Should all the computers and computer programs of the world be equal?


(this page is part of the Family Guide to Digital Freedom, 2007 edition. Please do read that introduction to know more about the Guide, especially if you mean to comment this page. Thanks)

Should all the computers and computer programs of the world be equal?

What would life be like if there were only one type of computer and only one software program for every task? Apparently, it would be wonderful, right? Learn the bare minimum once, use it always. Just like pen and paper.

Reality is pretty different, however. As the environmentalists like to remind us, diversity is important. Its lack can greatly impoverish humanity as a whole. As M. Crichton puts it in “The Lost World”, in a world completely dominated by the mass media and a completely homogeneous digital culture there would be “less of everything except the top ten books, records, movies, ideas”. Diversity is life, and wealth, and serious business for everybody. If it happens in the right way, this is true even with digital technologies.

Does your computer have the Flu?

AIDS or the bird flu scare us all a lot because we are all aware that, as far as immunity from diseases is concerned, we really are almost equal to each other: if only one sample of a virus figures out how to kill the human being unlucky enough to walk by in that particular moment, billions of other people will be in trouble in a few weeks time because, being very similar, they’re probably just as vulnerable as the first one.

If this scares us, we should be similarly scared to have all the computers running our businesses or defense systems, or those running the pension, health and banking databases, running the same software: it might only take one virus to bring them all down, and once it happens… goodbye insurances, tax records, bank and credit card transactions. As a matter of fact, we waste many millions of dollars every year to prevent just that.

The protection coming from diversity just “happens”, with humans, since we are (still) free to mix our genes more or less as we please, that is, from this point of view, to continuously develop new “variants”, many of which will be immune to any given disease.

For the same reasons, that is the survival of an advanced human society, we should all encourage diversity and continuous interbreeding among software programs, even if it looks like much less fun. Especially because there already is somebody who is doing all the hard work for us, that is writing as many kinds of software as they can conceive of, and making a huge deal of leaving everybody free to do the same and share that software.

This is extremely important also because the right to free speech is already guaranteed, at least in principle, by many governments: in practice, however, today it cannot happen without the maximum availability of software.

Iceland, for example, is a sovereign State with culture, language and traditions which are at least one thousand years old. Back in 1998, however, Icelanders were told that sure, they could use computers just like everybody else, just not in their own language. Why? Because the maker of the most popular word processor and operating system didn’t feel prepared to translate them into the Icelandic language: too small a market, sorry, please only use English.

Today many native populations in Africa, Asia and Latin America are still struggling to get out of the same trap. They cannot improve the quality of their life and be truly independent without introducing computers in their workplaces and Universities. But they cannot preserve their heritage and language, that is they cannot be really free, if they cannot use those same computers to write and work in their native language.

Luckily, the solutions to this problem already exist and are being successfully implemented in many developing countries: they are the same software applications mentioned above. All the “first world” nations should do is to follow the example of those countries, that is refuse outdated technology, and above all make sure that there are many alternatives, that such alternatives continue to be both legally and practically usable and that they are completely compatible with each other. We’ll see how this can happen in the rest of the book.

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