Our Assignment

The third culture is Embedded. Here's what I said about it in A Tale of Three Cultures:

I was at the Embedded Systems Conference in San Francisco, which seemed a world away in time. It was a big conference, filling most of both the North and South Halls at the Moscone Center. Linux was huge here. Domination of the embedded world looks no less inevitable, in spite of the huge Microsoft and Wind River booths, which stood out like boulders in the stream of history.

[Embedded is] purely technical. It's pre-Net, pre-UNIX and maybe even pre-cultural. It shows up where raw technology meets the real world, and its concerns are utterly practical. "Here's the problem", it says. "Let's solve it." This is a heads-down culture and civilization depends on it. Embedded systems are what run our cash registers and brake systems, our airplane guidance systems, our factory robotics, our flow meters, our stoplights and our heating systems. The Net and Linux are both handy ways to solve countless embedded systems problems—extremely handy, it turns out. One morning at SXSW I read that embedded Linux will soon run in something like 60,000 cash registers at Home Depot. It's a big story, but mostly a technical one. Does Home Depot give a damn about Linux as a cause? Or about the lawmaking that threatens to turn the Net into nothing more than a backbone for industrial-grade commerce, plus a bunch of culverts for moving "content" stamped and sanitized by ubiquitous digital content management? I kind of doubt it.

Good as it is, and much as we celebrate its success, Android is an embedded Linux operating system. It is also run by one giant company. The Android source FAQ makes that quite clear. Android is Google's show. To contrast that with Linux, dig what Andrew Morton told me a few years back:

Look for example at the IBM engineers that do work on the kernel. They understand (how it works) now. They are no longer IBM engineers that work on the kernel. They're kernel developers that work for IBM. My theory here is that if IBM management came up to one of the kernel developers and said "Look, we need to do that", the IBM engineer would not say, "Oh, the kernel team won't accept that." He'd say "WE won't accept that." Because now they get it. Now they understand the overarching concern we have for the coherency and longevity of the code base.

One point here is that kernel developers are autonomous individuals who work for the kernel, not for any one company—even if that company employs them to work on the kernel. The same goes for the people we call "users". The Net, by design, supports autonomy, independence and freedom for everybody. Protocols such as HTTP, FRP, IRC, NNTP, POP, SMTP and IMAP all give individuals their own way of connecting with and communicating with anybody or anything, outside any one company's or government's controlling systems. Those all embodied principles I call NEA: Nobody owns it, Everybody can use it, and Anybody can improve it. Linux is that way too. It's only natural for companies operating in the Net's wide open commons to try enclosing it. Usually this fails. (Read Greg Kroah-Hartman's take on what Apple's doing with Thunderbolt, for a perfect example of what these big companies never seem to learn.) But I'm not sure about Hollywood. It won the battle that Larry Lessig outlined 14 years ago. And now Linux geekery is highly diluted by its embedded uses and the corporate purposes of embedded development work. The tragedy of the Internet's commons is one where free and open geek culture is losing to the cultures of Hollywood and embedded development, and the expediencies of both.

But the cause of freedom got a huge lift from Edward Snowden's revelations about NSA spying. That was a wake-up call, and the world has not fallen asleep since then. In fact, the world is now more awake than ever to the high level of surveillance going on in the digital world, and its threats to freedom. So, while the sun shines, we can make hay.

A year before the Snowden revelations, Eben Moglen gave a keynote at Freedom to Connect followed by a conversation onstage with Isaac Wilder and myself. After Eben walked from podium to chair, I said what he gave was not only one of the best speeches I had ever heard, but one of the most important. I stand by that claim today. You can find audio at Archive.org, video on YouTube (), and a transcript at the Software Freedom Law Center. The talk was 47 minutes long and addressed to the same audience I am writing for here: people with a deep and abiding interest in free and open software and hardware. Here is my abridged hack of the transcript:

The greatest technological innovation of the late 20th century is the thing we now call the World Wide Web. An invention less than 8000 days old. That invention is already transforming human society more rapidly than anything since the adoption of writing....

The browser made the Web very easy to read. Though we built Apache, though we built the browsers, though we built enormous numbers of things on top of Apache and the browsers, we did not make the Web easy to write. So a little thug in a hooded sweatshirt made the Web easy to write, and created a man in the middle attack on human civilization, which is unrolling now to an enormous music of social harm. But that's the intermediary innovation that we should be concerned about. We made everything possible including, regrettably, PHP, and then intermediaries for innovation turned it into the horror that is Facebook.

If we'd had a little bit more disintermediated innovation, if we had made running your own Web server very easy, if we had explained to people from the very beginning how important the logs are—and why you shouldn't let other people keep them for you—we would be in a rather different state right now.

We created the idea that we could share operating systems and all the rest of the commoditizable stack on top of them. We did this using the curiosity of young people. That was the fuel, not venture capital.

What we need to say is that that curiosity of young people could be harnessed because all of the computing devices in ordinary day-to-day use were hackable....This is happening now elsewhere in the world as it happened in the United States in the 1980s. Hundreds of thousands of young people around the world hacking on laptops. Hacking on servers. Hacking on general-purpose hardware available to allow them to scratch their individual itches, technical, social, career and just plain ludic itches. "I wanna do this, it would be neat." Which is the primary source of the innovation that drove all of the world's great economic expansion in the last ten years. All of it. Trillions of dollars of electronic commerce....It should embolden us to point out once again that the way innovation really happens is that you provide young people with opportunities to create on an infrastructure that allows them to hack the real world, and share the results.

The nature of the innovation established by Creative Commons, by the Free Software Movement, by Free Culture, which is reflected in the Web, in Wikipedia, in all the Free Software operating systems now running everything, even the insides of all those locked-down vampiric Apple things I see around the room. All of that innovation comes from the simple process of letting the kids play and getting out of the way. Which, you are aware, we are working as hard as we can to prevent now completely. Increasingly, all around the world, the actual computing artifacts of daily life for human individual beings are being made so you can't hack them. The computer science laboratory in every 12-year-old's pocket is being locked-down....If you prevent people from hacking on what they own themselves, you will destroy the engine of innovation from which everybody is profiting.

We said from the beginning that Free Software is the world's most advanced technical educational system. It allows anybody anywhere on Earth to get to the state of art in anything computers can be made to do, by reading what is fully available and by experimenting with it, and sharing the consequences freely. True computer science. Experimentation, hypothesis formation, more experimentation, more knowledge for the human race.

Which brings us back to this question of anonymity, or rather, personal autonomy. One of the really problematic elements in teaching young people, at least the young people I teach, about privacy, is that we use the word privacy to mean several quite distinct things. Privacy means secrecy, sometimes. That is to say, the content of a message is obscured to all but its maker and intended recipient. Privacy means anonymity; sometimes that means messages are not obscured, but the points generating and receiving those messages are obscured. And there is a third aspect of privacy, which in my classroom, I call autonomy. It is the opportunity to live a life in which the decisions that you make are unaffected by others' access to secret or anonymous communication.

There is a reason that cities have always been engines of economic growth. It isn't because bankers live there. Bankers live there because cities are engines of economic growth. The reason cities have been engines of economic growth since Sumer is that young people move to them to make new ways of being. Taking advantage of the fact that the city is where you escape the surveillance of the village, and the social control of the farm.

The network, as it stands now, is an extraordinary platform for enhanced social control. Very rapidly, and with no apparent remorse, the two largest governments on earth, that of the United States of America and the People's Republic of China have adopted essentially identical points of view. A robust social graph connecting government to everybody and the exhaustive data mining of society is both governments' fundamental policy with respect to their different forms of what they both refer to, or think of, as stability maintenance. It is true of course that they have different theories of how to maintain stability for whom and why, but the technology of stability maintenance is becoming essentially identical.

We who understand what is happening need to be very vocal about that. But it isn't just our civil liberties that are at stake....We need to make clear that the other part of what that costs us is the very vitality and vibrancy of invention culture and discourse....And that freedom to tinker, to invent, to be different, to be non-conformist—for which people have always moved to the cities that gave them anonymity, and a chance to experiment with who they are, and why they can do.

This more than anything else, is what sustains social vitality and economic growth in the 21st century. Of course we need anonymity for other reasons. Of course we are pursuing something that might be appropriately described as protection for the integrity of the human soul....

We need Free Software, we need Free Hardware we can hack on, we need Free Spectrum we can use to communicate with one another, without let or hindrance. We need to be able to educate and provide access to educational material to everyone on Earth without regard to the ability to pay. We need to provide a pathway to an independent economic and intellectual life, for every young person. The technology we need, we have.

I have spent some time...trying to make use of cheap, power-efficient compact server computers, the size of AC chargers for mobile phones, which with the right software we can use to populate the Net with robots that respect privacy, instead of the robots that disrespect privacy, which we now carry in almost every pocket.

We need to retrofit the first law of robotics into this society within the next few minutes or we're cooked. We can do that. That's civil innovation. We can help to continue the long lifetime of general-purpose computers everybody can hack on—by using them, by needing them, by spreading them around. We can use our own force as consumers and technologists to deprecate closed networks and locked-down objects.

Then came Edward Snowden. And then, a few months later, in November and December of last year, Eben gave four lectures at Columbia Law School titled "Snowden and the Future". In them, he revisited some of what he said in the speech above, and laid out specific assignments I now pass along to Linux Journal readers:

We need to decentralize the data, you understand. If we keep it all in one great big pile, if there's one guy who keeps all the e-mail and another guy who does all the social sharing about getting laid, then there isn't really any way to be any safer than the weakest link in the fence around that pile.

But if every single person is keeping her and his own, then the weak links on the outside of that fence get the attacker exactly one person's stuff. Which, in a world governed by the rule of law, might be exactly optimal: one person is the person you can spy on because you've got probable cause.

E-mail scales beautifully without anybody at the center keeping all of it. We need to make a mail server for people that costs five bucks and sits on the kitchen counter where the telephone answering machine used to be, and that's the end of it. If it breaks, you throw it away.

Decentralized social sharing is harder, but not so hard that we can't do it. Three years ago I called for it. Wonderful work has been done that didn't produce stuff everybody is using, but it's still there: it can't go away, it's free software, it will achieve its full meaning yet.

For the technologically gifted and engaged around the world this is the big moment, because if we do our work correctly, freedom will survive and our grandkids will say: so what did you do back then? I made SSL better.

So let's do that. And much more.


Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal