The Freedom to Tinker

One of my favorite advocates for “open innovation” is Ed Felten. Today, Ed has a post up that looks at some of the positive recent developments in the “freedom to tinker” movement — from advances in cell phone unlocking, to the response to Aaron Swartz’ passing, to the Kiartsaeng case (which affirms our right to do what we wish with the stuff we buy) — and calls on us to see this as part of something bigger. Reading through Ed’s bio is like taking a walking tour through the last 20 years of the fight between freedom and control in the tech sector.  He has coined this struggle as preserving the “freedom to tinker” — that is, to disassemble, inspect, and explore the devices in our lives.  On the surface it sounds like a somewhat silly or trivial idea, but it is in fact profound, and political:

The biggest enemy of the freedom to tinker is the “permission culture” in which anything we want to do requires permission from some powerful entity. Permission culture punishes us not for crossing boundaries or causing damage, but for acting “without authorization”—and it cranks up the penalties to make sure we get the message. Permission culture tells us that we don’t own the things we buy, that we are bound by contracts we have never seen, and that breaching those contracts is a felony punishable by years in prison.

What’s Ed articulates well, and which is such a difficult message to communicate, is that our default response when bad things happen is to clamp down on punishment and enforcement.  In many cases (especially regarding technology) this may make us feel better, but it’s actually not effective, and in fact just makes things worse (emphasis mine):

Of course, there are people doing genuinely bad things with technology. There are real problems to be addressed, and real criminals who deserve punishment. But too often the response is not to focus prevention and enforcement on the bad acts and actors, but instead to expand the permission culture even more. We’re worried about elite foreign cyberwarriors; but the response is to impose years of prison time for accessing an unprotected website. We’re worried about massive copyright infringement; but the response is to tell people they can’t unlock their phones.

This is such a hard thing to explain (and to back up with examples).  But it’s a super important part of effectively advocating for the kind of change we need.  Frankly, I’m not sure the notion of “permissionless innovation” is something that resonates outside of the “open” tech sector.  But I do think the idea of being free to tinker|do-whatever-we-want with the stuff we “own” is a notion that is profoundly intuitive. I like Ed’s closing call for us to rally behind the freedom to tinker:

those who support different aspects of the freedom to tinker need to recognize themselves as allies. If you’re motivated by phone unlocking, or if you’re passionate about preserving white-hat research, or if you’re trying to protect the legality of a legitimate but disruptive product, what you’re really fighting for is the freedom to tinker. Even if you disagree about other political issues, you can be allies on this issue. Let’s use this moment as an opportunity to restore balance to the law.

Count me in.

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