Free general-purpose computing will die

published Jan 09, 2021

It will be killed in the name of "safety", but it will be a casualty of the lust for power. A grim prediction for the next 15 years.

Free general-purpose computing will die

I'm here today to make a prediction.

General-purpose computing will all but become contraband activity.

Running Linux without permission on your own hardware will become a distant memory.  Running "unpermitted" computer programs will become impossible.  All of this will be accomplished incrementally.

This prediction is a rough sketch of how it will happen.

How will this end up being foisted onto the public?

This will be done, partly in the name of security (and that won't be entirely false).  It will also be done, partly, in the name of safety (which carries the implicit message that permitting you, lowly computer owner, to run arbitrary software, is dangerous).

Freedom Zero is the freedom to run a program as you wish, for whatever purpose.  General-purpose computing remains the only way in which people can (1) own their hardware in the fullest sense (2) determine with full sovereignty what software they run (3) run software, even without permission.  All three conditions are sin equa non requirements for free, unfettered communication between the people.  When one of these conditions is lacking, Freedom Zero is either nonexistent or at risk.

Freedom Zero will become a foreseeable casualty of the current political climate.  How do I know this?

The current mainstream political position in most of the world is opposition to others conveying an ever-expanding class of "dangerous" wrongthink (currently, scary yet exaggerated evils like "terrorism", "white supremacy", "extremism", "radicalization", "racism" and other affiliated bogeymen).  These classes of ideas are commonly called "hate" — which is only accurate insofar as the mainstream political position is to hate these ideas and the people who communicate them.

Of course, we are all adults here and therefore we know that the true threat — to the politically-motivated people trying to kill your speech — is your ability to communicate freely and change others' minds.  Your ideas are the threat, so your communications are on the chopping block.  Unless the political climate changes — very unlikely — you can expect this situation to continue.

As we know from the current political climate, hate is de facto taken to mean it is acceptable to attack and sabotage whoever communicates these ideas, suppressing their ability to talk and their communications network.  There are groups of people extremely motivated to stamp out the freedom to use software that allows you to communicate these ideas.

This censorious lust is logically in conflict with Freedom Zero.  See, you can't just be permitted to run a communications program as you wish, for whatever purpose, if some purposes are hate, and hate must not be permitted.  Insisting on both principles at the same time would be oxymoronic.

It so happens that, in the current political climate, Freedom Zero is basically an arcane philosophical belief, only held by a tiny minority of people, who are politically powerless.

The practical outcome is clear — in the battle between shut up, hateful nazi and Freedom Zero, Freedom Zero must go.  It will lose, both because you will end up not owning your computer, and because shutting you up will trump your objections.

How will general-purpose computing die?

First of all, the grim reality is that it has already happened — just not everywhere yet.  General-purpose computing is on the wane.  It isn't even the biggest type of computing done by the general public anymore.

As we've seen in the past few days, there are some very powerful institutions who do not want you and others to communicate without their all-seeing eye and authorization.  So how do they prevent that from happening today?

Look at phones.  Nearly no phone supports the execution of code not coming from app stores, unless you "root" your device.  Most phones can't even be rooted anyway.  Given that the software in 99% of those phones is controlled by literal monopolies, and they can even remotely zap software you've previously installed from their own "app stores", all they have to do is kill any and every app that doesn't obey with their baroque, vague, arbitrarily-enforced policies.

And that is exactly what they did to Gab and to Parler.

How does general-purpose computing end in desktops and laptops?

Think of it as a sea change from "the way things already are on phones and tables" to just "the way things are" — no qualifiers.

Nearly all computers ship with Windows or Mac.  Modern Macs already can't run Linux.  Windows computers with ARM CPUs already can't run software unsigned by Microsoft.  Most sold computers by default cannot even boot Linux, unless you change a BIOS setting (Secure Boot).  Both Windows and Mac have settings to prohibit the execution of unsigned software — that is, software not explicitly authorized by the operating system manufacturer.

You see where this is going?

That's correct — desktop computing can become exactly as walled-off from freedom as mobile computing already is.  Here's what it takes:

  1. Make that Secure Boot BIOS setting impossible to change.  This bans Linux as well as advanced modifications to other OSes, which cripples the hardware for dissidents who use free software.
  2. Next, make Windows/Mac by default not authorize the execution of unsigned software.  There goes 99% of your app's community, since 99% of people do not know they can change this setting — they just use the defaults.
  3. Finally, remove the toggle for unsigned software altogether.  There goes the other 1%.

The end game is that you no longer own your computer; instead, you are the object that is owned — and, often, the product to be sold — by your software manufacturer.  You still have a screen, you still have a keyboard, but no longer can you run the programs you wish, for whatever purpose.  Exactly like the phone world, only programs authorized by OS vendors will run, and only for the purposes they deem permissible.

Once that is the de facto reality, do you think desktop OS vendors won't do what phone OS vendors did to Parler yesterday?  If you believe this, you must not be caught up with the news — the largest OS vendor for phones vowed to "never let somebody like Donald Trump come to power again", and then promptly spent years making good on their schizophrenic promise, by sabotaging numerous communications applications popular with Donald Trump supporters.  If Google can do this, what is special about Microsoft that you think they won't?

For those of you who are skeptical of this happening — I want to stress that this limited computing situation is already the norm on Windows ARM machines.  And this is definitely something that major OS vendors want to continue to make progress in all architectures.

Proprietary operating system manufacturers see this series of steps as a good thing.  Why wouldn't they?  If they can lock the OS down to only programs authorized by them, that's an enormous amount of power they gain.  A couple of default changes can unlock many more billions of dollars for them.  And you know no desktop computer or part is made, unless it is made to their standards.  If those parts won't run free software operating systems, you're going back to a choice between an abacus or the local junkyard.

Of course, the outline above is merely a rough sketch — only one of the ways in which the outcome of marginalizing general purpose computing can take place.  There are others, more convoluted, with more steps.  But all will follow a path much like the one outlined above.

Note that this plan doesn't need to marginalize and destroy a full 100% of general computing to realize the goal — only a vast majority needs to be.  There will always be general-purpose computing devices with full freedom to run arbitrary software.  They will just not be accessible to the general population — most likely only the über rich or privileged will have access to them.  It's a lot like how private flight never was affected much by COVID restrictions, whereas commercial flight was savaged by them.  So general-purpose computing for the privileged — everyone else will get a neutered Fisher-Price computer.

But what about the Free Software Foundation and allies?

Surely allies like the FSF will defend our Freedom Zero — the freedom to run whatever software we want?

That's unlikely.

The current mainstream political position in most of the world is opposition to others communicating certain "dangerous" classes of wrongthink.  These classes of ideas are commonly called "hate" — which is only accurate insofar as the mainstream political position is to hate these ideas and the people who communicate them.  As we know, hate is taken to mean it is acceptable to attack these people and suppress their ability to talk.  There are groups of people extremely motivated to stamp out the freedom to use software that allows you to communicate these ideas.  This desire is strictly in conflict with Freedom Zero.

Motivated groups have already started to co-opt your allies.  Many open source software projects have codes of conduct that can get you ejected, should you utter any form of wrongthink, even if you do so in your free time and in your own venues.  This is a reliable signal that these projects have already capitulated to the whims and the threats of the motivated groups.

There is already discussion of a new "software freedom movement" that explicitly excludes using software "for evil" from your freedoms; how "evil" will be defined, you can begin to imagine.  The point, of course, is to delegitimize Freedom Zero altogether.

But, if you have to ask me, I think the most emblematic defeat is the FSF itself: as of last year, cultural Marxists orchestrated a campaign of bogus accusations against its leader — inventor of the concept of free software, and chief evangelist of the software freedoms — caused him to be ejected like a dog from the organization he created.  Removing the leader of the FSF is merely one part of the puzzle — albeit an important one.

Do you think there will be a principled advocate of Freedom Zero, ten years from now, when the most principled advocate of Freedom Zero was vilified and removed from his post?

The answer is no.

With neutered hardware, and captured culture — that is how general purpose computing dies.  I hope you can recognize that the prerequisites for this outcome, are already in place.