Thursday, September 07, 2006

Computers, gadgets, modern life and control.

It occurs that I've discovered a major theme in my life - control. Everything that I own has to be under my control. This obviously starts with my PC. Starting out on DOS, I was used to controlling most aspects of the computer's operation; I could control what programs it ran, whether they stayed resident or just ran once, when they ran, etc. Windows 3.1 also allowed such control but moving towards the more modern Windows OS, I gradually realised that I was losing this control. I didn't know what programs were running, when or why. I couldn't change settings, I couldn't rename stupidly-named menus or folders, I didn't get choices over where software installed itself and a lot of the time I couldn't change it later.

So I switched, to Linux of course, and now I have my control back. I get to decide what runs and when. Programs don't mysteriously insert themselves into the depths of my computer without me a) knowing, b) being able to revert the changes or c) having some way to prevent it. Software doesn't taunt me with promises of being able to do something only to stop me doing that exact thing until I pay more money, take out a subscription, click on an advert etc. If it does, there's always an alternative somewhere that I will be able to freely use. This is what used to make Windows more tolerable - If I couldn't control some aspect, such as which programs are allowed to connect to the Internet, I could always find some shareware or freeware that would allow me to control that aspect.

Unfortunately, this modern epidemic of removing control of modern electronics from the user's hands (the person who PAYS for these same products or services and enables them to be produced) and into the hands of the company (that receives the money, could not be in business without the user and whom, without checks, would dictate when, where and how much upgrades and further products will cost) has reached even the humble television.

Televisions and VCR's were always quite complex for the inexperienced user and rather difficult to exercise control over. I've seen at least one TV that, by a single keypress, will wipe out all its stored channel information, seek out every frequency and insert only discovered stations back into a list but in the order it finds them rather than any realistic ordering (such as by channel number etc.) and in so doing wipe out any channels for VCR's, games consoles or camcorders that might have been painstakingly set up.

The programming of the average VCR was legendary but towards the end of its life it became greatly simplified - no longer were they used as tuners but just as plain recorders, thus eliminating one level of commplexity in setting up recordings. VideoPlus codes enabled simple future-recording of programs on any channel for the exact time required to capture a particular program, even in some cases accounting for last-minute re-scheduling. Now most of that same functionality has moved into the era of the DVD-Recorder and HD-recorder although if anything the complexity is even more reduced - integration with automatic digital TV programme guides enables one-touch recording of future programs just from advertisements or trailers on any of a thousand channels. Programme guides also make browsing and recording any program on any channel on any day a breeze.

However, DVD has brought with it restrictions - restrictions which remove our control. You can't play an American DVD on a British DVD player - why? Not because of a technical difference, not because of an incompatibility but because the DVD inventors and distributors don't want to let you. Why? So they can sting more money out of you if you happen to live in such a closed market. The solution? Most DVD players sold are now either multi-region by default or multi-region capable. However, problems still remain with this format - UOP (User Operation Flags - those restrictions that prevent you skipping trailers, adverts, copyright warnings etc.). Again, these are an in-built mechanism designed to do nothing else but ensure that you see those messages.

When you are browsing your DVD's or waiting for the film to start UOP's are usually mainly used on trailers and commercial content that the user just DOES NOT WANT TO SEE, ever, and after they have seen it once, why would they want to watch any of it again? Sure, give them the option to see it again but let them skip it if they want as well. What's so wrong with a menu option on the DVD that lets me see trailers and other notices IF I decide to? I am perfectly aware of copyright law and if I wish to skip that inevitable 20-seconds of static screen I should be able to. Few DVD players have anything that lets you bypass the DVD's UOPS - however most PC DVD players can be patched or have utilities installed that will make them bypassable.

In fact, the libraries and media players that I have installed on my Linux computer just to be able to watch DVD's in the first place automatically do this for me - I just press skip and it skips forward, no matter what the DVD says I can or can't do. My control is restored, just not in my own front room where instead I make a point of noting which DVD's have excessive UOP control and either copy them, removing it in the process, or label them so I know to put them on five minutes before my tea is done so I can be out of the room while they go through their rigamarole. If neither is possible or practical, I merely make a mental note to never buy any of the things advertised and to try not to buy from the same distributor again, or at least not until they sort their act out. I honestly have a product/manufacturer blacklist in my head whenever I purchase a product.

My PC speaker's don't insist on locking themselves to full volume when a banner advert plays sound because it's intrusive, obnoxious and counter-productive (I will not buy those speakers or will stop visiting those websites) so I don't see why I should be forced to sit through ten minutes of adverts just to get to the film that I'VE PAID TO SEE. The same principle applies to cinema - how many people don't go in until the main feature has started, i.e. ten minutes after they say it starts on the ticket?

My car takes a lot of my control out of my hands but for very important reasons (my life, my safety) I still have control over some important points. I don't expect to be able to modify the algorithm that controls the activation of an airbag by any setting or by modifying any software or hardware - I wouldn't want to and there is no reason to. However, I would expect to be able to disable it, for instance, in the case of an emergency or if someone was working on the steering rack. This particular device is something installed to save my life - I don't expect it to be at all tinkerable or for it to be disabled without major interference with the car and major warnings (i.e. my airbag light staying lit on the dashboard).

Additionally, I want to be able to sue the airbag manufacturer if it failed to be deploy in an emergency situation (or my relatives but ideally **I** would be the person suing the company!). Therefore, I don't need to, or want to tinker with the details of its operation but I still have overall say over whether it's turned on or off. Relatively speaking, then, I have more control over my airbag than I do my DVD player, which has no reason at all for failing to let me turn off an unnecessary feature that allows me to enhance the use of hardware that I have purchased.

Would people tolerate a TV that would lock you into a single channel when you had selected to watch a movie and not allow you to change channel or switch off until you had sat through ten minutes of trailers? (The strange thing is that such TV's probably exist or are at least feasible for being manufactured today!) Would people tolerate vacuum cleaners that refused to suck until they had noticed your carpet was dirty, or because you used a competitors dust-bag? (Again, another likely occurence if the current state of inkjet printing is anything to go by) Would people tolerate telephones that auto-answered calls from marketers who had paid a fee to the telephone company and put them straight onto speakerphone?

One of the most popular features on telephones in the UK is a "Do Not Call" list for marketers, with severe penalties for companies that do not take account of it. My telephone has Caller ID functionality - I even get to control WHO I answer the phone to. My front door has a CCTV system - I get to control WHO I answer the door to (and leave marketers standing there in the cold and the wet). My oven and microwave do what I tell them to (within certain set parameters to ensure safety) and don't try to override me.

Most control-restrictions boil down to copyright control and advertising. Now copyright control is something that no form of protection has ever or will ever stop. Cinemas and DVD manufacturers are usually the source of any leak of pre-release films, professional copyright infringers have the knowledge, equipment and ability to bypass anything that the manufacturer may put in their way and those infringing copyright will not be stopped by such petty restrictions. Laws like the DMCA and its international equivalents fail to take account of one point - if someone is willing to break the law by pirating a movie, they will not think twice about breaking a law that prevents them from buying a device or using the "analogue hole" (the fact that if I can view it in any way, there will be ways to record that viewing, even if they are as primitive as using a camcorder to record the image on-screen) to copy the movie in the first place.

Additionally, it's impossible for a device alone to determine whether a copy process is infringing copyright - I am allowed to copy my DVD's for backup purposes in many countries. I may make one copy but then if the original disc breaks or is lost, the backup copy that saved me will also need to be copied, or I will have to obtain a second copy from somewhere. No chip in the world can currently decide accurately (or even just "well enough") whether or not I'm infringing copyright in doing either of those. In fact, in many cases, such backups are necessary. If you have ever let children loose with DVD's you will know that the discs scratch easily and many companies even refuse to provide copies of the DVD if this accidental damage happens to one you own (in the days of the ZX Spectrum, almost every company that distributed tapes would replace them free-of-charge if they stopped working).

The device has no way of knowing whether or not I am copying a DVD that I personally own or one I've rented or one I've filmed myself - in many cases this is the way that most modern copyright control systems end up being bypassed - any copyright flags or restrictions are removed to make the device "believe" it's genuine. Proof of purchase should be all I need to ensure that I can copy the disc and/or view copies of the disc. Even in court I'm innocent until proven guilty so it would be up to the device to prove, legally, that what I was doing was illegal. It couldn't. Ever.

That leaves advertising. Advertisting is not the only way to make money, or make your product known. Obtrusive advertising is a guaranteed way to lose money and make your products and even your own company infamous. If I wish to buy a product then I will research it. Not only will I not take any notice of brand-names or memories of previous advertisements of a company's products but I will absolutely blacklist a particular product, manufacturer or even entire line of products (such as DVD's or Blu-Ray or similar) based purely on how much control they expect to have over me. When I'm buying a product, the information available to me is what I base my decision on and not what advertisements I've seen in the past. When I go to the cinema, I base my decision on what is showing, not on every trailer I've seen since I last went to the movies and the ones before that. Only at the point of purchase do I NEED to know about any product.

As the years go by and copyright-protection gets ever more restrictive and more and more control is taken out of my hands, my mental blacklist grows. HDTV with it's amazing copy-protection? Blacklisted. (and my TV is five feet from my sofa and I don't see either how it will improve my perception of the TV image at that distance or why it's worth paying out for a mere resolution enhancement) Operating systems that want to dictate what audio/video streams I can play, where I can output them to or how many copies I can have installed? Blacklisted. (although I would like to point out that every OS I've ever installed has been properly licensed.) Cars that would only accept parts produced by their original manufacturer? Blacklisted.

And when enough of these blacklisted items are from a particular manufacturer? That manufacturer is blacklisted in its entirety.

The future, with its gadgets and gizmo's which are "vital" for modern life, holds immense interest for myself. As gadgets get more complicated, there has to be a certain amount of internal abstraction. We don't need to know how or why they work, just so long as we control what they do. My PC is the most complex appliance in my house and yet I exercise full control over what it does. My VCR has immensely complex integrated circuitry, although nowhere near that of my PC, that I don't need to understand to be able to use it and still it doesn't remove my control of its operations. Manufacturers would have you believe that "you can't" change what things do, because they are such complex machines. However, we have to keep in mind what motives they have for removing any controls we have - for instance, DVD region control and UOP's. There is no technical, functional or legal reasons (except for enforced compliance with what the manufacturers believe we should be paying for their DVD's in our particular country, whether or not we are legally able to import cheaper versions of the same DVD) why these two features should even exist and they can only interfere with our use of a product that we pay for in the first place and continue to fund by buying DVD's.

Are DVD's a product or a service? Is legally-bought downloaded music a product or a service? Is the computer hardware or software I buy a product or a service? If I stop paying for subscriptions and upgrades, or stop watching the advertisements, should things that I've "bought" be taken away from me? Everyone who sells these things wants them to be a service - they can charge more in the long run and revoke your use if ever you change your mind about paying for them. Everyone who buys these things wants them to be a product - they can control them and do what they want with them inside the confines of their law-abiding homes. Somewhere along the way, someone's going to have to come up with a reasonable compromise.

1 comment:

Horace said...

Would you recommand this distro to a total Linux newbie ?

I've set up a small LAN at home, wich holds 7 Windows XP/2000 PCs behind a router, and I'm considering setting up one of my machine under Linux to host a game server, but this would be my first time with this OS.

While I don't know if it's a good idea (I don't even know how to compile something), this is the first Linux distro that really turns me on, because I like it's minimalistic approach so you can keep everything under control and only install what you really need. Is it reasonnable for a Linux newbie to start with this one ? I'm really wondering. Consider my level as a power-user (maybe 5% of my hotline calls actually help me, wich is some sort of indicator I guess). Thank you.