The Freedom to Compute

(Repost from FidoNews)

This is a reposting of an editorial written in FidoNews published on March 17th, 1986 by Mike Guffey. FidoNews is the newsletter of the FidoNet distributed network which was a network of dialup BBSes that could share information. It was the first wide network that allowed the public to communicate globally for free.

As this was written in the mid 80s, there is a strong anti-soviet/communism and pro-american viewpoint. At the time, FidoNet was young and mostly had an American audience. FidoNet has been recently used in areas where internet censorship is prevalent. Interestingly, one such use is within former-soviet states along the border of Russia who actively resist Russian control.

The Freedom to Compute: The human right to use a computational model to derive any result.

Professor Loren Graham of M.I.T. recently wrote an article entitled "The Kremlin and the Computer". He depicted life with state controlled computing. His observation that George Orwell had it all backwards in "1984" is shrewd. He noted that Orwell thought technology would allow "Big Brother" to maintain control. Who would have guessed the Soviet Union would turn the tables and retain control by the suppression of technology, especially computer technology?

If America's government relied on keeping the population uninformed to retain power and control, things would be different today. What if your government didn't permit computer access to large amounts of accurate data, didn't permit free communication between computer users? What if your government would not allow widespread use of personal computers for fear of losing "control"? How long could your government hope to genuinely keep pace in the information age?

These were questions Graham explored in his article. He painted a grim picture of what might be called "retrograde technology". He points out some democratic traditions indicating an edge over communist [and third world] nations:

Graham goes on to say,

So far the pattern [of Soviet authorities] seems to be to require that all computers be institutionally housed and controlled. But what [they] may not have realized is that they will pay a stiff price... by severely limiting the rapidity of the growth of the computer culture, by hampering the spread of computer literacy among young people, watching the West become a true 'information society' they will be doomed to follow..."

Graham also calls the Soviet Union "the most secretive industrialized power in the world". These observations are based on a recent visit to Moscow and his background in the history of science.

There is no known "hacker-culture" in the Soviet Union and its youth is missing out on the experiences available to millions of American schoolkids, hobbyists and average business computer users. Nor does the Soviet Union's educational system emphasize hands-on experience with high-technology hardware. Even typing is not widely taught.

Graham's article raises the question about how long the Soviet Union can retain a genuinely international status with a decaying economy that can neither heal itself with accurate information nor give its children a legacy of competition in an increasingly computer-aided world. Surely a disturbing question for an aging leadership.

So what about your most taken-for-granted freedom? How important is it to you? What are you planning to do to protect it? Unlike the gun control or right-to-life issues, the freedoms you enjoy in accessing as much (or as little) information as you desire are seldom regarded as burning issues. Are you to allowing it to slip away as the communications giants gradually make the price of information prohibitive?

In earlier times, free enterprise aviation developed rapidly because suffocating regulation had not yet arrived and no one thought to make air corridors into tollways. Later, after long years of gradually instituted legislation, many industry giants couldn't survive their emancipation. Today our situation is reversed. We have started out on overcrowded highways controlled by one giant. Let us hope the giant remains benevolent. Let us hope the giant doesn't team up with the federal bureaucracy to act on our behalf without our consent.

Just where does one suggest a constitutional amendment?

This article illustrates the notion that controlling computation may be a means of controlling information. I find it intriguing that this thought existed as early as 1986. This predates the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act which is overused against those attempting to spread information, and predates the attack on public cryptography with the Arms Export Control Act. It came before the public internet and the cloud infrastructure that has both opened the door to greater public usage of infrastructure, yet also promoted heavily privatized control over user content. Have we improved? Do these modern incidents and even designs of software and networks reinforce a lack of freedom to compute?

Is the freedom to compute, for instance the ability to use our devices to generate and access any information, something we need to more aggressively fight for?

If you'd like more information about FidoNet, there is an entire episode dedicated to the network you can watch from the great Jason Scott documentary, BBS Documentary. DVDs of the creative commons content are available on the website for the documentary. Very much a recommended watch (this episode and the HPAC episode especially.)




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