If you Build It

If you Build It

Article from Issue 164/2014

"If you build it, they will come…" The line lingers from a well-known baseball-as-religion movie from many innings in my past. No sense in erecting an elegant synopsis of the film (if I try to build that, you will most certainly go), but I will admit that this one mystical line bears repeating.

Dear Linux Pro Reader,

"If you build it, they will come…" The line lingers from a well-known baseball-as-religion movie from many innings in my past. No sense in erecting an elegant synopsis of the film (if I try to build that, you will most certainly go), but I will admit that this one mystical line bears repeating.

As a young engineer, I only lasted six months working for the California Highway Department, creators of what was at the time (and still might be) the most advanced and scientific highway system in the world. I honestly couldn't see how I was helping. You see, the reason the California Highway Department kept building roads was because they kept getting more people in the suburbs. The reason they kept getting more people in the suburbs was because they kept building more roads. A few rounds of "If you build it they will come," and the whole landscape started to transform in ways that no one really ever fully predicted, and what was once a sensible and practical element of the infrastructure became a battleground.

For some, the road meant freedom: freedom to buy a home, freedom to live and work as they choose. For others, the road meant money: construction contracts, real estate deals, new spaces for new malls that will coax the businesses away from other malls. But, the people for whom the road meant money never really said it was about money – they always said it was about freedom. I have heard many corporate real estate developers invoke the theme of freedom when they are told they can't build wherever it is they want to build. Sometimes they even bring in the founding fathers and the severely overused Boston Tea Party to explain the need to let them build their building. Of course, they have a right to say what they want, but you have a right to distinguish between the people who want real freedom as a universal human right and the people who want money.

Fast forward to now, and I feel like I'm watching the same story unfold – not with an old-fashioned highway, but with our new-fangled information highway. "If you build it they will come" is playing out in a big way.

They built the Internet, and people used it for email and occasional remote networking. Eventually, they started to build websites, then they built bigger and faster websites, then they built really huge websites and started streaming vast quantities of video content for enormous profits.

The Internet is a mess for some of the same reasons the highway system is a mess, and in fact, the Internet is even more of a mess, because (for better or worse), at least a highway is owned by the government, which is at least supposed to act impartially. What we know as the Internet is actually an incredibly complex tangle of business arrangements, ending with the business deal you make with your Internet provider, and not one of those businesses will act in a munificent or civically conscious manner unless it suits their business interests.

Like the other road, this road has a lot of people talking about freedom. To some, freedom means free speech: the ability to share ideas with the entire world, or free software; the ability to share source code and expect that those who use it will also share their changes. I agree with this kind of freedom.

To others, Internet "freedom" means the freedom to start new companies with the backing of venture capitalists – including companies that spy and extract value from the privacy of their customers. These companies might have some pleasant entertainment value, but they don't have anything to do with freedom as defined by the French Revolution, Roosevelt's Four Freedoms speech, or the GNU manifesto.

Facebook earned US$ 7.87 billion last year on a total of 1.23 billion monthly active users. That means all that data mining they did on you only earned them an average of US$ 6.39 per year per person. Will they just let you pay them US$ 6.39 and forgo all the spying? No, probably not. When they talk about freedom, they mean their freedom, not your freedom.

Joe Casad, Editor in Chief

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