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By Jack Ganssle

The Dialectics of Technology

Published 10/23/2003

Marx's theory of dialectical materialism pits those who supply the labor to build things against those who own the means of production. Though anathema to American capitalism, Marx's idea in many ways depicted the labor situation here in the USA during the robber baron era. Collective bargaining and government regulation eventually curbed the excesses and gave us a kinder, gentler capitalism.

But today we have a new dialectic, a struggle between the rich and the poor, between workers barely hanging on to their jobs and CEOs pulling down 8 figure salaries. Technology is a tool of the conflict, and enables a battle between what Marx would call bourgeoisie corporations and their proletarian customers. We engineers have built systems that give companies control over too many aspects of our lives. Sophisticated hardware and software allows marketing to cross over the gray line of ethical uncertainty into outright abuse of the populace.

It was a little thing, really, that got me thinking about Marxism and technology. Surfing to Linksys's web site I noted they had a router firmware upgrade. Surprise! Reburning the Flash deleted stateful packet inspection, a nifty security enhancer. You can, though, upgrade to a new, improved, and more expensive router that sports this feature.

Like a thief in the night, Linksys slipped in and made off with something I had purchased. What other "enhancements" have they inflicted on their user base? Will the next upgrade further reduce the device's functionality?

It's a brilliant marketing scheme, really. Instead of creating new capabilities that convince consumers to replace their aging products with the next new thing, simply remove features until the older product is useless. That means barging into the privacy of customers' houses, but the `net has the effect of opening the front door and hanging a "welcome all" sign.

This is just one of many signs of the struggle between companies and their customers. Consider digital TV: all televisions must include a DTV tuner by 2007. The MPAA (www.mpaa.org) wants the FCC to require content protection hardware in every DTV receiver. (To protest this, go to http://action.eff.org/action/index.asp?step=2&item=280; to express support, click here (Lindsey - that's a null link on purpose)). The industry essentially wants the right to tax consumers to fund their intellectual property protection efforts.

The RIAA, too, is on a well-advertised mission to alienate their customers. They're issuing subpoenas (www.riaa.org) now, a right I thought was reserved for government authorities. Is the RIAA an arm of the judicial system?

Digital rights management is moving into our PCs; Phoenix will make this part of the BIOS itself (see http://zdnet.com.com/2100-1104-5086853.html). It's sort of like slapping handcuffs on everyone seen near a shopping mall as a means of prophylactic crime prevention.

I abhor piracy, and feel that trading copyrighted material is simply wrong. But making me pay for extra hardware in my TV or PC to keep me from stealing is akin to having a cover charge to enter a Radio Shack, in case I decide to swipe something. I've given up buying CDs as a protest, and anxiously await a Windows version of iTunes (http://www.apple.com/itunes/), rumored to be released October 16.

Leaving CompUSA, Best Buy, Circuit City, and too many other stores, the security guard all but does a pat-down to make sure your receipt matches the items in the shopping cart. I recognize the problems retailers face from criminals. But their solution makes me feel just a step from being indicted. So I shop on-line. Why suffer the abuse when there are alternatives?

Spyware is a new curse that infiltrates all too many products. Marketers happily unencumbered by any sense of ethics seed our computers with moles that clandestinely disclose too much private information to the world at large. It took a full day to purge my new HP Pavillion of spyware and nuisance apps. Would Bill Hewlett and David Packard have sold products that routinely pry into their customers' affairs?

There's a new kind of relationship between vendors and consumers. It's adversarial rather than supportive. In the 90s management consultants preached the gospel of delighting customers. Now the message seems to be one of control. Limit your customer's options, assume they are thieves, and sell their secrets to anyone and everyone.

Marx's dialectics spelled out three stages in the class struggle: thesis, antithesis, and resolution. Today's high tech world has locked customers and vendors into a dysfunctional thesis/antithesis dynamic.

Unfortunately, any sort of resolution seems a distant dream.