Eben Moglen's talk at FOSDEM '11

Eben Moglen of the Software Freedom Law Center and at the Free Software Foundation gave the first keynote of Fosdem 2011

The talk centered around freedom in the literal sense, as opposed to the 'freedom 0' sense of the GPL. To paraphrase, what coal & steel was to 20th century politics, electricity and software is to the 21st century.

Using WikiLeaks, Tunisia & Egypt as examples, he made the point that centralisation of social utilities such as Facebook & Twitter are not a good thing for civic society, firstly because they introduce a single point of failure, and secondly because the interest of those companies - profit - is not aligned with the interests of the protesters, i.e. the promotion of liberty and disruption of the (often profitable) status quo. Eben made the point that 'we' as the free software community are behind the curve in meeting the need of citizens engaged in this kind of activism.

He then made a short diversion into Eisenhower's warning against the U.S. military industrial complex, which he said had evolved into a 'surveillance military industrial complex'. He referenced the contempt shown to the rule of law during the Bush years, and the expansion of Bush policies on rendition etc. under Obama.

At roughly this point he announced what he called the "Freedom box" initiative (/foundation) whose goal was to produce a 'plug' form-factor PC that could act as a node in a wireless mesh network and provide routing / connectivity, maybe function as a base station and potentially offer other services too. Enough of these, made cheaply and distributed relatively densely in modern cities, could act as a relatively robust WAN in times of peace, and as an information back-bone free from kill switches when such a thing becomes necessary.

During the talk I had the good luck to be sat next to Juliusz Chroboczek, an adjunct professor working at a Paris university on, among other things, mesh networking, as you can see from his research page. Eben's promotion of meshes also reminded me very strongly of the now-vanished WikiWikWAN project, the sole trace of which seems to be it's CodeCon 2002 listing. The lightning talk on open source telecoms by Donatus Onwunumah seems to be highly relevant too.

I had to leave right after the talk, so I didn't get to engage in the many follow-up conversations that no doubt ensued, but I'm interested to see him throwing his weight in a new direction - and I look forward to seeing how this develops.

The market can eat itself, and us.

"Security can be viewed as a tax on the honest, and [the theft of iron manhole covers, lead roofing and aluminium guard rails] demonstrate that our taxes are going up. And unlike many taxes, we don't benefit from their collection. The cost to society of retrofitting manhole covers with locks, or replacing them with less re­salable alternatives, is high; but there is no benefit other than reducing theft.

"These crimes are a harbinger of the future: evolutionary pressure on our society, if you will. Criminals are often referred to as social parasites, but they are an early warning system of societal changes. Unfettered by laws or moral restrictions, they can be the first to respond to changes that the rest of society will be slower to pick up on."

The financial crisis of 2008 should have illustrated, to all but the most die-hard, ignorant or Sinclairized, that 'the market' is by no means a panacea for our ills. It is not some modernist god worth worshiping for its wealth creation abilities. Nor should the forces it creates in society be exempt from judgment by virtue of their origin.

The above quote illustrates this neatly: Schneier discusses a situation where market forces incentivise the cannibalising of the very infrastructure on which society and functioning markets depend.

Cross-reference this with 'The collapse of complex societies', by Joseph Tainter, which investigates why societies fail. To illustrate what is meant by 'collapse', here he quotes an eyewitness account of the collapse of the Turkish government:
"...the Allied troops... found a city that was dead. The Turkish government had just ceased to function. The electrical supply had failed and was intermittent. Tramways did not work and abandoned trams littered the roads. There was no railway service, no street cleaning and a police force which had largely become bandit, living on blackmail from citizens in lieu of pay. Corpses lay at street corners and in side lanes, dead horses lay everywhere, with no organization to remove them. Drains did not work and water was unsafe. All this was the result of only about three weeks' abandonment by the civil authorities of their duties."
And from his summary, a succinct explanation of the core thrust of the book:
"Four concepts lead to understanding collapse, the first three of which are the underpinnings of the fourth. These are:
  1. human societies are problem-solving organizations;
  2. sociopolitical systems require energy for their maintenance;
  3. increased complexity carries with it increased costs per capita; and
  4. investment in sociopolitical complexity as a problem-solving response often reaches a point of declining marginal returns.
"This process has been illustrated [in previous chapters of the book] for recent history in such areas as agriculture and resource production; information processing, sociopolitical control and specialization, and overall economic productivity."
We started with an example of an expensive investment to guard against a generally improbable crime, itself only occasionally worth committing during commodity shocks, and costing far more to society than it makes in profit to the criminal.

In the reference frame of point 4 of the above quote, this kind of investment is very far past the point of declining marginal returns, almost absurdly so - the marginal return is most definitely negative.

If society collapses around us, the market will make things worse, not better. 'Market forces' will strip buildings of pipes and copper wires, homes of their roofing and the vast majority of citizens, defenseless, of their possessions and dignity. This too is the market - Moloch as Ginsberg imagined it. Nothing worth venerating there, nothing at all.