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The Street Finds its Own Use for the Law of Unintended Consequences

by Cory Doctorow
04/16/2002

Jewish grandmothers are among the great innovators of the late 20th century. Raised in Stone Age Eastern European shtetls, brought to America in leaky, cholera-ridden refugee boats, the great army of Snowbird Seniors retired to Florida and bought VCRs, collaborating to sniff out manufacturers' rebates advertised in the Sunday papers.

Unlike their grandchildren, these elderly women actually mastered their VCRs' cryptic interface. They hooked them up in series and set up tape-duplicating farms of sufficient power and elegance to terrify the likes of Jack Valenti, Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) president, who testified in 1982 that the VCR was to the film industry as "the Boston Strangler is to a woman alone."

But my grandmother and her bridge circle in their gate-guarded retirement community in Fort Lauderdale aren't bootlegging redacted Blockbuster rentals; they're preserving their family histories.

From Bar Mitzvah and (shudder) bris tapes to family Warhol moments culled from slow-news-day broadcasts when a minicam crew was dispatched to film a championship little league game or college graduation, the denizens of Century Village and its sister shuffleboard paradises compiled, duplicated, and stored their families' video clippings. They distributed the tapes to their far-flung children, forced their friends to sit through them, kvelled over them.

Industrial Failure of Imagination

When the coked-up Hollyweird cabal tried to ban the VCR in the mid-eighties, they thought they were fighting for their existence. They did not imagine that 20 years later they'd be attempting to ban ReplayTV PVRs, terrified that the new devices would kill the pre-recorded tape market, which has become the backbone of their industry, providing revenue long after Police Academy n-1 has left the big screen.

We're accustomed to failures of imagination from the subnormal intellects of the entertainment industry, but even the legendary rule-busting technologists of Sony did not anticipate all the uses that the world would put the VCR to: the amateur porn industry, anti-global activist news-gatherers, student projects, security cameras, and .

The fact of the matter is that no group of engineers in a boardroom can ever anticipate what normal people will do with their inventions.

Success Through Failure

Indeed, the measure of a product's success is how far it diverges from its creator's intentions.

When an invention is turned to uses that the inventor dislikes, the "law of unintended consequences" is invoked. The law of unintended consequences is a cautionary tale, along the lines of "no good deed goes unpunished." A municipality attempts to alleviate a congested highway by adding a parallel road, which encourages new businesses to spring up along the newly opened freeway, which increases the number of commuters, which creates additional traffic sufficient to offset the added capacity.

William Gibson proposed an alternate interpretation, just about the time the VCR was being legalized: "The street finds its own use for things." The innovation only begins in earnest once a new invention leaves the production line and falls into the hands of consumers. Recreational drug users are, of course, famous for this (There's a Lenny Bruce sketch where the kid who discovers glue-sniffing exclaims, "I've done it! I'm the Louis Pasteur of junkiedom!"), but they're just the tip of the iceberg.

Cheapskates and home economists have made a sport of dreaming up new uses for products and trading them around.

Repurposing has turned many a niche invention into a world-changer:

These inventions transcended their inventors' tunnel-vision, mutated by their users into the indispensable firmament of modern living. Along the way, they made rather large bathtubs full of money.

Tampering Is the Human Condition

It goes without saying that all of this innovation was only possible because users were free to tamper with their purchases. Watch young children at play: An action figure and a stuffed monkey and a sock puppet come together for an incongruous tea party, Lego bricks and an old tie become a rocket ship, a stack of sofa cushions are a fortress.

The best of us never lose that spirit, that ability to look askew at the devices that clutter our lives and torque them to our needs. The deaf in the UK have embraced SMS as a means of communicating with their friends while roaming away from TDD devices; audio-hackers are juxtaposing pop songs with remixers; remixers; and soldiers used condoms to protect their rifle barrels from saltwater as they waded ashore at Normandy.

Just as a swarm of ants can quickly locate and disseminate the best path to a food source (and a swarm of virtual ants can locate optimal network routes), just as a swarm of hackers can uncover the source of bugs in open source software, a swarm of users can identify the best uses for new technologies.

Universal Machines and Infinite Play

Constraint is the enemy of innovation. Blocks (and high-tech blocks, like Legos) are the darlings of educators and child-development specialists because they encourage open-ended play (likewise, the profitable trend to license Lego kits is bemoaned by the same educators because it constrains children's imaginations). Tamper-resistant seals and proprietary connectors discourage innovation through constraint.

The technological equivalent of the humble block is the Universal Turing Machine. Alan Turing, the father of modern computing, revolutionized computers with his realization that it was possible to replace all the special-purpose electronic computers of his day -- one device for calculating one function, another to calculate another -- with a single, meta-machine.

This Universal Machine -- the foundation of the microprocessor in your watch, alarm clock, VCR, laptop and singing greeting card -- is capable of performing any task that can be expressed mathematically. The Universal Machine ushered in an era of unprecedented innovation. It was the protean, primordial goo that was stretched and deformed and smooshed into every corner of human existence.

Turing's Machine gave us an aesthetic of mutability. Our world is increasingly full of configurable artifacts. The Transmeta chip changes its computing characteristics in response to software instructions, software-defined radio opens the possibility of a single card that can emulate a cell phone, an 802.11b card, or a digital TV receiver. Nanotechnology promises a world of Utility Fogs and smart matter that dynamically reconfigures meatspace as we move through it, optimizing reality to suit our needs.

Selling Innovation (Out)

The problem with innovation is that you can't predict it. That's what innovation means -- the stuff we haven't thought of yet. Great innovations are ridiculous at the time of invention, startling on implementation, and obvious in hindsight.


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Cory Doctorow is the co-founder of OpenCola, co-edits the Weblog Boing Boing, writes for Cory Doctorow Wired, and won the John W Campbell Award for Best New Science Fiction Writer at the 2000 Hugo Awards. He presented Fault-Tolerant Realpolitik: Abandoning Reliability Online at the 2002 O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference in Santa Clara, Calif.


For example, radio. Recorded music, radio stations, and television killed off Vaudeville, displacing a dominant, well-loved entertainment medium. No one was really sure how these things would make any money, and certainly the idea that laundry-soap manufacturers would underwrite the cost of daytime dramas or that advertisers would pay for radio variety hours interspersed with wooden, insincere testimonials for their products would have been ridiculous in their day. It's easy enough to see why the VCR -- which opened up new a multibillion-dollar market for the film studios -- caused a technophobic panic that is so ridiculous in retrospect.

In 1984, the VCR won its right to exist, and the world prospered because of it. Today all technology, up to and including Turing's Universal Machine, is endangered by the copyright industry. Music and film trade associations like the MPAA and the RIAA have bought senators who are only too happy to enact laws like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and its successor, the as-yet-unpassed Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act (CBDTPA) (a.k.a. "The Anti-Mammal Dinosaur Protection Act").

These laws seek to protect the past at the expense of the future. As the copyright industry stares down the barrel of the latest iteration of Mr. Turing's marvelous invention, cocked and loaded with Moore's Law, it sees the death of its existing profit base and worries about imminent bankruptcy.

The street finds its own use for the law of unintended consequences. Technology will change the way the copyright industry makes its ungodly sums of money, but it won't eliminate it. No one can predict what the innovative ways of selling entertainment will be -- that's innovation for you -- but it will come.

It will come, if we're allowed to invent it. It will come, if the world is able to play and invent and innovate. But the controls enacted by the DMCA and the CBDTPA won't afford us that freedom. Under their regimen, new technologies will only be brought to market after a "consensus" on their features is negotiated at lawyerpoint between the technology industry and the Political Officers of the entertainment industry. Once this "consensus" has evolved, it will be illegal to make, sell, or distribute any technology that doesn't conform to it.

The technologies that come out of this consensus will be the opposite of Turing's wonderful machine. These technologies will be designed so that every use is either forbidden or mandatory.

Explaining why this is a bad thing is tricky. When Hollywood asks us to enumerate the uses we'll lose if it gets its way, we can't. That's innovation for you. If we could predict the future uses of new technology, they wouldn't be innovative.

That's innovation. It's the force that drives our civilization. It's the force that drives our culture. It's the force that makes us human ("the tool-using animal").

I'm not willing to give it up, even if I don't know what it is.

The fact of the matter is that no group of engineers in a boardroom can ever anticipate what normal people will do with their inventions.

Cory Doctorow is the co-editor of Boing Boing and the Outreach Coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.


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