Technology

I've been thinking about this more and more as I consider the idea of friction — of resistance — in my life, and how to eliminate it.

To paraphrase and subvert the standard definition, technology is the collective term for techniques, methods, and/or processes that make an activity easier. Cooking has tech. Hunting has tech. Manufacturing, from machinery to millinery, has tech. Scientific investigation has tech.

Basically, if it's something humans do, we've come up with tech that makes it easier to do.

Sometimes, we iterate on that tech endlessly (see: ways to kill each other), sometimes, we figure out the best option right away and leave it (see: the wheel and/or lever).

Sometimes – the majority of the time, probably – an attempted improvement to existing tech fails to make The Thing easier (whatever The Thing is). In those instances, the iteration is discarded or is itself iterated on until is does improve The Thing.

This is so obvious it seems silly to say; if you do a thing that makes the existing tech worse, that is failed tech. (Maybe not a failed attempt, if it teaches us something, but it is failed tech.)

In short, good technology – functional technology – reduces friction: it makes the effort required for A Thing, less. If it doesn't do that, it is not technology.

By this definition, DRM – Digital Rights Management – as it is implemented today by various media industries, is not technology.

It's not a failed iteration of technology; if DRM were completely successful in its purpose (it isn't), it still fails to meet the one criterion for technology: it does not reduce friction for whatever Thing it affects. In a perfect world (which, again, this isn't) it might theoretically achieve a state of adding no additional friction, but it will never make friction less.

It is, in short, doing nothing but making things worse.

Today, it makes it harder to get to your stuff. Tomorrow, that difficulty increases, and as time goes on, so does that difficulty, until we reach a point where The Thing no longer works because of this anti-technology.

Until we reach a point where we've lost years or decades of our culture because we let our Things be locked in vaults we didn't control, to benefit people who only exist to sell keys.

13 Replies to “Technology”

  1. Would a thing be tech if it made something easier for one group, but made some other thing harder for a different group? If DRM makes it easier for some to get others to pay them money, then doesn't it fit your definition of tech?

  2. The thing is, it doesn't make it any easier for me as a creator to get paid.

    I've got an audiobook out, and it's available on Audible, iTunes, and Podiobooks.

    Of those three, Podiobooks is
    * completely free
    * DRM-free
    * works on any platform you want to listen on (assuming it plays mp3s)

    And podiobooks is, by a factor of TEN, the platform that's earned me the most money on that audiobook.

    People can grab the book and, if they like it, they hit the entirely voluntary Donate button on the podiobooks page, 75% of which comes to me.

    Now Audible charges 10 or 15 bucks for the book, but (a) I get much much less of it, (b) lots of people can't use the US version of Audible and the book isn't available in the non-US audible stores, or (c) won't use Audible for whatever reason, or (d) don't have a device that will play Audible files.

    So it's actually harder for someone to get my book from them and pay me.

    iTunes is the same situation, but it's even more restrictive in terms of the devices that can play the book afterwards, and has the same DRM in place for non-US customers.

    If Audible and iTunes were the only options available, people who wanted my book would be forced to pirate it, even if they'd prefer to give me money. (I've been in that situation before as a customer, and it sucks.)

    That situation is friction – that's DRM, making it harder for someone to just get my book and pay me for it, or just get my book at all (I'd a hell of a lot rather be read/heard for free than not read/heard at all).

    DRM does make it more likely the intermediary will get paid, yes. Absolutely. And that is ALL that intermediary cares about – they don't give a shit about me.

    I know this, because I've asked Audible to take off the DRM. They won't. I've asked iTunes to do that. They won't. (Note: iTunes doesn't have DRM on the podcast-version of the book, because that's free, so they won't get paid anyway, so who cares, right?)

    If someone puts a lock on something you made, or a lock on something you own, and won't give you control of the key, that lock is not there for your benefit. (Doctorow's First Law)

  3. Of course, authors and readers are not in the group of people for whom DRM makes things easier. That group is just the publishers, or maybe only the owners of Audible and iTunes. But I wasn't really trying to criticize your POV on DRM. I agree with you on that. I was just trying to say that I thinks your definition of "tech" is too narrow.

  4. The general definition of technology is "the collection of techniques, methods or processes used in the production of goods or services or in the accomplishment of objectives such as scientific investigation."

    DRM doesn't come into the production of goods and services (it actively works against the production of several services). DRM could be said to to used in the accomplishment (sort of) of an objective (forcing control by a third party over materials neither owned or created by that third party).

    (I said "sort of" because it's only marginally good at what it does – it doesn't actually stop anyone bent on circumventing it, thus ensuring that it really only stops non-criminals from acting like criminals – that's the other reason I don't like it, because it starts with the assumption of guilt on the part of the customers.)

    In this case, though, while it helps with one objective (as mentioned) it actively works against several other objectives (getting a product out to the customer, consuming/buying/enjoying said project, and actually owning the product you legitimately paid for, rather than 'leasing' or 'licensing' it). So, on balance, that's more strikes against its qualifying than in favor.

    I don't think a definition of "tech is stuff that makes things easier" is less broad than the official version. If anything, it's more inclusive, despite it excluding DRM.

    I would, in fact, say that DRM doesn't even make it easier for the intermediary to get paid – I don't think it even does that as well as simply not having DRM on the product. Specifically, for every 'unauthorized' copy those people wring their hands about, I think you close a sale with as many (or far more) customers who bought the thing before they became frustrated with the DRM and gave up, or who continue to use the intermediary because they appreciate a company that trusts them.

    That's my personal take on it, based on the fact that I get paid more through the platform that trusts people to not be criminals than I do from the platform that gets in the way and frisks everyone while they're standing in line at checkout.

    In short, I don't think DRM is actually good for anyone involved (except for maybe the companies that develop and sell DRM tools to guys like Amazon – they are making BANK.

    The proof of this is really in the industries who have already tried DRM and given up on it – like the music industry. Ten or fifteen to as little as five years ago, everything digital had (or tried to have) DRM. Today? No one does. It doesn't matter, it doesn't help, and not having it has only increased legitimate sales and decreased piracy.

    But publishers don't pay attention to other industries – THEY will figure out how to make this work, because THEY stand to lose so much more from the free sharing of their products with whoever… that is, I mean… it's not like word of mouth and freely shareable books could be good for publishers and authors…

    Wait… which industry has libraries? I forget.

  5. Doyce, you're doing most of the heavy lifting here, I'm just playing at being a philosopher again for a little while. Thank you!

    Reading your original post, I first thought you were saying DRM isn't tech because it doesn't make things easier (doesn't reduce friction). My claim is that DRM makes it easier for the owners of the DRM management infrastructure to siphon some money out of the transaction between the consumer and the publisher. Even if it does that poorly, or if there are other better ways to accomplish the same goal, I think it's tech by the definition I thought you were using.

    I would say that this definition is too narrow in the sense that it doesn't really acknowledge that tech may once have made things easier but now makes things harder, or that it may only make thing easier in some circumstances. For example, bows and arrows once made life easier, but in the modern world, they do not. Or, for example, a cell phone makes it easier to communicate,except when the service is down. I would even add things that would only make a hypothetical situation easier to the definition. For example, a space suit would still be tech even if space flight was never achieved.

    Recognizing that a definition can be simultaneously too narrow and too broad, I also think it's too broad, now that I think about it. If some thing is made easier because one takes advantage of an accidental feature or the natural world, I don't think that's tech. For example, sliding a log over wet grass is easier than sliding it over dry dirt, but I don't want to call wet grass a form of tech.

    One last example throws a perhaps more interesting wrench in the works. What about Rube Goldberg machines? They seem like tech to me, and while they make a task easier in a sense, the also make a task more complex than is needed.

  6. Man, such good questions/scenarios!

    Okay, I'm going to paste my original paraphrased rule: technology is the collective term for techniques, methods, and/or processes that make an activity easier.

    The big question to answer that will help answer some of your scenarios is "easier than what?" I'm going to answer that by saying "easier than trying to do The Thing without that technique/method/process (hereafter: tech)." Does the tech make a Thing easier for me than it would be if I were just standing in the middle of my lawn in a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt? If yes, then it's tech.

    So: let's look at your examples.

    * DRM makes it easier for the owners of the DRM management infrastructure to siphon some money out of the transaction between the consumer and the publisher.

    Hmm. No. I don't think it does that. I don't think it applies to them getting money, except in the way of Big Sal sending "his boys" around to break your car windows unless you pay him protection money.

    If I'm Amazon, for example, I'm getting my cut of the sale whether DRM is involved or not. (I know this, because Amazon doesn't use DRM on music anymore, and they would NOT have dropped it if it where intrinsic to their ability to get paid.)

    So DRM doesn't ensure they get their cut – what it's supposed to do is prevent you-the-new-owner-of-the-product from giving out digital copies to your friends, resulting in no revenue for Amazon from those copies, but (a) it doesn't actually work very well for it's intended purpose and (B) in trying to make DRM locks work better, the pile-on effect is that it becomes harder and harder (if not impossible) for the legitimate owner of a product to use the thing they paid for in whatever way they want. (Ever think about how you can't print out a hardcopy of an ebook you buy? Why can't you? If you pay for the paper/toner/time… why not? That's DRM, treating a legitimate customer like a criminal so that it can (usually fail) to stop someone using a product in some unacceptable way.

    And anyway, trying to stop making copies is a problem for any number of reasons, one of which being the fact that the Internet is literally a copying machine – that's how everything the internet does works; this message will be copied no less than 40 times to various machines and chip caches before you see it, and permanent copies will be stored in at least a half-dozen of those locations.

    So, I think DRM tries to be tech, but fails. From my first post, it's an example of a failed technology design – tries to do a thing, but makes the situation worse. Iterations on the design have not improved things.

    In real world analogies, it wants to be … I guess … handcuffs?

    Except these virtual handcuffs only work (maybe) if they're put on everyone who comes in a store… and the actual criminals (and more than a few honest people who don't like walking around in handcuffs) know a dozen ways to get out of them, so… you end up with only honest people in cuffs, being frustrated.

    Does the DRM make it easier to prevent people from making copies than T-shirt and Sweats Guy? Yyyyyyes. Yes. If I'm bound and determined, DRM makes it easier for me to try to prevent this for people all over the world than I could do it by myself.

    BUT. I could use different tech (the internet) to simply ask people to pay me fairly for my stuff, and no be dicks, and that would be MUCH easier than using DRM, and (demonstrably, thanks to the music industry) just as effective, possibly more effective, and MUCH cheaper.

    So while DRM is tech, it's very bad, poorly made tech, that's still only making easier a Thing that doesn't need to be done in the first place. More importantly, unlike bows (see below) it was never good, and then surpassed; it's always been bad.

    * Bows and arrows once made life easier, but in the modern world, they do not.

    On the contrary, a bow and arrows still make it MUCH easier for me to kill a thing at a distance than it is for T-shirt and Sweats Guy.

    There is tech out there that does this job better in some ways (distance, rate of fire, practice required, et cetera) but worse in others (cost, silence, et cetera). It's been iterated on but it's still good enough tech to see a lot of use today.

    * Cell phones make long distance communication much easier than T-shirt and Sweats Guy can do it. Even if it the service goes down, the net communication ability for TS&S Guy improved.

    * Space suits definitely make space survival better for TS&S Guy, so that's tech. (Tech assumes that The Thing it's built for is happening, or there's no point, so we will too.)

    * For example, sliding a log over wet grass is easier than sliding it over dry dirt, but I don't want to call wet grass a form of tech.

    No, it isn't. That's not a "technique, method, and/or process".

    HOWEVER, if you tried to slide a log along over wet grass once, and realized it was WAY EASIER, and you started pre-wetting the grass before engaging in log-pushing, that process is a technology.

    * What about Rube Goldberg machines? They seem like tech to me, and while they make a task easier in a sense, the also make a task more complex than is needed.

    I think all the stuff that's added to mix to add complexity makes it a toy. :) I think it's a technological toy, for reasons I could break out into examples if I wanted to double the length of this post and use an OK GO video for examples… but I really should wrap this up.

  7. What do you call manipulating the same tools if it does NOT result in some tangible benefit to some party, somewhere? Should we discourage play with technological tools – or even just play in general – if it directly benefits nobody and costs someone, say, a final? Who gets to define making tasks easier?

    I mean, I agree with you, but… it sounds like you're just screwing with a perfectly good word in order to make it more difficult to argue with you, and that rarely moves hearts and minds and tends to get turned around in unanticipated directions.

    Find a new word :)

  8. Using tools is… Well, that's using tools. Play is play. Work is work. What you do is separate from the thing you're holding, yeah? Drawing and scribbling and writing and poking your sister in the eye all use a pencil. The pencil is the technology, the thing you do is the… Whatever. Activity? Action. Verb.

  9. Nothing I said about technology or DRM fails to be true if I stick to the official definition of tech. The official definition is just clumsy(er) and long(er).

    Whether it supports the random tangents in the comments about wet grass and rube Goldberg machines, I have no idea – that stuff went so far off original thesis it isn't the same topic.

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