Useful Tigress Blog

A better world is possible, and we can make it real.

Nobody Gives a Shit About Freedom Zero 🐯

So I went back in time a little today and noted Mark “410 Gone” Pilgrim’s 2008 post, “Of Canaries And Coal Mines.”

So after 18 months, I think we can safely say that no, Cory [Doctorow] and I were not “canaries in the coal mine.” There are not hordes of fed-up consumers rejecting Apple’s vision of cryptographic lock-in. There are not mass graves where people ceremoniously dump their crippled, non-general-purpose computing devices. Outside of Planet Debian and my own personal echo chamber, nobody gives a shit about Freedom 0.

Since then, things have only gone further in the direction that Pilgrim and Doctorow despaired about. Apple has sold a preposterously large number of iPhones and iPads, large enough that it’s actually a bit difficult to get a grasp on how much the game has changed. I’m just gonna quote Marco Arment, since he absolutely called it:

Smartphones were an established consumer-electronics market with devices that people thought were pretty cool, but often frustrating and with serious shortcomings and design flaws. … Other manufacturers had neglected touchscreens for years, but Apple figured out how to do a touchscreen well, and did. Fans of the former types of smartphones and much of the tech press declared this smartphone useless or not capable enough because of its lack of a keyboard, its non-removable battery, its lack of expansion slots or ports, and other hardware features in which Apple chose differently from what most other manufacturers were doing. That ended up not mattering. Now, most high-end smartphones look like [the iPhone]. … [Criticism of the iPad] ended up not mattering. And now, other manufacturers are scrambling to build tablet products as quickly as possible. How do you think the subcompact, inexpensive computer category will look in three years?

Now, I’m willing to take some cheap shots at this: it’s what I do, I snicker a little cruelly when I imagine Cory Doctorow in the role of Iron Eyes Cody, a single tear rolling down his cheek as he realizes that there are untold billions of people who don’t care about “Freedom Zero.” His tear is the tear of the modernist project, the realization that whoops, Western European affluent-white-dude values are not in fact universal, and there may have to be some difficult negotiation in the future to figure out (a) what values people advocate (b) what values they actually live by and © whether people can get along within the self-imposed constraints of (a) and (b).

I can’t get genuinely angry at Doctorow, though. I’m pretty bummed out when I think that billions of people don’t share my values, because I’m as egotistical as anyone else and still have a nice little candle in my heart of “If I was running the show you’d see some changes around here pretty darn quick!” At worst I think he’s kinda na├»ve. It’s borderline tautological to say that people outside the engineer/hacker culture and professions do not share its ideological concerns. If you walked up to an attorney cold and asked her what “Freedom Zero” was, you would probably get an answer that has nothing to do with “screws, not glue.” The phrase might register as a complete non-sequitur to a scuba dive instructor, a barista, a social worker, an undergraduate working the register at a gas station, a costumed worker at Disneyland.

I acknowledge the counterargument of “if people were more informed about the issue, they’d care,” but you have to note that that’s an argument you can make about anything and it’s perilously close to the fallacy of “if people were better informed they’d agree with me!” So I think that it’s to be avoided. What I think is that people care about themselves first—thinking as our rational-logical selves, paying rigorous attention to our professed ideals and to how our actions fit them or fail to, is difficult and we’re usually half-assing it. Yes, all of us, because we’re all fallible people prone to thinking more about what we want than whether getting it is worthwhile or having it will actually make us as happy as we think.

One of my favorite jabs at this human tendency comes from the San Francisco stand-up comic Will Durst, who had a great riff on it in the early Bush years:

Don’t get me wrong, man. That 300 bucks last August—that rebate check came in handy. I live here in town, I paid off two parking tickets with it. But we had this windfall, we could have done anything with it. We could have paid for every hot lunch program in America through the year 2054. We could have put in a down payment on prescription drugs, which they talked about last November and now we haven’t heard Word One of. We could have done a lot.

“Oh no, no, you can’t do that. Uh-uh. No.” “Why?” “Well, the American People want tax cuts.”

Well duh! The American People also want drive-through nickel beer night! The American People want to lose weight by eating ice cream. The American People would chew off their own foot if Oprah told them there was liquid gold in their ankle veins! The American People love the Home Shopping Network because it’s commercial-free.

Humanity has a long and illustrious track record of wanting things that aren’t particularly good for us. I’m not saying that Freedom Zero is one of those things. I’m actually with Doctorow in that I think that more people tinkering, exploring, and creating, is inherently a Good Thing. I just think that Freedom Zero is a bit too narrowly defined, and thus Doctorow tends to undervalue good things produced by people who don’t care as much about freedom-to-tinker as he does. At this point I think it’s very safe to say that the “iPads are for consumption” canard is dead, but it’s not just that. The deal with iPhones and the Apple ecosystem in general, is that they’re a trade-off. It’s fine for Doctorow to reject that trade-off for himself, but I think that he’s in error with his rationale for encouraging others to reject it; I think he’s projecting his values onto them. That’s an error. If you go and look at what people are doing with their devices, you’ll find that they’re doing things that are valuable to them, which is unrelated to what’s valuable to Cory Doctorow.

If you want to persuade others, to talk them into changing their behavior, you need to figure out what’s important to them and avoid assuming that what matters to you matters to them. That’s part of what makes persuasion hard—that and the massive disconnect between what we profess to want and what we are actually happier to have. That’s my vote for what people should care about: being clear on our own desires.