Technology Freedom is the right and capability to use tools for local problem solving. This is the first and most fundamental of all human freedoms. Indeed, humanity is distinguished from all other species precisely by its capacity to invent and use tools, utilizing the scientific method to discover generalized rules governing the universe, and then applying that knowledge by engineering technologies to make the environment more hospitable to human flourishing. Without guaranteed freedoms for all users, technology becomes a tool of oppression, an alien, dehumanizing force, rather than an extension of our agency. All other freedoms are meaningless with these core guarantees. Words are tools. What is freedom of expression, except the first example of Technology Freedom?
When I speak of Technology Freedom I do not mean mere “access to knowledge” or the “availability” of technology in a given part of the world. Technology Freedom consists of privileges, rights to use the technology in specified ways, free from interference, and “enablement,” assurances that the user has the actually existing capability to exercise freedom with respect to that technology. I do not mean an impoverished notion of purely “negative freedom,” freedom from restraint, but an expansive concept of positive freedom, freedom to achieve, following the work of Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach. Place a bottle next to a baby or an unopened can next to a dog, and while both have “access,” they will surely starve. Software Freedom means the ability to freely use, modify and redistribute copies of the source code, for a price or gratis. Documentation ensures that the user can exercise this freedom. The enabling conditions, widespread and cheap personal computing power, together with the power to communicate and distribute via the internet, mean that in practice, programmers from all over the world, even countries not thought of as “high-tech,” can and do exercise Software Freedom. Altogether, this means that any individual has the Freedom to Fork and can take a software development project in another direction, provided he or she is able to attract support. This is the ultimate “check and balance” in a system of technology governance configured around the rights of users.
The precise contours of technology freedom in a given domain are yet to be defined. The Network has chosen to focus on Biological Technology Freedom because the life sciences are so central to, you guessed it, life. Yet even here, it is more appropriate to speak of specific sectors, agriculture (itself consisting of several subcategories), diagnostics, vaccine design and production, drug discovery, drug delivery, gene therapy, regenerative medicine, etc. There is overlap and interplay between all of these spheres and they share a common characteristic—their economic models are broken and they fail to deliver on their potential because of unhealthy concentrations of power and lack of competition. There are many ways to say what amounts to the same thing—Monopoly and deficiency of Technology Freedom. Nevertheless, the specific content of the freedoms will differ in each context and must emerge from communicative deliberation (in contrast to strategic attempts to set the rules of the game in one’s favor) among all affected parties.
To lead this deliberation, to clarify, certify, and defend Technology Freedom with respect to specific aspects of Biological Innovation is our urgent task. Objective analysis of the global innovation system reveals that it is utterly dysfunctional. Inspired by the lessons and principles of the Free Software movement, many have understood that we have an important template to follow as we reclaim our Technology Freedom in all areas. But most are dangerously unaware. Mainstream discussion of global warming almost entirely misses the point. In this solar system, there is no “energy crisis,” there is a distribution crisis, an institutional crisis, a Political Economy crisis. It is not a problem of power in the physics sense of electro-magnetic radiation, but of power in the socio-political sense. Enabling individuals, literally “empowering” them with Technology Freedom with respect to energy production, in whatever form it takes, from biofuels, to wind, solar, or fuel cells, is the issue. The transition to distributed, decentralized energy production shifts the geopolitical reality, eliminating reliance on, and wars over, strategic “hotspots” where petroleum supplies are concentrated. This change in structure, not the specifics of which “green” technology is adopted, is significant. Forms may vary, principles are eternal.
Our communications infrastructure, which was revolutionized with the birth of the internet, is under siege by incumbent interests from a bygone era that, while initially caught off guard, have begun to apply age old techniques of control to a new medium. Paying for Telcom access is the biggest scam going; consumers are hit with multiple subscription fees for mobile phones, television, and internet, all while being bombarded with advertisements (which could pay for it all the way they pay for Google Search), when the advertisers should be paying us! The conflict over net neutrality, the architecture of the web—the choice of whether citizens are free to construct their own local wireless networks or will remain beholden to ancient Telcom Monopoly Monsters—these are not esoteric issues for hackers, nerds, or geeks. These technology wars must not be ignored.
Throughout history, the few, the power structures, have always sought to control access to and use of technology. Those that control the dominant technological paradigm—the mobile horse warfare of the conquering Mongol Hordes (little men who became giants by melding with horse), the unstoppable iron ships of the British Navy, which secured the world’s first truly global empire, or the atomic missiles of the US/USSR—steer the course of this spaceship called Earth.
Until now, we have perverted the power of technology, which represents the triumph of the metaphysical over the physical, brain over brawn, mental power over muscle power. The sword is no longer needed to raid other tribes when the plow can sow enough for all. Social critics have long complained about Want amidst Wealth, the persistence of soul crushing poverty alongside progress. No more puzzlement. No more excuses. The prevalence of these problems stems directly from a lack of Technology Freedom.
Instead of turning our technology to life support, governments have invested in ever more powerful explosive ballistics to kill ever more people at ever greater distances, in ever shorter time[i]. Trillions are spent in the name of “defense” when we have enough firepower to end ourselves several times over. Nations that possess these weapons of mass destruction can deter any invasion; those that do not desperately seek to “join the club,” as the nuclear states preach an ineffectual and ultimately hypocritical doctrine of non-proliferation. Since atomic weapons proved essentially unusable, states continue to invest in conventional forces, which, honestly, can only be used to project force, not defend. The Katrina debacle reveals the true priorities; with resources and the National Guard deployed to Iraq, little is left for emergency response or true “homeland security.” Emerging new technologies, including the weaponization of communications technologies for psychological warfare, and the possibility of engineering specific biological pathogens targeted to the genomes of certain populations, herald a new era of distributed destruction. Without transparency, there will be no deterrence as in the atomic age. Governments and groups alike can kill and destroy their targeted enemies while leaving physical infrastructure intact.
Corporations were originally conceived and constituted to perform a specific function under a charter granted by the state with the understanding that profit would signal and reward the efficient achievement of that goal, not become the goal itself. Now they make “money with money,” encouraging capital flight and irresponsible speculation that has nothing to do with the fundamentals of wealth creation and threatens the global economy. Gone are the days of visionary industrialists such as Henry Ford, who understood that boosting the consumption power of the common man was the key to prosperity for all. In their place, multinationals manufacture “needs,” appropriate the commons, despoil it, generating “illth” not wealth, and then have the audacity to charge us for it, selling us our own airwaves, and if things continue, the very air we breathe. Our esteemed universities, supposed bastions of knowledge, play academic games—faculty vying for tenure, deans jockeying for pieces of the budget, presidents soliciting millions from jaded alumni with nothing better to do than throw more money into already enormous endowments, concentrations of wealth which dwarf the GDPS of many countries. It has all been a great Failure, the Great Betrayal.
Even so, there is reason for hope. For centuries, the church monopolized literacy, controlling copies of texts, requiring the faithful to accept only their official interpretations of the word of God, despite the obvious fact that all humans, by virtue of their minds, which when open, can perceive the scientific laws underlying this universe, have in effect, a direct and always connected “hotline to God.” The invention of the printing press broke this monopoly, shining a light into the dark ages and beginning a slow process of expanding freedom. With freedom comes responsibility, and the possibility that freedom will be abused.
The parable of the AK-47, ironic and tragic symbol of Technology Freedom, and the events of 9/11, teach important lessons about Technology Freedom. Al Queda has embraced a distributed, “networked” governance model; one in which semi-autonomous local nodes coordinate to advance the greater global goal. There is no single point of failure. The combination of low-tech (box cutters) and high-tech (jetliners turned into bombs) empowered a few individuals to achieve results. In the name of “security,” our outmoded institutions, blundering, bloated, bureaucratic, behemoths that cannot respond effectively in the networked age, have curtailed civil liberties and implemented absurd, obviously ineffective measures that make us no safer and a great deal less free.
In the face of disaster, be it the corporate malfeasance of Enron, or the Anthrax attacks of 2001, the favorite, knee-jerk response of governments and corporations is secrecy and control. The third tactic, regulation, may be well-intentioned, but is usually equally damaging. Surely, we can’t “Open Source” technologies related to our vital security? This kind of thinking is exactly wrong and precisely incorrect. In the absence of totalitarianism, secrecy is inherently leaky and will only limit the response capacity of the “good guys.” Already, the global patent system is a liability for global risk management. The inadequate response to the threat of Avian Flu pandemic attests to our vulnerability; it is currently impossible to scale up vaccine production in time, and, thanks to Monopoly, we lack manufacturing capacity to increase the supply of the only effective anti-viral. With the emergence of synthetic biology and eventually, advanced nanotechnology, the consequences of secrecy and proprietary models are potentially catastrophic.
Technology Freedom makes those in power nervous, and rightly so. But the alternative, outlawing potentially dangerous technology, will not stop angry individuals from using it. It will only impair our capacity to predict, avoid, and respond to threats. Commitment to freedom is an affirmation of integrity. It acknowledges and approves of the efficacy of the individual, and it requires the courage to grant him his deserved autonomy rather than paternalism.
To reclaim our Technology Freedom requires a great struggle that will be touchand go until the very end. It requires lawyers that understand the true purpose of law. Law is itself a social technology, a tool to build trust, codify and simplify sets of rules so that no citizen is subject to whims of a dictator or the unwritten, repressive customs of whatever group holds power at the moment. At heart, Law is a framework to facilitate human cooperation, coordination, and excellence, not a weapon of coercion to be sold to the highest bidder, nor a special jargon deliberately used to obfuscate and to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt. These lawyers/norm entrepreneurs must be prepared to go against all their training—to draft legal tools, template contracts—that get the lawyers out of the technology management sphere—empowering users to easily and quickly determine their rights in a given technology and contract with others to co-develop that technology. A society’s freedom, the health of its legal system, indeed its very degree of civilization, is inversely proportional to the number and importance of its lawyers. The greater our dependence on them, to interpret our rights for us, to litigate against our neighbors, to process our birth and death certificates, the more barbaric we become. Achieving Technology Freedom requires careful cultivation of our only truly scarce resource—integrity. If you find a lawyer with integrity, let us know.
We require scientists who are communicators, who can popularize science in the spirit of Carl Sagan, not sit cloistered in an ivory tower. Excluding modern scientists in the mold of Craig Venter, who perhaps considers himself a capitalist first, scientist second, most scientists are, and always have been, employed by the public. Thus, they must be accountable to the citizens who pay their bills, and cannot shirk the duty to explain their work. We have already lost the public’s trust in science—the reaction against genetically modified food, the persistence of creationism, the widespread suspicion and unease that surrounds technology—attests to this. Our own arrogance is to blame. Consumers rightly worry that science has sold out, bowing to commercial and political pressures instead of adhering to the most rigorous engineering standards. This is most evident in the case of so called digital rights management, where copyright holders have managed to implant dangerous copy protection measures into our electronic devices, creating the possibility of critical hardware crash all for the sake of a few dollars. Not only is this economic insanity—the market and revenues that would be hurt by such crashes dwarfs the revenues that are lost by digital content monopolists—but it is not a hard stretch to see how this becomes a matter of life or death. Imagine if air traffic control software were compromised or if similar distorted decisions affected the development of biomedical technologies. Of course, they do, as the case of Viox and numerous other drugs that are pushed through the FDA and later recalled, attest.
Following this theme, we must mobilize patients groups that, until now, have coalesced only around specific battles—HIV advocacy, the politics of stem cells, Parkinson’s, Alzhiemers, the wealthy breast cancer lobby—all of these interests must understand that the fastest route to cures is in reforming the structural flaws of the innovation system. We need patients who are simultaneously “patient and impatient,” that is, willing to think about some of the more technical details of the innovation system—patents, investment models, and regulatory burdens—and ready to demand, with all the emotional weight that an appeal from those who are suffering entails—that the system be reformed to support Technology Freedom.
The rise of Open Source and growing awareness of the benefits of so called“Open Innovation” models in various fields is encouraging, but must never distract us from the fact that all economics deals with behavior and relations between human agents, is founded on fundamental axiomatic assumptions that are not “value free,” and in the end is intimately entwined with morality and ethics. The founding masters of Political Economy, from Adam Smith’s, Theory of Moral Sentiments, to J.S. Mill’s On Liberty, understood this insuperable connection between freedom and economic success. The Abrahamic religions, while not always a source of enlightened wisdom, warned against usury for a reason. The devastating hyperinflation suffered by Germany after WWI was a critical factor in creating the desperation that allowed radical evil to take root. Our Technology Freedom with respect to our financial system is in dire peril as ever more intricate instruments of irresponsibility are invented. The Bear Stearns bailout shows that while times may change, greed endures and avarice merely becomes more sophisticated. It has always been about freedom, it is about freedom, and it will always be about freedom. It is curious, to say the least, that the Open Source movement would abandon appeals to the most powerful motivating force in the history of human thought in the hopes that a “pragmatic” pitch would succeed in inadvertently achieving Software Freedom by “default.” It is not clear that the possibility that the “rhetoric of freedom” may alienate some, means that we should put the cart before the horse. Our problems require radical solutions; freedom has always been a radical idea. “Freedom is not an unchangeable space to be conquered once and for all: it is a permanent process of new and ever new liberations[ii].” Companies should be nervous, the transition to Technology Freedom may require a leap of faith on their part and it requires a credible commitment. Yes, there are solid economic and “pragmatic” reasons for changing the existing abysmal business models configured around the exclusive exploitation of technologies. But when companies talk of “openness” and collaboration we must be wary that they do not co-opt and dilute these concepts, turning them into little more than “crowd-sourcing” to obtain engineering solutions and then exploiting the results in the usual, monopolistic manner.
Technological Freedom is our greatest triumph, the power that lets us, naked apes born helpless, without fur or claw, defeat any predator, fly the skies, and sail the stars.The fight for Technology Freedom is the battle of our time and the outcome determines whether humanity is to pass its final exam and become what evolution has been trying to make us, a resounding success in the universe. To win this battle requires that we have the courage to go along with the Truth, for mind deals only in Truth. Support Technology Freedom, humanity’s option for success.