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Created: 4th January 2021
Updated: 6th February 2021
Length: ~2,700 words
© 2021 Paul Mobbs; released under the Creative Commons license
OK, this is literally a bit of a hack… I need to solve a few multiple problems with as little effort as possible, and the easiest way is to create this blog. In this page I’ll explain a little as to why.
That’s the whole point though: When everything in your life is a ‘a tool’, and you have the skills required to use that tool simply and easily, you just do it.
That is a summation of the ‘hacker ethic’: Technology that can be modified and reconfigured is valuable precisely because it works for you; whereas so much of today’s ‘consumer technology’ is designed to exploit its user; that exploitation is often unavoidable as the user does not have the ability to change its function, as there are ‘no user-serviceable parts’; and so much of what passes for ‘technology’ today must be considered use-less for its designed purpose as a result (at best the purpose of such devices is to be stripped for useful components!).
“DJNZ?” No, not a Kiwi techno-musician. But for a certain age of computer geek ‘djnz’ has a very specific association:
In assembly mnemonics ‘djnz’ represents the ‘decrement jump non-zero’ instruction used by the Zilog Z80 processor, which back then was a fairly unique feature – at the root of most loop processing in machine code operations for those who wrote programs on early PCs like the TRS-80, ZX80/1, and Spectrum machines. The first computer I built from components (in 1982) was Z80 based. And by a circuitous route within local geek circles that’s how I came to get the handle, ‘djnz’.
That shows how long I’ve been playing with this junk.
Back in the early 80s if you wanted to hook-up a computer to a phone, or make it talk to something else in the room, you had to build what you needed to do it, and usually program it, improvising with what was available.
More importantly, as a group interested people we freely shared the skills to do that with others. Yes you could buy the gadget, but that was way beyond the price range of most people outside of the corporate or academic world.
Growing up in that early ‘digital ecosystem’ gave you a very specific grasp of technology – and what it was there to do for you, and the value of that.
As 'consumer electronics' displaced corporate uses and began to dominate the computer market, and more especially as mobile phones and ‘app culture’ took that idea and put it on steroids, the basic, practical value of technology in our lives has been lost – to a culture that fetishises consumption and excess in all things.
The Cobol, BASIC, and Fortran I used at technical college are rarely used in the mainstream tech. world. And even though since 2001 I’ve refused to use Windoze, or it's erstwhile upmarket competitor MacOS, I still have to be aware of how they work to help others – because few have the confidence to ditch those systems for the superior qualities of Linux (which I started using in 1999 after a particularly good hackfest in London).
And I haven't even got on to the niggling complexities of hardware yet!
As programmable digital logic is now at the core of everyday devices, you can’t get away from the need to have that knowledge in order to reconfigure or repair many gadgets.
The most important question you have to ask here is, “Why?”
The critical question is not, “why do we have all this technology”; humans have had ‘technology’ ever since we started bashing open nuts with stones. The critical question is, “why is technology so deliberately complicated by incompatible parts and logical standards, and often legally inaccessible for ordinary use or modification even when it’s sat on the table in front of you.”
Let’s begin with the obvious: Isn’t talking about ‘techno-Luddism’ a contradiction in terms?
It’s that same discernment, between what is good and bad for humanity and society, which we need to apply to technology today. In what claims to be a democratic society, people should be free to choose the technological regimes they are subject to, and not forced, by systemic attrition from above, to adopt.
“Systemic attrition?” Isn’t that a bit over the top?
I’m one of those who refuse to have a mobile phone, precisely because I object to all the technological and ecological impacts which come with it. As public phone boxes have been removed people have been forced to buy mobile phones (by a company who profited from this transition). I, however, will not get one – and so my family must accept that once I leave the house I cannot call home.
One of the major (but often overlooked) boosts to the progress of the Industrial Revolution was the adoption of technical standards from the 1840s – beginning with the Whitworth screw thread. Once machine components were standardised, they could be mass produced more easily, simplifying construction and maintenance. Machines could be also designed to operate more safely as the mechanical tolerance of components could be precisely measured and known.
It is that process of standardisation that today's proprietary technologies, locked-up by intellectual property law, are making effectively incompatible.
Often though, errors introduced by incompatibility can go unnoticed until the worst happens: Such as very expensive space probes crashing into the planets they were sent to observe; or worse still, faulty flight software reacting to a damaged sensor by crashing the aeroplane it was designed to protect – killing 346 and costing tens of billions of economic losses.
Information technology makes existing systems of contract terms or liability one stage worse – by enforcing authentication mechanisms to allow use, or access for servicing: Meaning that a single person’s machine may be remotely shutdown when the company wishes; or may not be open to maintenance except by a representative of the company who made it; either of which which effectively renders the user a hostage to the manufacturer’s demands, unless they’re willing to hack their own equipment.
Sometimes examples of this are silly, but with chilling overtones. For example, people who bought a copy of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four to read on their Kindle devices; and who ironically discovered that one day Amazon had deleted them (or should that be, ‘put them in the memory hole’?). Obviously though it’s far more disturbing to have a U2 album uploaded to your machine without consent!
What you have to ask is, do these isolated cases actually highlight a more severe problem in future?; should these companies become even more predatory in their practices, or dare we say, political?
I have another such an example in my home:
We discovered that our washing machine had a hidden clause in the contract for its extended warranty. It put a limit on the hours of use, within certain time periods, after which the warranty is void. This limit was not drawn to our attention when we bought it, nor the fact that the machine collects data on our use of it for the purposes of enforcing the limit; which is accessed by the service company when they’re called to fix it.
Problem is, do the sums, and if we want it to last eight years like the old one we can only do three washes a week before we exceed that limit. It also means that buying a new one will be the only economically viable option if/when we break that limit before our desired eight years is up.
Within all this discussion of the excesses of technology, the fundamental reality is that these bad traits of modern technology are not ‘accidental’; they are consciously designed to function in this way by a system which seeks ever greater economic control over society.
The problems which arise from that – be it economic control of the user, greater surveillance or conditions put on the user, in addition the the potential for unforeseen failures caused by the higher levels of complexity – are considered acceptable by the manufacturers and regulators precisely because the ordinary consumer can do little to stop this happening.
These nefarious systems of technologically-enabled exploitation will not be solved by better rules or regulation. It is only by blocking such functionality that they can be eliminated – and the only way to verify that is to render all technologies ‘open’, for both inspection, repair and modification. If industries are not willing to give that concession, then we need to find ways of enforcing it to preserve – as the Luddites demanded two centuries ago – Commonality.
The tech. industry’s answer to the problems of complexity for the user is to add more layers of logical complexity, so the user is required to know less about the device to use it; which inevitably entails adding more of the programmed, non-serviceable content locked-up with IP law; and increasingly recording information on its user to send back to its creator or (corporate) owner; and of course, requiring that the user be sold yet another new model while the old one is quietly rendered obsolescent.
Quite literally then, “The things you own end up owning you.”
There is clear evidence that in the future the affluent West, representing just 10% of the global population, but who consume more than half of everything, will have to cut their consumption significantly to avoid an ecological catastrophe.
Likewise the minerals with which our modern information society are made are in short supply; and recycling isn’t the most effective option to solve that problem, it’s redesigning to significantly extend service life and repairability.
Governments and industry will only consider options which perpetuate their current position within the global industrial system, hence why there has been minimal change to date. If there is to be a radical change in our use of technology it has to come from below – as a direct challenge from the public to that system of technocratic control.
That requires as a community (not ‘experts’ deciding from the top) we can discern: Which technologies are good; which cannot be sustained and should be foregone, rejected or replaced; and which technologies are by their nature fundamentally injurious to society, and must be actively opposed. For that to happen, it requires that all those restrictive layers of opaque logic, proprietary components, and restrictive intellectual property laws be removed – or if the industry does not wish to engage, circumvented (actually, if only to demonstrate the extent of top-down resistance to technological autonomy, the use of that one word is probably the most litigiously loaded with liabilities for prosecution in this entire piece!).
That process begins with the individual gaining knowledge of not only how machines work, but also how the technocratic system surrounding the use of machines has made them as they are. Small piece by small piece, in each post uploaded, that’s the core mission of this new blog.
More simply, what this blog is intended to do is revivify various community-based projects I helped to organise 20-odd years ago. The problem is that I need to update large parts of that old work; and I need to decentralise it by focussing on distance learning, so it doesn’t rely solely upon me. The simplest way to do that is piece-by-piece via this blog.
A bit over two decades ago, as the Windoze-PC computer was taking control, those projects were a means for those who could not access information technology – circumventing the financial barriers to create their own affordable, maintainable systems by learning new skills to build and creative use them.
Today though the barriers have changed: In affluent states, technology has become ubiquitous; the challenge today is to give people access to technology in a way that is not exploitative and controlling.
That process begins by making the knowledge of how to manipulate ‘stuff’ open; and where necessary challenging the monopoly restrictions of intellectual property by freely circulating that knowledge in ways that circumvent (oopps!, that word again) the stifling controls on free speech that the concentration of social/mass media ownership creates.
For a full exposition of the problems of intellectual property law and the application of open licenses, see the FRAW main copyright page.
Unless otherwise stated, all video, text, and images in this blog have been created by Paul Mobbs – copyright as dated in each part of the series. If any material has been created by someone else it will be clearly flagged as such in the text with appropriate credits and links.
All materials are released under the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike 4.0 International license. Where other materials, not produced by Paul Mobbs, are included in the series these will have been issued under compatible open licences.
Please note, I am a freelance writer and consultant. You may purchase non-exclusive rights to the materials in this series for commercial publication, or I could produce bespoke articles if they are required. For those who are interested, I can also run (for a fee) workshops around the issues raised in the series.
To discuss further email ramblinactivist☮fraw°org°uk (replacing symbols with usual characters).
Finally, to be clear, if you choose to use or carry out anything described in this series of posts: The experiences described in this series of papers are to be performed at your own risk! No liability is accepted for any loss or damage to your illusory affluent consumer lifestyle and presumed liberties.
One final note: You cannot take the ‘punk’ out of cyberpunk (which is essentially what contemporary digital culture has done to the radical roots of ‘personal computing’).
What you are left with is the vacuous purpose of living life through technology, without the political awareness to interpret, or choose, the objective value of the things attached to your lifestyle (which is what enables modern technology to be used as a tool for commercial exploitation and social control).
By trying out some of what is recorded on the blog, I hope that people will discover their ability to understand and manipulate technology, and do so in a way that goes beyond the restrictions of what the technology market attempts to impose upon them. Admittedly though, some of that might not be pleasant, since there are many aspects of modern technology which cannot be ‘civilised’, and so the only real option is to reject it.
If there is one thing that I hope this blog achieves then it is to put the DIY ethic back into people’s use of technology. That ethic never really went away; but so many have forgotten its value to our future lives – and just need a little prod to be reminded of it.