The dialectics of technology - Embedded.com

The dialectics of technology

Marx's theory of dialectical materialism pits those who supply the labor to build things against those who own the means of production. Though an anathema to American capitalism, Marx's idea in many ways depicted the labor situation here in the USA during the robber baron era. Collective bargaining and government regulation eventually curbed the excesses and gave us a kinder, gentler capitalism.

But today we have a new dialectic, a struggle between the rich and the poor, between workers barely hanging on to their jobs and CEOs pulling down eight-figure salaries. Technology is a tool of the conflict, enabling a battle between what Marx would call bourgeoisie corporations and their proletarian customers. We engineers have built systems that give companies control over too many aspects of our lives. Sophisticated hardware and software allows marketing to cross over the gray line of ethical uncertainty into outright abuse of the populace.

It was a little thing, really, that got me thinking about Marxism and technology. Surfing to Linksys's web site I noted they had a router firmware upgrade. Surprise! Reburning the Flash deleted stateful packet inspection, a nifty security enhancer. You can, though, upgrade to a new, improved, and more expensive router that sports this feature.

Like a thief in the night, Linksys slipped in and made off with something I had purchased. What other “enhancements” have they inflicted on their user base? Will the next upgrade further reduce the device's functionality?

It's a brilliant marketing scheme, really. Instead of creating new capabilities that convince consumers to replace their aging products with the next new thing, simply remove features until the older product is useless. That means barging into the privacy of customers' houses, but the 'net has the effect of opening the front door and hanging a “welcome all” sign.

This is just one of many signs of the struggle between companies and their customers. Consider digital TV: all televisions must include a DTV tuner by 2007. The MPAA is trying to get the FCC to require content protection hardware in every DTV receiver. The industry essentially wants the right to tax consumers to fund their intellectual property protection efforts. To protest this, click here.

If, on the other hand, you want to express support for their position, click here .

Late update: Looks like the MPAA is gonna win.

The RIAA, too, is on a well-advertised mission to alienate their customers. They're issuing subpoenas now, a right I thought was reserved for government authorities. Is the RIAA an arm of the judicial system?

Digital rights management is moving into our PCs; Phoenix will make this part of the BIOS itself. It's sort of like slapping handcuffs on everyone seen near a shopping mall as a means of preemptive crime prevention.

I abhor piracy and feel that trading copyrighted material is simply wrong. But making me pay for extra hardware in my TV or PC to keep me from stealing is akin to having a cover charge to enter a Radio Shack, in case I decide to swipe something. I've given up buying CDs as a protest and have my eye on the Windows version of iTunes.

Leaving CompUSA, Best Buy, Circuit City, and too many other stores, the security guard all but does a pat-down to make sure your receipt matches the items in the shopping cart. I recognize the problems retailers face from criminals. But their solution makes me feel just a step from being indicted. So I shop on-line. Why suffer the abuse when there are alternatives?

Spyware is a new curse that infiltrates all too many products. Marketers happily unencumbered by any sense of ethics seed our computers with moles that clandestinely disclose too much private information to the world at large. It took a full day to purge my new HP Pavillion of spyware and nuisance apps. Would Bill Hewlett and David Packard have sold products that routinely pry into their customers' affairs?

There's a new kind of relationship between vendors and consumers. It's adversarial rather than supportive. In the '90s management consultants preached the gospel of delighting customers. Now the message seems to be one of control. Limit your customer's options, assume they are thieves, and sell their secrets to anyone and everyone.

Marx's dialectics spelled out three stages in the class struggle: thesis, antithesis, and resolution. Today's high tech world has locked customers and vendors into a dysfunctional thesis/antithesis dynamic.

Unfortunately, any sort of resolution seems a distant dream.

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges and is. conducting a seminar about building better embedded systems on December 5. Contact him at . His website is .


I read your column on digital piracy and enforced DRM, and for the mostpart, I agree. However, you wrote something that got me thinking:”I abhor piracy and feel that trading copyrighted material is simply wrong.But making me pay for extra hardware in my TV or PC to keep me from stealingis akin to having a cover charge to enter a Radio Shack, in case I decide toswipe something.”

Actually you do pay a cover charge (sort of) – it's called higher prices. Iwas astounded to find out how much stuff is stolen from retailers every day.Embedded RFID tags or whatever other means seem necessary are a cost sharedby everyone who enters the store. I also feel like a criminal whenever I gointo a store that uses electronic scanning technology at the doors. I tendto worry that I might have something in my pocket that will set the foolthing off.

You see the same thing at airports. I was flying from Seattle back to Reno,and I set off the metal detector. I had completely forgotten my cell phonein my shirt pocket. Rookie move, but once I had tripped the system, I waspulled aside for everything short of a body cavity search.

What it comes down to is something Andy Rooney once said on his TVcommentary: (my paraphrase) “It really bothers me that a minority of badpeople make it necessary for me to spend a bunch of time and money to makesure that they can't get at my stuff.” Home security systems, vehiclealarms, DRM, door scanners, etc. exist because people will not control theirbasic greed. Even shopping online is not without it's hazards.

I don't know what the solution is. I don't mind DRM as long as it istransparent and allows me to do without hassles what I'm allowed to do. Onething that would help (I've harangued my kids about it) is to make sure thatyou make your position clear to those around you that you will have nothingto do with pirated material, and why. Maybe, in the long run, that willeventually help. I'm skeptical, but you never know!

I did sign up for the Windows iTunes, but unfortunately, I have very littleinterest in modern music. Many of the songs I looked for were not in thedatabase. Songs that are no longer available as LP's, CD's or other physicalformats should be made available by the copyright owners for downloading ata reasonable fee. This would help to mitigate some of the rationale piratesuse.

As always, you have good, thought-provoking material. Keep it up!

– Dave Telling


I disagree with your analogy. There are special concerns when it comes todistribution of digital content. Because it is so easy to copy and store (infact, distribution of digital content is copying and storing), there isno protection for the artist/author — no way to ensure fair payment for workdone. Unlike a physical book, which at least takes some real effort to copy, adigital book can be posted on a web site or FTPd around the world in a matter ofseconds. A million copies distributed, none purchased, and no due profits forthe author. Putting digital rights management (such as a unique ID on every CPU)in computers makes perfect sense. It allows content providers to sell yousomething (stamped or encoded with your CPU's ID) digitally which you can notthen turn around and distribute illegally. How is this invasive?

You hire a painter to paint a mural on your house. The painter comes, appliespaint to your house, you pay, the painter leaves. Because the paint isphysically attached to your house, you can not resell the painter's work tosomeone else. This does not bother you. Of course not. You had no expectation ofbeing able to sell a copy of that work. It is the same thing with buying digitalcontent which is stamped with your computer's ID. It's painted on your pc. Whydoes it bother you that you can't copy and potentially distribute what youbought? Do you feel like you're being treated like a criminal because they tookaway the ability for you to steal? Do you get upset by movie theatersprohibiting video cameras inside? I think this is all a matter of what we havebecome accustomed to. We expect to be able to copy and use digital contentfreely because we have been able to do this historically. This expectation isbeing challenged — and we resist — but do we have an ethical or legal leg tostand on?

Surely, there are content protection schemes which are invasive, but many (suchas uniquely identifying a CPU) are no more invasive or restrictive than theirphysical-world non-transferrable counterparts such as paint on the wall or workdone to install a kitchen sink.

– Daniel Singer


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