Doug Lay, commenting on my last post, pointed out that the Zune buyout would help make a world of DRM-enabled music services more attractive. “Where,” he asked, “does this leave the freedom to tinker?”
Anti-DMCA activism has tended to focus on worst-case, scary scenarios that can spur people to action. It’s a standard move in politics of all kinds, aptly captured in the title of a 2005 BBC documentary about Bush and Blair, The Power of Nightmares. In the context of a world of DRM gone mad, it’s obvious why we need the freedom to tinker. We need it because (in that world) opaque, tinker-proof devices protected by restrictive laws would be extremely harmful to consumers. The only way to make sure that the experience of the average media viewer or software user doesn’t go down the tubes, in this scenario, is to make sure that consumers, either legislatively or through individual choice, never let DRM get off the ground.
But consider an alternative possibility. The Darknet is a permanent backdrop for any real-world system. The major players know this – after all, it was a team at Microsoft Research that helped to launch the Darknet idea. The big players will, in the long run, be smart enough not to drive users into the arms of the Darknet. They will compete with the Darknet, and with each other, and will end up producing systems that most consumers think are fine. Yes, consumers will (still) chafe at the restrictions on DRM-protected systems ten or twenty years from now. But on the whole, they will find that these systems are attractive, and worth investing in.
Who loses in this scenario? Ed and others have argued that all consumers will suffer to some degree because we all enjoy the benefits that come from a few intrepid power users excercising the freedom to tinker. There are educational benefits that come from tinkering and, perhaps most importantly, the freedom to tinker keeps technologies flexible and leaves room for them to interoperate in surprising ways not initially envisioned by their creators. And, as Alex has pointed out to me, the social costs of tinkerproofing are cumulative in such a way that there may be a collective bargaining problem–we may have a situation in which the freedom to tinker does not matter very much to most individuals, but we’d all be better off if, collectively, we assigned a higher value to our individual freedom to tinker than we actually feel for it.
These arguments certainly have significant merit. Together, they (and others like them) might be enough to make it the case that we should create legal protection for the freedom to tinker, or at least build a social consensus for the importance of tinkering.
But I think the people who lose the most, in this DRM-isn’t-so-bad scenario, are the power users. People who like to poke around under the hood. People who are outliers, attaching more importance to the freedom to tinker than a typical consumer attaches to it. I’m talking, in other words, about us.
We the reader-participants of www.freedom-to-tinker.com are an unusual bunch. We really like to tinker. In my own case, I know that I care more about things like being able to time and space shift my media collection than the average person does. I derive a certain strange pleasure from being able to change the way the interface on my desktop computer looks. I buy books so I can mark them up, even though it would be much cheaper and more space-efficient to use a library.
In fact, when I think about it, I have to admit that I would find a world where DRM works and the ability to tinker can be bargained away to be a bit of a downer. I know that the equilibrium point the market reaches, in such a case, will be based on the moderate importance most people attach to tinkering, rather than the high importance that I attach to it. I’ll probably still buy in to some DRM-based music scheme in the long run, just as I still go to the movies even while wishing that they would focus more on plot and less on special effects. But I’ll miss the tinkering.
If the government were to put a legal guarantee behind the freedom to tinker, it would be reducing peoples’ freedom to contract by telling them they can’t bargain away their tinkering rights. It would force on consumers as a whole an outcome that they would manifestly not choose for themselves in the private market. Yes, it is possible that externalities or collective action issues could justify this coercion. But even if those considerations didn’t justify the coercion, part of me would still want it to happen, because that way, I’d get to keep tinkering rights that, under a different terrain of options, I would end up choosing to relinquish.
I apparently haven’t mastered the art of ending a blog post, so just as I closed last time with a “bottom line,” this one gets a “moral of the story.” The moral of the story is that many of us, who may find ourselves arguing based on public reasons for public policies that protect the freedom to tinker, also have a private reason to favor such policies. The private reason is that we ourselves care more about tinkering than the public at large does, and we would therefore be happier in a protected-tinkering world than the public at large would be. We all owe it to ourselves, to each other, and to the public with whom we communicate to be careful and candid about our mixture of motivations.