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Platform Independent The Opening of the Channels

by Andy Oram, O'Reilly editor and author
08/27/2002

(Scene: a three-dimensional display featuring the logo of the keyholders, a consortium of news and entertainment firms. In front of the logo stands a balding man who wears formal clothing and a beaming smile.)

Bigtop:Welcome, master keyholders, to our exclusive "One Hundred Fully Authorized Years" extravaganza! This narrowcast honors the day, exactly one century ago, when the keyholders introduced perfect control over content dissemination. Soaring past our wildest dreams, full authorization has enabled us to create a unified system of education, persuasion, and entertainment reaching from one end of the world to another, from infancy to old age, and from the lowest communications channels to the highest. Let's look at one of the masterpieces of neurological viewer modification.

(Video scenes flash by over the banner: "Excerpts from the historical drama, The Last Days of the Law.")

Voice over: In a scene where the agents of biological inferiority try to preserve the nation state through reason and argument, a careful use of jagged angles jutting up from the lower left of the screen combined with bursts of bright color from the red end of the spectrum to incite the audience and produce acute discomfort. The victory of Bioman through the plagues among the medically unprotected is a triumph of archetypal symbols of power. The final color palette completes the catharsis with an ecstatic feeling for the peace and eternity represented by the rule of the keyholders.

Bigtop: Coming up next on "One Hundred Fully Authorized Years"--how brand loyalty is taken to its ultimate limit, psychologically binding creative artists and viewers alike to the companies that distribute their broadcasts. Authorized brand loyalty, on "One Hundred Fully Authorized Years."

(Meanwhile, in a hotel room on the other side of the world.)

Drawn-Max: Sugar, please, do we have to watch "One Hundred Fully Authorized Years"? We could try viewing (with a low laugh) something a lot sexier.

N28-holder: Hey, no sweat, baby, put on whatever you want. Gee, you're one of the best of the gals--I wish we'd met before. Can you mix me another of those contraceptive cocktails?

Drawn-Max: No problem. Right after I start up "Remember Me Tomorrow." You like romances? (Waves her hand at the display, which erupts in white noise.) Aw shucks, they put such small-time limits on these videos.

N28-holder: (taking a gulp) What's up, huh? Try this, sweetie. It'll play anything. (Tosses her a device.) That is, anything created in the past 100 years, and that's all that matters.

Drawn-Max: You're my honeypot, sugar.

(Two weeks later, in the underground lair of chief keyholder Bigtop.)

Bigtop: Look, I'm not a techie. Gimme the low-down fast: what does it mean to me that the master key has been stolen?

c00l-c0d3: It means that someone, or some group, can play all the content released in the world over the past century without paying our license fee.

Bigtop: (burying his head in his hands) Aghh! Did N28-holder tell you who filched the key from him?

c00l-c0d3: N28-holder technically no longer exists. We performed a deep-path traversal of his cerebral cortex, but we still lack sufficient information to find the culprits.

Bigtop: (Grumbling) And we invested three-quarters of our revenues in that anti-cybercrime security system--wasn't it working?

c00l-c0d3: Well...(Visibly embarrassed) You were all clamoring for that "One Hundred Fully Authorized Years" extravaganza so much, and it required us to pull material from so many sources...We found it easier to turn off the security system just that one time...Since it was being narrowcast only to insiders, you know...

Bigtop: Look, forget the past 100 years. It's the next generation of content that we care about. How are you going to re-establish control?

c00l-c0d3: We need six months to install a new key system.

Bigtop: Knowing you guys, that means three years.

c00l-c0d3: Regardless, the new one will be better than ever. I'm suggesting we put our folks on the public access channels in the interim. The indies are just going to have to share.

Bigtop: Wait, I got an idea! Your new key system has that secret lock, right? Authorized brand loyalty?

c00l-c0d3: Don't get too excited over the hype. People have always been seduced by the glamour of mass media. This technique is just a refinement. We're trying to make sure that anyone who uses our channels becomes ours forever.

Bigtop: Well, that clinches it! Let's open all our channels to everybody!

c00l-c0d3: Isn't it enough to allocate a few more public access channels?

Bigtop: No, we gotta open everything from top to bottom! Then, whenever you're finished developing authorized brand loyalty, you'll lock all the indies down with the new key system and they'll be stuck.

(A year later, in a modest media studio.)

Softdrum: I really appreciate how you've critiqued my latest soundpiece. But New-tents, what have you been working on this past year? Everybody's gone crazy producing stuff since the keyholders opened the channels.

New-tents: Look, I have no appetite for working with the keyholders. Fifteen years I spent on special effects for those bastards.

Softdrum: But I can sense you've been working on something. Why are you keeping it secret? We've been close companions since preverbal image academy.

New-tents: You're right, Softdrum. Creative folks have to trust each other--and I've been struggling for months over what to do with something I invented. I'll show you what I've accomplished; look at the frequencies on this broadcast.

Softdrum: What's so special about the broadcast?

New-tents: Don't worry about what's showing, it's just a demo. Check the frequencies I'm using.

Softdrum: Hmm, 20 megahertz...wow--now it's 60 ... what! Five hundred megahertz! You're crazy, what would this do to all the people using that bandwidth if you let it run for real?

New-tents: They may experience some interference intermittently, but if they use the same system I'm showing you here, they will be completely unaffected. It uses a probabilistic algorithm to check for unoccupied spectrum and to interleave its content with whatever is being broadcast. Everybody can share the same spectrum; they use time-and-wave multiplexing to get out of each other's way.

Softdrum: But you can't just ignore the channels.

New-tents: (Laughing) That comment shows how fixed people get in their thinking, Softdrum. Listen: There are no channels any more.

Softdrum: Oh, I disagree. We have more channels than ever available to us, now that the keyholders have opened them all.

New-tents: Now you're getting closer to the truth! Channels are meaningful only when they're closed. They're an artifact of a bureaucrat's imagination, such as it is. When all the channels are open, there exists only one big channel: the complete electromagnetic spectrum from the lowest detectable waves to highest. People have referred loosely to the ideal of "infinite bandwidth"--but it's here right now. We can fulfill the theories of Charles Shannon over 150 years ago. We merely trade off the amount of bandwidth we're willing to use and the amount of information we want to send at one time.

Softdrum: So everybody has all the bandwidth they want, all the time?

New-tents: Yes, subject only to the momentary interruptions of the probabilistic algorithm.

Softdrum: It sounds great! What's holding you up from releasing it to the world?

New-tents: I am still grappling with its potential impact. I know people would snap it up; there would be no going back once the public figured out what they could do with the medium. But even though my years with the keyholders convinced me there must be another way, their power and ruthlessness scares me. Even more than the keyholders, the anarchy of this system scares me.

Softdrum: Can people hide their transmissions from intruders?

New-tents: Encryption works here by wrapping a transmission in the other ambient transmissions that happen to be occurring simultaneously. It is unfeasible for anyone but the recipient to disentangle the transmission--but the security is geographically and time limited. Any persistent content is open for all to see and hear.

Softdrum: Gee, all broadcasting will be free. I can see why the keyholders would get mad at you for this.

New-tents: Help me make a decision, Softdrum. You now know the power of the new system; you know what everybody has to gain and lose. Help me decide whether I should send it out to the world. The decision must not be based on my personal inclinations, because I finished my conventional career and don't care what comes next. What about all the other people whose lives this would radically change? They have never navigated anything wider than a channel, and here I propose to drop them into the sea.

Softdrum: Is there some kind of compromise measure? Can you roll it out a bit at a time?

New-tents: Inconceivable! The keyholders would crush it. I need to go all the way in one blink of the eye, or do nothing.

Softdrum: Maybe you're shouldering too much blame, without even knowing what will actually happen. You say you can anticipate what your system will do, but you don't have a crystal ball. What the adopters of your technology do, what the keyholders do, what the masses of end-users do--you don't have to take responsibility for that. You are just an inventor.

New-tents: That argument doesn't sway me. I wouldn't have put the effort into developing this system if I had no social impact in mind.

Softdrum: Ha-ha! I was waiting for a statement like that, New-tents. You see, I think you've decided. What you are saying is that you made your choice months ago when you began your work.

New-tents: A person can think and dream. But we have the freedom to act on our thoughts or to hold back from action. A dream does not become fixed until one awakens.

Softdrum: But what if you are the one who is awake, and the rest of the world needs to be awakened? They are already drifting on the sea, and you must wake them before a storm.

New-tents: Yes, the storm must come. Hold my hand, and I'll be ready.

Andy Oram is an editor for O'Reilly Media, specializing in Linux and free software books, and a member of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. His web site is www.praxagora.com/andyo.


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