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Too Much Freedom

No one is safe anymore

I HAVE LARGE BOOKSHELVES where I work, and most of the books on them are the usual promotional debris. But I do have one shelf carefully labeled "Annalee's Stuff," and it mostly contains the books I care about, like Neal Stephenson's nonfiction essay, In the Beginning Was the Command Line, and a whole bunch of O'Reilly books with cute animals on their covers.

A few weeks ago, somebody came through the office and, in my absence, took all the technology books off my shelf. In common parlance, they stole them--although because many of these books were about open-source software, it's hard to say what this person was really doing and whether they even believed that "stealing" was possible and applicable to their motivations. All I can say is that this was a thief I'd probably enjoy hanging out with: She or he culled all the best books and left behind the ghost-written autobiography of an IBM executive and a how-to tome on creating a winning Internet business strategy in five easy steps.

Of course, I sent out a frantic email as soon as I realized what had happened. I wrote something spazzy and pathetic along these lines: "My valuable and beloved books are gone and I really need them and please return them if you took them by mistake, etc."

And, of course, the books never reappeared. What I realized during this strange process of losing my property was that you cannot apply the rules of open-source code to every situation, as much as I might like to do it. Free software and information sharing are great values online, but when you apply them to my bookshelf, suddenly those rules aren't so wonderful. Too much freedom--or too much of the wrong kind of freedom--can lead to questionable ethics.

Using a word like ethics is hardly fashionable, but it's something that techs and computer scientists are having to deal with more than philosophers these days. It's why a company like O'Reilly, largely famous for its creatively written technical manuals, is suddenly publishing books like Database Nation by Simson Garfinkel, which is less about building a better database than it is about building a country in which our right to privacy is protected from companies (and a government) that would like nothing more than to track our every move online.

The point is, databases aren't just about coding anymore. They're about how we use private information, such as the fact that I buy CDs at Amazon.com, browse for tech prices at Shopper.com and peruse www.mcstories.com for titillation late at night. What if somebody kept track of all the websites I visited or all the bills I paid through Yahoo! last month?

Getting that information about me is too much freedom. Who knows what could be done with it? The possibilities are endlessly freaky.

The world of computers isn't just spawning new forms of technology; it's also creating a new kind of cultural criticism. And O'Reilly's cultural book list demonstrates the peculiarity of this new criticism, which is halfway between practical engineering concerns (how to make your firewall secure) and metaphysical ones (how to determine what to do with the information you're gathering on your users).

While O'Reilly uses its books to raise ethical issues about technological problems, other companies are embracing a kind of crazed, cynical freedom in order to justify taking the information they can and selling it off to the highest bidder. The wonderfully named eFUCT is one such company. eFUCT's president, Gabriel Masri, told a slick Silicon Valley magazine recently that the title of his company refers to the fact that you're already screwed, so you might as well just use eFUCT's free services and let his company sell your user information to anyone who asks for it.

It reminds me of a story I heard from an old friend who was a "juice man," a guy who collected interest money on black-market loans his boss made to Silicon Valley gamblers. Although he was a devout Buddhist, his boss had buried his one statue of Buddha in his back yard. "It is so I can honor Buddha, but also so I can put him away when I need to," he told my friend.

You do not honor Buddha by burying him, though. There are some things we should not be free to do.

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd whose Buddha sits on the windowsill.

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From the April 20-26, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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