On Values, Technology and the Consumer
It shouldn’t come as a surprise the things people make, tend to reflect them. When an author writes a book, there is a little of themselves in the text. When a carpenter builds a table, their pride and attention in detail finds it’s way into the furniture. When a widget is assembled on an assembly line the details of fabrication end up reflecting values of its designers. Where were the parts sourced? What were the labor practices involved? Is it sustainably built? What is its carbon footprint? Did the designers side with price over quality?
Software often has its own sets of values that can be embedded into it. Does the software impose restrictions on the user? Is it hostile? Is it easy to use? Does it ship with malware? Will it inter-operate with files from other programs? Does it force a user to work with a sole company by design?
Consumer by and large vote with their dollar even if they do not realize it. They spend their capital on the products which appeal to them. Part of that appeal is often is due in no small part to the values embedded in the technology.
Apple has a very tightly controlled design aesthetic and has consistently enforced corporate wide design languages for their products since 1984. The visual style, the user interface are very important to them. They value simplicity, elegance and consistency to the detriment of other values. Apple’s sees control of the whole ecosystem surrounding their products as necessary to deliver their vision. As a result they are not very open or transparent to developers, their hostile to free and open source software, and they deny third party hardware or software to compete with them on equal footing whenever they can.
Even if the underlying issues at hand are not obvious to them, consumers have consistently felt the benefits and pains of these decisions and have voted with their dollars accordingly.
As a result the market ends up kind of illustrating this strange averaged depressing version of our cultural values.
For example, we deeply care that our digital books are cheap and are eager for Amazon to pave a primrose path for us in that regard. However, we care very little that say the new era of digital literature we are helping to fund can’t be read by the laptops we give poor children around the world due to proprietary file formats and drm.
That is not a fact I am particularly proud of. It is something I quite often rail against, but it is a problem that doesn’t get a lot of traction with people, and therefore its not going to change.
Part of the issue is that our vision as consumers tends to be pretty short sighted. Consumption is very much an act of immediacy often influenced by novelty and ease, it is not often introspective or critical. This is the more embarrassing side of the equation frankly. This is our culture having apathy on issues, we shouldn’t frankly be apathetic about.
The other half of problem is that there are people who do or would care, but the long term implications of the technology and legal aspects of digital media are obtuse and difficult to break down. There is a barrier here for consumers to understand the issue, and when they do surmount that barrier it is not apparent what the difference between their choices is. Digital marketplaces (outside of music) are rarely if ever transparent on the kind of file one is receiving for one’s purchase. The format, the license, the DRM are obscured from the purchaser on pretty much every commercial digital ecosystem I am aware of.
Here are three copies of the Jefferson Bible from different prominent ebook stores.
Can you tell which ones have DRM and which ones do not, just by looking at the product pages? What about the file format? Which one could you buy and potentially read on third party software or hardware?
It isn’t easy to tell is it?
This is not a small problem. Digital media is supplanting physical media and to a degree that is the expected way of things. However, while we live in a world where newspapers and magazines are folding and bookstores are shutting their doors we need to be transitioning into digital ecosystems where we understand the implications of our actions and purchases.
The creative commons licensing folks, I suspect understand part of this problem. They developed a visual language to quickly convey the rights provided to users of creative commons content, its powerful and I think it has contributed to the success of the creative commons.
What we need is something similar for our software, digital media and electronics. Not just for licensing, but for file format and drm. We need the technology equivalent of the ingredients and nutrition label that we get on our food packaging.
The question is how do we get to there from here? And can we get people to care about that?