A little bit pregnant: Cory Doctorow in Toronto

Cory Doctorow at the University of Toronto.

Cory Doctorow at the U of T.

On Saturday I was privileged enough to attend Cory Doctorow‘s keynote speech at the University of Toronto’s third annual iSchool conference, Boundaries, Frontiers and Gatekeepers. I’ve been a fan of Cory since he started writing for the Guardian in 2007, and his novel Little Brother will be required reading for any teenagers I happen to have influence over (though now that I’m over 25, they really shouldn’t trust me to give them advice about what to read). The keynote speech was called A little bit pregnant: Why it’s a bad idea to regulate computers the way we regulate radios, guns, uranium and other special-purpose tools, and you can find an excellent podcast of it on the Singularity blog.

You might think that we don’t regulate computers – after all, you can go out and buy one without any kind of background check or funny looks from store staff. However, general-purpose computers are found in just about every electrical device we use today, and are overseen by governments or manufacturers. Often this is for a good reason – you probably don’t want your clock radio to interfere with air traffic control or the emergency services – but the sheer ubiquity of general-purpose computers means that giving up full control of them is giving up too much. There are innumerable examples of governments overusing surveillance privileges and abusing anti-terrorism legislation in order to stifle criticism.

Cory pointed out that the entertainment industry’s near-hysterical pursuit of copyright infringers has not resulted in any ways to prevent copying, nor any less piracy. This suggests that the regulatory model does not work and a new approach is needed – an approach that can be applied to other general-purpose computers to keep us productive and safe without sacrificing our freedoms. There is no single magic fix for this issue – a solution that prevents your car’s ABS brakes from locking up when you drive past an iPhone might not be appropriate when you want to prevent someone from accidentally making a superbug on a bioprinter.

The talk’s title comes from a section towards the end:

Building a general-purpose PC that’s just a little bit locked down it like finding a woman who’s just a little bit pregnant. Once the facility can be used for a legitimate purpose, it can also be used for an illegitimate purpose – indeed, that’s the problem that we started with in the first place.

The podcast ends before the Q&A session, so you won’t be able to hear my question. I asked how we might go about changing from one (ineffective) regulatory structure to another when there is so much entrenchment and vested interest in the current way of doing things. Cory fielded the question effortlessly, commenting that commercial and consumer interests don’t necessarily have to be at odds (which relates to another point he made about there being no one-size-fits-all regulatory solution to the potential harm that general-purpose computers can do).

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