributed network that withstood disasters because there was no single point of failure. The Internet went commercial, and rent-seeking corporations wasted little time adding that single point failure in.
But they didn’t only make the Internet apps less reliable. Consider this:
Last week Sky, the British media conglomerate and division of Comcast, announced that they’ll charge customers an extra 5 pounds (about $6) a month if they fast forward through commercials. That’s not a fee for no commercials. It’s a fee of you decide at any point during the month to push a button during the wrong time.
Wow. I thought Hulu was lame having a paid tier with ads. How long will it take this “innovation” to make it over here?n This is Comcast after all. Maybe they’re already doing it and didn’t tell anyone.
But nickeling -and-diming TV viewers is just annoying. Licensing and digital right management has much wider implications.
We have cars that verify software licenses before they enable features that their owners already paid for. Wi-Fi routers that turn into hockey pucks if they can't phone home. Laptops that won't play movies on external monitors because of copy protection and intimidate users that try to run software that wasn’t built with the vendor’s tools.
Companies aren't rushing to get your cars and appliances online so they'll work better. They're doing it so they can sell them to bill you every month for something you already paid for.
At the time, we warned that giving manufacturers the power to restrict how you configured your own digital products would lead them to abuse that power – not to prevent copyright infringement, but to shift value from you to them. The temptation would be too great to resist, especially if the companies knew they could use the law to destroy any company that fixed the anti-features in their products.
Sometimes, this was dismissed as fearmongering, with company insiders insisting that they knew their colleagues to be good and honorable people who wouldn't ever abuse this power. I expected that: no one is the villain of their own story, and we are all prone to inflated assessments of our power to resist moral hazard.
But there was another response to our activism, one that was far more telling: "Yes, we are going to take away all the features you get with your digital media and sell them back to you one click at a time. So what?"
I'll leave you with a quote that circles us back to sci-fi.
What makes cyberpunk such a compelling genre is the realization of both these visions simultaneously. It’s a warning, not an instruction manual…but it could be an instruction manual if need be https://t.co/91NymwsW2L
— matty 🦊☠️ (@MattyBRoberts) December 3, 2022
In happier news, we're getting more Gibson! Neuromancer is under development at AppleTV+. (Just don’t try to skip any commercials.)
See you on Thursday.