The State of the Intersection: my #opentech talk

At Opentech 2013 today I gave a talk about the ‘State of the Intersection’ as part of a wider debate about the value of open data with Gavin Starks from the ODI.

This is the text I wrote beforehand, and which I used as the basis for my talk. But as ever, what I said will have differed from this..

The State of the Intersection

25 mins for OpenTech 2013

Bill Thompson

We live in a liminal space, between the real and the virtual, and neither its scope nor its characteristics are determined or well-understood.

Rather than discuss the state of the union, I want to consider what is happening in this intersection.

And in so doing I propose to suggest that we take the politics of our current situation more seriously than we have done so far, because if we don’t we are in danger of being useful idiots in the cast list of the next iteration of global capitalism.

The Compulsory Opening Quotation

Courtesy of John Naughton I was alerted to this comment from John Carey regarding his view of the Internet1 Carey, a professor of English at Oxford, wrote in his review of Richard Holmes’s history of ballooning:

Ballooning was a dream that failed and the lesson of Holmes’s story is that an invention that seemed to promise democracy and universal brotherhood became merely another means for humanity to exhibit its insatiable appetite for triviality and destruction. Perhaps the nearest modern parallel will turn out to be the Internet.

The triviality doesn’t bother me too much – I’m as fond of kittens as anyone here. But the destruction seems like a real danger, not least because the principles on which the Internet is founded leave us open to exploitation and appropriation by those who see openness as an opportunity to take without paying – the venture capitalists, startups and big tech companies who have built their empires in the commons and argue that their right to build fences and walls is just another aspect of ‘openness’.

Open? Tech?

It’s twenty years since CERN agreed with TimBL’s request to release the codebase and standards that define the Web, the start of the modern online era. Now we have Eric Schmidt pushing the technological determinist agenda that would see Google and the big tech giants left to run the world as they wish, Evgeny Morozov calling it for the oppressors unless we step away from our Internet exceptionalism and overarching desire to look on the bright side.

UKIP is the flavour of the month in UK politics, xenophobia is rampant in our domestic politics and Tweetdeck no longer supports Facebook integration.

The core principles we espouse – free software, open standards, open data, an open internet capable of supporting an open society – leave us weak and exposed when we come up against those who would expropriate our work, use the force of copyright and patent law against us, and turn our co-creators into sharecroppers on their cotton and sugar plantations.

We have no protection, like Earth facing a Kardashev Type III civilisation.

Are we in a post-Shirky world? Have we discovered that power lies with those who retained their organisations, like Facebook, Google and the Conservative Party?

CC0 vs GPL.

We live in the future, but the rest of the world is back in 2013 where the economy is fucked, the social fabric is being unravelled and some people seriously believe the UK should leave the EU.

We do great stuff. It changes the world. Yet we remain naive and create licenses that offer succour to our enemies as well as our friends. Nothing could stop the Nazipedia, or the UKIPedia – but would we want to stop them? Does not wanting to stop them make us weak? At least Stallman understood that it’s a class war – too many of us seem to believe that people will play nice if you let them.

What level of social engagement is appropriate if you’re a hacker? Is it enough to believe in social justice, enlightenment values and an open society and restrict your political activism to online petitions, Facebook ‘like’s and releasing open data?

Former schoolteacher Walter White makes crystal meth not only because it will make him wealthy, though that was his proximal motivation. It is also a way for him to gain the respect of others and self-respect, a way to express the darker sides of his character – sides that I reckon have always been there.

But there’s another aspect – he wants to do it right, wants to get to 99% purity (or greater) because the quality of the product matters to him, and he chooses not to see that his quality product is killing people and damaging lives because it sits at the heart of a system that is based on violence, exploitation and addiction.

It’s not that our desire to make the net perfect or sort out HTML5 or build tools for perfectly frictionless sharing is as bad as making pure meth – it’s that it might be worse.

So are we building a closed economy/society on open data? Perhaps we are those useful idiots in the silicon valley ideology, building our cool toys and leaving them open to appopriation like the punk bands whose songs failed to threaten the system.

After all the digital revolution, ike every other revolution, is most likely to result in the aristocracy being overthrown by the bourgeoisie and the workers being screwed again.

Meet the new OS, same as the old OS.

The Open Internet and Its Enemies

We do have a choice. We made the network, we created the model for open data, and so we could change it.

For Karl Popper the real danger to open societies lay in the belief that some characteristics of human society are innate, essential and unchangeable, what he terms historicism. In fact we make it all up as we go along, and this is so clearly true of everything we do online that nobody could reasonably deny it.

But still we hear sensible people talk about The Internet as if it was an external reality with characteristics that could somehow be inviolable and unchanging, perhaps representing a Platonic network from the world of forms.

This isn’t the case.

That means, first, that we have a responsibility for what the internet is, has been and may become that we cannot escape. We built this thing, our actions shaped it, and we are accountable for what it does.

It also means that we have the power to reshape it, if we choose to do so. And if we haven’t left it too late.

They stole our revolution – now we want it back was NTK’s slogan fifteen years ago

Google took HREF

Facebook took HTML

What’s going to be lost next? Is the liminal space2 doomed to be another zone of commercial exploitation, as the web and mobile ecosystems have proven to be? Are those of us toiling in the public service, or trying to build open and adaptable systems, merely clearing the forest and tilling the land so that GM crops can be planted?

We can put social justice at the heart of everything we build

We can consider the social impact of what we do

But it will not, in itself, stop our ideas and works being abused, stolen and apprpriated.

We’re like The Clash in 1977, watching our fine friends in new boots3.

So how can we ensure that the network is defended? Or even defendable.

The Code of Politics

Part of the problem is that we don’t really have any any politics, and perhaps we need some. We already express a philosophy that informs our dealings and our lives, but like socialism, ‘open’ is a process not a goal, it is not a defined outcome but, like ‘science’, a way of approaching the world that we believe, over time, results in better outcomes.

The problem is that the evolutionary pressure in a broken capitalist society favours not openness but profitability, and doing what we believe in is therefore not selected for.

Lessig tells us the net is contingent, but we need to remember that society and its politics are too.

Should we work to secure for workers by atom and bit the fruits of their labour –our own Clause IV (or Clause 100)?

Can we exploit the power of the ODI, OKFN, ORG, EFF, FIPR and others through




How many divisions has the EFF? Do we want a party, a campaign group, an ideology?

To Be is To Do

The legal, regulatory, political and financial frameworks that define modern society are not amenable to the outcomes I would like to see.

I’m the sort of person who is used to having agency in the world. I’m white, male, able-bodied, heterosexually-inclined, well-educated and have had – and been able to take advantage of – opportunties denied all but a tiny proportion of the humans who have ever lived. Even the working-class council estate in Corby I grew up on was only the worst estate in Northamptonshire – hardly South Central LA, Sao Paolo or Kibera.

So I like to think of ‘things to do’ – apart from write anguished blog posts or a book. We don’t want to stay where we are, so far down the food chain that we’re starting to envy the plankton.

One option is direct confrontation. We’re the clever people in the room, and if they are taking our ideas, let’s make it hard. They want patent thickets, let’s give them a forest. They want the DCMA, let’s close off future edits to Wikipedia and hit them with takedown notices. Let’s build DRM to enforce OUR view of the world, trademark everything and announce CC-MAX, with added litigation.

Or not. I think I’d prefer not.

Like Ghandi, I don’t believe that a victory won with those weapons would be worth having. The (c) of power corrupts all who try to use it for good, and rms may have come back purified from his battle with the balrog but we don’t want him to use his staff of power. There’s a reason Gandalf didn’t just get the eagles to fly Frodo and Sam into Mordor – it showed that the small and weak can change things too, that they don’t always have to be helped by white men with beards.

We need our salt march. We need to take the users with us, and the kids who are just learning to code with Young Rewired State and code clubs. We need to practice peaceful, non-violent resistance and refuse to participate, even if it brings with it a personal cost. We need to offer other models – Mozilla, yes, but not only them

Towards a New Luddism

This is not a call to abandon our principles or our technology. Instead I want us to look at how new technologies have been pressed into the service of the ruling classes throughout history and consider how the systems we are building, the data sets we’re liberating and the principles we espouse can be used to increase social justice, reduce inequality and oppression, and serve the mass of humanity not just the wealthy superclass.

It’s worth reflecting on the Luddites. The Luddites were not opposed to technology, and used some of the most advanced cloth-making technologies of their day.

They revolted because the new forms of automation introduced in the early 19th century were amenable to industrial organisation and required such an investment of capital to buy and install that factory working was the only way to make them profitable.

They fought because the capitalist mill owners used their political powers to change the rules to their advantage, reducing the power of the guilds over the ways cloth and wool were made and manufactured, just as rules on personal privacy are in danger of being diluted in favour of social network service providers.

They lost. How can we do better?



2 An aside: I don’t approve of the term ‘augmented reality’- reality is a construct, a constantly shifting series of hypotheses about the world based on the accumulated evidence of our senses, and sense data can be all we know. Technology has always enhanced our senses, whether a telescope or a CAT scanner, but we’ve chosen to privilege the recent technical innovation that allows us to overlay video images with the grandiose term ‘augmented reality’ – yet another example of digital hubris.

3 I’m sure it’s no coincidence that Apple called it Garageband