Smoke signals: Facebook and the death of privacy

A reflection of open source programming, privacy and the advent of the Cloud

Author, futurist and virtual reality pioneer Mark Pesce took to the stage on the last day of Linux.conf.au 2011 in Brisbane to voice his concerns on the state of privacy in an age dominated by the likes of Facebook and Cloud computing. In an inspiring keynote, Pesce reflected on his history and experience with open source programming and the future it holds in its current context.

We reproduced his speech here in full (with minor censorship of swear words) with his permission.

The First Billion Seconds

In a few days time, it will be exactly thirty-two years – a bit more than a billion seconds – since I learned to code. I was lucky enough to attend a high school with its own DEC PDP 11/45, and lucky that it chose to offer computer science courses on a few VT-52 video terminals and a DECWriter attached to it. My first OS was RSTS/E, and my first programming language was – of course – BASIC.

A hundred million seconds before this, a friend dragged me over to a data center his dad managed, sat me down at a DECWriter, typed ‘startrek’ at the prompt, and it was all over. The damage had been done. From that day, all I’ve ever wanted to do is play with computers.

I’ve pretty much been able to keep to that.

Oddly, the only time I didn’t play with computers was at MIT. After MIT, when I began work as a software engineer, I got to play and get paid for it. I’ve written code for every major microprocessor family (with the exception of the 6502), all the common microcontrollers, and every OS from CP/M to Android. I’ve even written a batch-executed RPG II program, typed up on punched cards, exectuted on an IBM 370 mainframe.

At Christmas 1990, I sat down and read a novel published a few years before, by an up-and-coming science fiction writer. That novel – Neuromancer – changed my life. It gave me a vision that I would pursue for an entire decade: a three-dimensional, immersive, visualized Internet. Cyberspace. I dropped everything, moved myself to San Francisco – epicenter of all work in virtual reality – and founded a startup to design and market an inexpensive immersive videogaming console. It was hard work, frequently painful, and I managed to pour my life savings into the company before it went belly up. But I can’t say that any of the other VR companies faired any better. A few of them still exist, shadows of their former selves, selling specialty products into the industrial market.

These companies failed because each of them – my own among them – coveted the whole prize. With the eyes of a megalomaniac, each firm was going to ‘rule the world’. Each did lots of inventing, holding onto every scrap of invention with IP agreements and copyrights and all sorts of patents. I invented a technology very much similar to that seen in the Wiimote, but fourteen years before the Wiimote was introduced. It’s all patented. I don’t own it. After my company collapsed the patent went through a series of other owners, until eventually I found myself in a lawyer’s office, being deposed, because my patent – the one I didn’t actually own – was involved in a dispute over priority, theft of intellectual property, and other violations.

Lovely.

With the VR industry in ruins, I set about creating my own networked VR protocol, using a parser donated by my friend Tony Parisi, building upon work from a coder over in Switzerland, a bloke by the name of Tim Berners-Lee, who’d published reams and reams of (gulp) Objective-C code, preprocessed into ANSI C, implementing his new Hypertext Transport Protocol. I took his code, folded it into my own, and rapidly created a browser for three-dimensional scenes attached to Berners-Lee’s new-fangled World Wide Web.

This happened seventeen years ago this week. Half a billion seconds ago.

When I’d gotten my 3D browser up and running, I was faced with a choice: I could try to hold it tight, screaming ‘Mine! Mine! Mine!’ and struggle for attention, or I could promiscuously share my code with the world. Being the attention-seeking type that I am, the choice was easy. After Dave Raggett – the father of HTML – had christened my work ‘VRML’, I published the source code. A community began to form around the project. With some help from an eighteen year-old sysadmin at WIRED named Brian Behlendorf, I brought Silicon Graphics to the table, got them to open their own code, and we had a real specification to present at the 2nd International Conference on the World Wide Web. VRML was off and running, precisely because it was open to all, free to all, available to all.

It took about a billion seconds of living before I grokked the value of open source, the penny-drop moment I realized that a resource shared is a resource squared. I owe everything that came afterward – my careers as educator, author, and yes, panelist on The New Inventors – to that one insight. Ever since then, I’ve tried to give away nearly all of my work: ideas, articles, blog posts, audio and video recordings of my talks, slide decks, and, of course, lots of source code. The more I give away, the richer I become – not just or even necessarily financially. There are more metrics to wealth than cash in your bank account, and more ways than one to be rich. Just as there is more than one way to be good, and – oh yeah – more than one way to be evil.

Which brings us to my second penny-drop moment, which came after I’d been programming computers for almost a billion seconds…

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