Just got back from a visit to England, where I saw Boing Boing blogger Cory Doctorow give a lively speech at the Open University. The OU crowd actively encouraged everyone to surf the web and twitter responses and questions during the speech:
When Cory Doctorow talked at the Open University today, the audience in the room was supplemented by a more widespread group who were watching the live webcast. Throughout his talk, the extended audience was discussing, reacting to, reporting and referencing what was said. By the end of the session, Cory was responding to a question that had been passed by a group of students to their tutor, who had Twittered it to someone in the room, who asked the question of Cory and then Twittered the answer back down the line.
Doctorow, former European Affairs point-man for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, spoke on the topic of whether the information revolution would make us slaves or masters. He's a fluent public speaker, who weaved in references to science fiction writers (he writes SF himself) — and even Chekhov! I'd never heard Doctorow speak before, so for those of you who also haven't, here are a few themes he touched on:
- Technology can free us! It can be used to evade regulations in repressive societies. Cellphone networks can spontaneously organize protests, national firewalls can be breached, secret documents can be leaked online.
- Technology can enslave us! Britain's eerily comprehensive CCTV network records your every move, laws allow authorities to "ghost" the hard-drives of anyone whom they suspect of wrongdoing, and RFID identity badges pose a host of dangers.
- It's important to understand these dangers aren't just from wholesale government repression — many supposedly secure identity cards or RFID badges can be hacked and falsified by evildoers.
- Governments shouldn't be able to gather vast secret databases of information, for two main reasons. First, government employees will always give in to the temptation to snoop around in them for private / illicit purposes. Second, the state is always slower and dumber than hackers, so " top secret" databases can and will be breached by third parties.
- The private sector also wants to encroach on your ability to use your devices as you wish. Top-heavy networks of lobbyists and government officials are designing new, intrusive regimes of "digital rights management" even as we speak. To them, every new way you can use digital media is a "right" that they want to figure out how to charge for.
- Although these policy meetings are technically open to the public, there are huge barriers to learning what's really going on. Legal changes that dramatically affect your ability to use your DVD player, for instance, are often cloaked in such thick layers of legalese/bureaucratese that ordinary citizens are completely unaware they've happened.
- That's where bloggers come in! Doctorow told an amusing story of showing up at a European conference (g) of the World Intellectual Property Organization and basically derailing it by "decoding" the delegates' bureaucratese via live-blogging, exposing hidden agendas and conflicts that eventually derailed the agreement the conference was supposed to produce.
- To the inevitable question of how artists are supposed to make money, Doctorow said cheap, low-entry-cost digital media are destroying the $300 million movie and blockbuster CD, and that's a good thing. There's plenty of music out there and plenty of experimentation going on. New media and piracy pose a danger to the blockbuster model of media production, but that model's outdated, and the new media themselves create a whole host of new experimental opportunities.
The speech was being webcast live, so I'm sure a copy of it is saved somewhere. Doctorow skipped around a bit and used lots of charmingly nerdy expressions like "I've blown my buffer," but did hold your attention. He radiated a cheerful optimism about the promise of technology, and about the ability of citizens to fight back against its more sinister uses. I'm not really sure I share quite so much optimism. I also thought Doctorow's comments about the future of media were a bit breezy. Doctorow and the sort of people he hangs around with probably don't care much about mainstream music and movies, but there are plenty of people who do, and who want to see the business model that generates movies they like survive.
Overall, though, the speech was thought-provoking. Lots of the questions were twittered in. One day I'll have to sit down and learn what this "twitter" thing all the kids are talking about is…