Text by Dawoud Kringle
In 2016, the World Economic Forum released a Facebook video with predictions it had for the world in 2030. One of these is that by 2030, technology may, in all likelihood, have advanced to the point that owning physical devices may become obsolete.
There are advantages to owning less things. There are fewer commitments and responsibilities, and have the freedom to sever ties whenever you want. But the downside is that when you buy a device that requires proprietary software to run, you don’t own it. The money you pay does not offer actual ownership; it is a lease where you agree to a life defined by terms you had no part in deciding. When hardware is merely a vessel for software and not a useful thing on its own, you don’t really get to decide anything. The company or corporation that built it will decide when to stop pushing vital updates and what you do with the product after it’s dead or obsolete. Anyone who owns an older computer will recognize this. The power has shifted so that companies set the parameters, and consumers are forced to choose the lesser of several evils.
Much of this can be traced back to Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA https://www.copyright.gov/policy/1201/) makes it illegal to circumvent digital locks that protect a company’s proprietary software. Manufacturers have exploited this loophole brilliantly. It allowed software developers to essentially lock up the whole world behind software with the intent to turn the entire planet into a permanent renting class. The oligarchy / elite who actually own everything will, inevitably, make you pay money to access the things you use and own.
One day in the future, if you buy a physical house or device, you will probably have to lease the software that operates it. The consumer will have no say in the updates or features that are eliminated. You’ll have less of a say in when you renovate or upgrade, even if you want to continue using the physical object as is.
It’s almost a given that you will have no right or ability to do DIY repairs yourself. Just because you’ve bought a smart washing machine, doesn’t mean you’ll be allowed to repair it yourself if it breaks, or if you’ll be allowed to pick which repair shop can fix it. John Deere, General Motors, and Apple for example, have set up their businesses and products so that their customers weren’t allowed – or in many cases, able – to repair them unless they were from a pre-approved shop.
As of this writing, I recently had a truly irritating experience with Roli musical instrument manufacturer (https://roli.com/). I had bought one of the Seaboard series keyboards, and some years later, its internal power supply malfunctioned. Now, I understand that things break. But I was shocked to learn that nobody in the United States can repair their hardware because Roli is the only manufacturer of compatible replacement parts. No other part will work with their hardware (in fact, some manufacturers deter DIY repairs by embedding serial numbers into components. If the serial number is not compatible, or isn’t there, the device’s firmware will not recognize the component, and will not operate). I had to ship my device to the manufacturer in London and wait six week for the repair. My frustration was augmented by several weeks of attempting to communicate with a seemingly uncaring customer service department (despite my complaints about their hardware and customer service, I have to admit that their software is excellent).
Making decisions all the time is difficult. It is easier when the options you can choose from are limited. It can be easy to ignore the normal sense of distrust for the people in the decision making process. It’s not hard to turn a blind eye to a problem if, for the most part, your life is made a little simpler – which is what every tech company says it’s trying to do. Life is hard enough. Having a device, vehicle, or home that maintains itself provided you relinquish control to someone else is an attractive possibility for many people.
The truly frightening thing is that this raises red flags only if you have the mental energy to care about principles and the value of individual autonomy and choice.
The other side of the coin is to take action and force your way to autonomy. But this is a difficult path.
A computer savvy individual could, for example, run Linux at home so he/she can control what their computer does. Pixel phones have only one megacorp’s layer of privacy-invading and restricting software. What’s the point of having or using a device that requires an internet connection to work if its function does not require it? If an air conditioner can be managed locally over the network (SNMP, telnet, web), are we not better off buying an AC unit that can only be managed with the remote control? Why use an Internet of Things (IoT) device where the manufacturer can cut off access at any time?
Of course, we are faced with the possibility that manufacturers will stop making devices that can operate independently of the Internet.
It should be all too obvious that this will inevitably include any form of musical technology. Inevitably, it will affect the lives of music professionals of every possible description. In fact, it’s already underway. The genie is out of the bottle and there is no way to put it back in. Like any professional / business, we are forced to find a way to minimize cost and maximize profit. The addition of the cost of leasing software and being at the mercy of the whims of manufacturers makes this creates the danger of operation costs exceeding income.
As a brief digression, I do not advocate the pirating or hacking of software, or the illegal or immoral circumventing of the control Big Tech obviously seeks to impose upon us. But the practicality of this cannot be easily dismissed. The existence and rise of such activities is impossible to prevent – and the manufacturers will have forced people into this position. A backlash is inevitable.
It may not be completely possible to avoid this. And not everyone has the technical skills – or financial resources – to assert a dominant position over most of the technology in their lives. Nonetheless, it is important to cultivate awareness with oneself, and awareness within the music community, of the nature of this particular beast. Organized efforts by groups such as MFM could possibly assert an influence over manufacturers and legislation to allow the individual to retain autonomy and personal authority, while at the same time making meaningful contributions to the development of our art, and the sensible control over the technologies that factor into our lives.
Food for thought.