Unless you were living under an enormous, media-impervious rock for at least few weeks, you must have heard of the recent ruckus about laws concerned with the so-called intellectual property. It was mostly due to infamous SOPA and PIPA bills that were to pass in the US, and the temporary “blackout” of various big websites whose owners voiced their protest against those bills. But we also have something of a local spin-off, relevant to the EU and specifically Poland: an outcry against ACTA, a similar albeit slightly less ridiculous piece of law, which (as of this writing) is due to be signed in a few days.
Even though we do not really know yet how those issues are going to be resolved, there are already few important lessons to be learned here. And I think that the biggest one is not actually concerned with the merit of laws in question. Instead, it draws attention to the problem of communication between IT industry and general public.
It never was, really. If anything, recent events served as a good wake-up call, reminding that the Internet and all related technological infrastructure is something that we take for granted way too often. While I might exaggerate a bit, I don’t think it’s very far-fetched to say that for average person, the Internet is pretty much magic. You pop up “the Internet app”, type whatever you are looking for, and few moments later, voilà: you just got it, by the sheer magic of intertubes. Assuming, of course, that there is actually something specific you have in mind; otherwise, you can always look at what your friends have “shared”, and from there start your clicky journey through the nether. It’s awesome, virtually boundless, and it just works… right?
So far, consequences of such technical ignorance were also mostly technical, surfacing as security issues, loss of data, malware spread and so on. But that’s alright! We’re dabbling into arcane and invoking supernatural powers, so it’s no wonder we sometimes accidentally summon few annoying daemons. Should that happen, we can always call an exorcist in a form of friendly geek-next-door, or (at worst) tech support.
Now, however, failure to grasp the fundamental nature of the Internet can result in much more dramatic backlash. See, this technical stuff underneath is not just a plumbing that can be safely ignored. The foundational, idealistic principles of the ‘net – decentralization, freedom, knowledge, progress, innovation, flexibility, and so on – are woven into its very fabric. It is by exposure to those “boring details” that those ideas may influence and reshape minds, helping to do away with flawed and outdated notions – including, for example, the 19th century’s concept of intellectual property. I cannot even fathom how someone with reasonable understanding of how software, Internet and IT work could conceive something as outrageous as those infamous IP laws. It just doesn’t compute.
Yet it was conceived, put into words, formed into a legal document and officially proposed – more than once, in fact. Obviously, such things don’t happen by itself, especially when powerful interest groups are at play. And that’s precisely the reason why we have various public institutions, from parliaments to international organizations: to weed out blatantly bad solutions, and sometimes even let the good ones pass through.
At least, that’s the theory. It’s naive to postulate virtues among politicians (i.e. those willingly aspiring for power), so we make them cling to one value they’ll always embrace, for it is needed to maintain a ruling position: popularity. This should roughly translate to caring for the same things the voters care for. Roughly, because there will be always some disconnection due to effects of scale, perception, biases and multitudes of other factors.
Still, this is pretty much how it works. In order to push an agenda we are vitally interested in (or obstruct one we are strongly against), we need to gain enough publicity. We need to make people share our values and consider as utility those things that we consider as such. That’s how we set the appropriate casual chain in motion, eventually leading to fulfillment of our goals.
And this is where the IT industry has failed miserably. It’s the reason why we’re frantically looking for support, rolling out our biggest cannons, hitting the news with blackouts of absolutely crucial Internet services and DDoS attacks on government sites. We have failed in making the society share our values in elegant, gradual and systematic manner, so now we need to condone a shock therapy to compensate for this negligence. Actually, in some cases we have been actively making things worse, professing the exact opposites of those values mentioned before: centralization, limitation, monocultures, stagnation and rehashing of old concepts.
Now we are just reaping what we have sown.