On valuing freedom more than cushy jail cells

by Doc Searls

The problem isn't just silos and walled gardens — our names for choiceless dependency on one company's goods and services. The problem is the defaulted belief system that gives us silos and walled gardens in the first place.

In that system suppliers believe that the best customers and users are captive ones. Customers and users believe that a free market naturally restricts choices to silos. It's a value sytem in which VCs like to ask "What's your lock-in?". Even in 2007, long after the Net has become established as an everyday necessity, we still take for granted the assumption that living in a "free market" is to choose among jail cells. May the best prison win.

That's why I believe that the final success of Linux, and of free and open source software, will be an economy that values freedom and choice as much as it values scarcity. It will be, in the largest sense, obeying Dave Winer's adaptation of JFK's famous inaugural aphorism: Ask not what the Net can do for you. Ask what you can do for the Net. Substitute "market" or "economy" or "society" or "culture" for "the Net", and the point will be the same. It isn't just that generosity and openness and cooperating and interop all pay, but that they create a culture and an environment where a lot more paying off can happen. This is sub-obvious for most of us today — at least in the "developed" world — but this will end. It has to.

I'd long ago reached the conclusions in the first paragraph above, but the conclusion in the second paragraph came home to me yesterday at my friendly local Volkswagen dealership. It was there that I suddenly saw not only what was wrong about our economic values in general, but what was right about Volkswagen in the first place — back when the "People's Wagon" (a roughly literal translation of the brand name) was really that.

I learned to drive in my father's black 1963 VW beetle. The most important lesson came when Pop had me drive one wintry Sunday over to the empty parking lot at the Bergen Mall in Paramus, where he thought the wide patches of ice there might teach me how to pull out of a spin. We'd make repeated runs at the ice, on which my attempts to turn would prove useless when Newtonian mechanics exceeded those of steering intention. "Don't hit the brakes", Pop said. "Steer toward the spin".

The lessons proved wasted one summer day in North Carolina, when I came around a bend on a country road where gravel from an intersecting unpaved road had migrated onto the pavement. I was driving the same black '63 beetle and imagined myself quite the driver, since the car had a stick shift and was fun to drive. I was nineteen, and wrong as could be.

I accelerated coming out of the curve, which was normally a good practice, but not on a road where loose gravel lay like a field of marbles. The back end spun straight out, and in no time I was going sideways. The pavement came up to the window, then disappeared overhead as the car began to roll over. I had no seat belt, so I kept grabbing for the bottom of my seat, hoping to keep myself inside the car, as it rolled over two more times.

At least it landed right-side up, and all I had were bruises. Later I read a review in a magazine that said VW bugs of that vintage had "slight understeer that changes abruptly and unexpectedly to unstable oversteer, to the limits of tire adhesion". Exactly.

The car was totaled, but was still worth $450 as scrap. Since it was only $1200 new, four model years earlier, this came as a revelation to me. So did learning that the buyer of my wreck intended to re-use everything in the car other than the back half of the body. (Since that's where all the damage was.) The whole front of the car, the chassis, the engine, seats, steering wheel — all of it — would be re-used. In fact, the buyer had another VW that was mashed in the front, and intended to make the two into one. The only loss was the back end of my bug's body.

In the years following that humbling event I became a shade tree mechanic. Not a good one, but capable of diagnosing trouble and replacing parts. For years I drove nothing but old VWs and GM cars because those were cheap and I knew how to fix them. Getting replacement parts was easy. There were huge aftermarkets in new and used parts, including pretty much everything that comprised a whole vehicle.

Since then the prevailing value system of the automobile business has become much more closed, silo'd and proprietary. I discovered this by becoming a VW owner again. I had been driving an 80-something Subaru wagon since 1994, and that beat-up box had reached the cosmetic damage point where its resale value was zero. I would probably still be driving it if a friend headed for Argentina hadn't decided to put his 2000 VW Passat wagon on the market. I impulsively asked if he'd take five grand for it, and he said yes. So I bought the Passat and gave the Subaru to a friend who had no money and needed a car. Since then I've put another three grand into the Passat and came to love nearly everything about it other than the now-silo'd nature of the VW repair and parts business. Owning this car is a near-constant reminder that even VW has fallen into the near-standard car industry belief that the best customers are captive ones, and that there is much money to be shaken out of customers, even for small replacement parts.

Take the key. Your basic Volkswagen key is a small rectangle built like a switchblade that's also a wireless door locking and unlocking fob. Replacing one can only be done by a dealer, and for hundreds of dollars. (At least the batteries they use are standard types.) Or take the radio. After my battery died one day I found that the radio's display only said "SAFE". The radio no longer worked, having become "safe" even from myself. When I called the dealer, they said every VW radio has an anti-theft security code that needs to be entered when the SAFE display appears. What was mine? I had no idea. There was nothing in the glove box. My friend the former owner was in another hemisphere. The dealer said that was okay because the key for unlocking it is written on the radio itself. "Where a thief can find it?" I asked. Yes, they replied, but getting the radio out of the car requires a special mechanical key that is nothing more than a blade with a notch on it that inserts in pairs next to buttons on the front of the radio. Didn't seem very "secure" to me.

I still had trouble entering the code, and discovered the hard way that multiple entries of the code also disables the radio — permanently. The radio needed to be replaced. So did the radio that replaced it, as it turned out. The third radio failed to see the CD changer in the back of the car, but this time the VW dealer refused to admit this was their problem, because the changer wasn't one of theirs. They said they were "not allowed" to deal with non-VW parts like that one. I could replace the changer, of course, with a new VW one, which would cost me hundreds of dollars. "What if the problem is the radio and not the changer?" I asked. The service guys said there was no way to tell without buying a new changer and trying that out. And they were sure the problem had to be the changer.

So I passed and decided to check it out with an independent car audio installer. I put off doing that, however, until this past week. That's when my friendly local car audio installer told me that my cheapest choice was just to get a special aftermarket adapter that put a standard eighth-inch stereo audio jack in the dashboard, so I could plug in a portable CD player, iPod or MP3 player, turning the radio's CD changer function into an AUX input. I decided to go that route, and in the process discovered that indeed the radio itself was the problem. It barely saw the AUX, filling the audio with a strange background noise and otherwise revealing that what we really needed was our fourth radio in a row from a VW dealer. Since we were leaving the next day (today) for a drive across the country, there was no time to go to the local VW dealer and get the radio replaced.

Still, I did go by the dealer anyway, where they told me the radio was technically "new" (although it was clearly a refurbished or used one, judging from the browned and aged labels on the hidden metal parts of the thing), and guaranteed for 12 months or 12,000 miles. By the time we finish driving from Santa Barbara to Boston, it will still by shy of those numbers, so a local VW dealer at the end of the road should be able to finish the job. Hopefully.

But why should I have to go only to a VW dealer? Because VW forces me to, that's why.

Our local dealer also has a handy shuttle service. They'll drive you home while your car is being fixed. On the last drive I was shuttled in a new Passat, much more cushy and slick than the one I have. I asked the driver if he liked the car. He spoke little English, but enough to reply by pointing to the car's ignition key with a sour expression on his face. To my surprise, this generation of VW key is even more non-standard than the one for my car. It works by inserting the key-fob into a rectangular hole in the dashboard, where it becomes a push button... or something. It wasn't clear exactly how it worked, but I learned enough to veer away from fantasizing about a new Passat.

I finished veering yesterday, as I drove away from my local VW dealer, realizing that I valued my freedom more than I valued a fancy new cell in any car company's jail.

Of course this view is a minority one in a culture where we dispose of used cars every few years. (And used computers in even less time.) I'm sure it's different in cultures like the one of my youth, where freedom and resourcefulness are among the highest practical values, and where those values manifested in a preponderance of cars with high percentages of easily replaced parts.

That kind of culture is native to practical computing, and has been since Day Zero, whenever that was. It's what gave us Linux and the Net and hundreds of thousands of software and hardware tools and building materials — enough that today we can raise any barn or build any house or bridge or high-rise or vehicle we want, without getting locked into any provider's jail.

Just as Linux and the Net have come to pervade everyday life, so will the value systems that produced them. It helps that those value systems have been here since we carved wood and stones into practical tools. And perhaps it's good that silly lock-ins like VW's keys and "safe" radios are here to remind us of that.

Here's hoping that the old Passat makes it the next three thousand miles without requiring a trip to the dealer.

See you in Boston. Or somewhere along the way.

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