Tuesday, July 04, 2006

The Digital Majority

There are two kinds of people. Those who get it, and those who don't.

Until recently I thought the term "digital divide" meant that some people could afford ADSL while others could not. But that's bogus. Somalia, one of the poorest countries on the planet, also has the lowest mobile phone costs anywhere on the planet. With no monopolies to fight, no governments to pay off, no trades unions to placate, Somali mobile phone operators buy the cheapest Chinese equipment, set-up networks, pay local war lords for security, and connect people up to the global GSM network at prices that would make a European telco manager faint.

I'm not suggesting we hand over security to war lords. I am pointing out that the digital world is within reach of the world's poorest people, and they are rapid and ambitious technology adopters.

There is a digital divide, but it separates those who get it from those who do not. That Somalian, paying a cent a minute for a mobile phone call to his cousin in Atlanta, gets it. The IP lawyer, advising his client that the best protection against a patent suit is more patents, does not.

Well, one could argue that the IP lawyer travels business class and stays in hotels that cost $1000 a night, while the Somali is very lucky if he earns that much in a year. So perhaps from the point of view of working the system and getting the most into one's own pocket, the lawyer definitely does get it.

But I'm talking about something other than raw egotism translated into greed for money and power. I'm talking about the new digital age.

The most noticeable thing about the people who get it is that they have a hard time thinking of this as a "new age" of any kind. They either never experienced, or have happily forgotten, the pain of 56k modems, of telex, of three-month waiting times for new phones and fifty-dollar phone calls. They use IRC and wiki, not teleconferences, and they swim in a sea of digital information as if they were born to it.

Those who don't get it, on the other hand, are constantly challenged by this new world. They spend their lives thinking, "how can we make money when everything is free?" And usually their best answer is, "stop things being free, lock them down, and charge for them." Those who get it have exactly the opposite response: "do it better, charge for the added value." And doing it better is a smarter, more sustainable strategy than creating lock-in. This is why Google, who get it, are implacably grinding down Microsoft, who do not.

The digital age is an equaliser. It's a meritocracy in which the best minds win. A single person can, with the right words, challenge an empire. This has often happened in history but today it happens daily, hundreds and thousands of times. The digital age creates level playing fields, a grand game in which anyone can compete, but only the best win.

Someone complained to me the other day that her son was spending all his time in online games. I told her, "in ten years time, by the time he graduates, online games will be where many people do their business". Well, perhaps twenty years. But if you want a glimpse of the electronic business world a generation from now, you could do worse than look at online games.

And there are two kinds of people, those who get this, and those who do not.

As far as I can tell, almost every institution, every company and every professional that started before the digital age hit us (around five pm on Wednesday, 1995) does not get it, and almost every institution, company, and professional that started thereafter does get it.

Take any IT firm, and look at their policy on (for example) software patents. Remove the cultural layer... in the states, software patents are a fact of life, like cancer, and people have learnt to live with them. What remains is a clear pro or con attitude. The firms that predate that fateful Wednesday tend to see patents as a great way to own the software landscape. The firms that are fully digital understand that any friction costs, from patents to random legislative red tape, is a problem.

So it goes for professionals and institutions.

There is one flaw in my argument, which is that software patents create a huge amount of money, for those who deal in them. The software patent trade has been compared to a massive scam, worth hundreds of billions of Euros, perpetuated on the IT industry by a group of patent specialists, first in the USA, and now in Europe.

And surely there are many of these scam artists, who call themselves "IP specialists", who definitely do get it and simply don't care. Raw egotism translated into greed for money and power can take even the best morals and turn them into road meat.

Sometimes I wonder how such people can wake up in the morning and look in the mirror. Perhaps at some point they just don't identify with ordinary people any longer. Perhaps they really believe they are special and gifted and have the moral right to manipulate legal and political systems, whatever the cost to the common people. I wonder how they feel when they realise that no amount of money can buy immortality, friends, love, or even health.

Anyhow, I'll assume that the directors of large IT firms, their lobbyists, the bureaucrats at the Commission, and the many honest and hard-working IP lawyers that want software patents are not like this. I'll assume they are honest and really believe what they are saying, and they still want to introduce a system that ultimately makes it impossible to write, distribute, sell, or use software without paying an unpredictable friction cost to unknown parties, for an undefined period.

The only excuse I can find for these people is that they don't get it.

To anyone who gets it, software patents are an insane concept. There are many other insane concepts in this new digital world. For example, the idea that copyright ownership can last forever. Or the idea that we can no longer buy music, only rent it. Or the idea that a firm can pay to get laws that forbid people making interoperable products. In fact, anything that unbalances the playing fields is, from a purely economical point of view, pathological. The more level the playing field, the more wealth for all.

I think the number of people who get it exceeds the number of people who do not.

Certainly in IT, it's a minority of firms that want software patents. 80% of the IT market consists of small to medium-sized firms (SMEs), and except for the flock of firms sponsored by Microsoft to speak for software patents, and the patent-holding specialists that produce nothing except lawsuits, IT SMEs come down solidly against such ideas, mainly because insanity is a bad business strategy when you're small. For large firms, insanity sometimes seems to work, at least for a while.

So I come to the point of my story, which is this. People often ask, "what defines the FFII?" The answers one hears are many. We stand for freedoms of certain types, but also rules. We stand for copyright, definitely, unless it's the Disneyesque copyright that lasts five hundred years. We stand against software patents, unconditionally, but we have nothing against patents in other domains. We support open standards but we don't actually define them. We represent open source developers and we also represent closed-source developers. We're agnostic as to how people turn bits into cents so long as they don't cheat.

So here's my answer. The FFII represents those who get it. We are the unseen future, the generation of programmers, engineers, businessmen, writers, artists, journalists, lawyers, politicians, and the other individuals and firms who have staked their future in a fair digital playing field. We are the Digital Majority.

Compromise is not an option. There is no acceptable level of friction any more than there is an acceptable level of cancer. We spend our lives removing friction, eliminating transaction costs, competing ruthlessly to be better, faster, more efficient. When someone comes along and tells us, "this new law is going to turn you all into my serfs", and gets a massive, concerted, and well-organised hostile reaction, they should not be surprised. I mean, how stupid do you have to be?

We are the Digital Majority. Time is on our side. The ones that don't get it will grow old and die. Every baby born today is a natural FFII supporter, except for the 1% sociopathic parasites that we will always have to fight into a corner. We are the Digital Majority and we will continue to fight to shape this world into what we consider right and proper, based on our solid and honest understanding of economic efficiency and value, our inbuilt sense of fair play, and using our talents for communication, for organisation, and for collaboration.


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