July 19, 2005

Thoughts on EFF’s 15th [3:28 pm]

“You can’t do that.”

It was my second year of graduate school and, after much arm-twisting, I had agreed to go “halves” with a dorm-mate on a newfangled consumer good - an Apple ][+. After turning my back on computing in my sophomore year, (concluding that it was fun to learn about programming, but that it wasn’t really something I expected to be regularly involved in) I had been told that, with this investment in a “personal computer,” we would be able to stop paying MIT secretaries to word process our papers and do it ourselves.

With our budget constraint, we made what proved to be a fateful decision. A real printer was simply beyond our means — instead, we decided to buy a less-expensive modem and just use the teletype/dot matrix printer in my dorm-mate’s lab. It had an acoustic coupler and, after all, we were at MIT with all sorts of computing support. I’d just ask for the information and that would be it.

Instead, I got the surly “You can’t do that” that is familiar to anyone who’s dealt with technical support from a position of weakness/ignorance. Given the need to recoup our investment, I took that declaration as a challenge and, after months of learning, trial & error and a lot of work, I showed that, in fact, tech “support” was wrong — you could “do that.” Printed a thesis or two that way as proof, in fact.

I live with the fallout of that decision every day - I’ve learned more about computers than I ever thought I would, and I use it every day. In this, my sophomore self was completely wrong — something that should be no surprise to anyone who’s ever had to deal with one.

As computers have insinuated themselves into our lives, more and more people have developed the same level, if not kind, of facility with computers that I did. Some write programs, some create art, some do their jobs and some just use them to have fun.

Yet, while computers and their associated digital technologies have become more accessible, there are still those who seek to assert control over the ways in which the technology gets used - frequently while also asserting that no one should be able to examine (much less control) the uses to which they themselves will put these technologies — “No, no. You can’t do that.”

Asymmetries like that should be unsustainable in free societies. Society may decide that there are technologies that should be controlled - but society should get to decide. Not a subset; not just the wealthy, or the powerful, or the technologically savvy. Everyone needs to be informed and involved.

Institutions like the EFF help to fulfill this vital role, raising the questions, challenging the authorities and educating the public — not just informing, but also leading when the opportunity arises — fulfilling Jefferson’s insistence that the success of republic depends upon an informed electorate.

EFF — congratulations on fifteen years of accomplishment, and here’s hoping there will be many more!

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