from the just-wow dept
Eben Moglen has been battling to defend key digital rights for the last two decades. A lawyer by training, he helped Phil Zimmerman fight off the US government’s attack on the use of the Pretty Good Privacy encryption program in the early 1990s, in what became known as the Crypto Wars. That brought him to the attention of Richard Stallman, founder of the GNU project, and together they produced version 3 of the GNU GPL, finally released after 12 years’ work in 2006.
Today, he’s Professor of Law at Columbia Law School, Founding Director of the Software Freedom Law Center and the motive force behind the FreedomBox project to produce a distributed communication system, including social networking that is fully under the user’s control.
He’s also a great orator, as he demonstrated once again at the F2C: Freedom to Connect conference last week. Introducing the discussion that followed Moglen’s talk, Doc Searls said: “that was not just one of the best speeches I’ve heard, it’s one of the most important,” and said that it felt like an “I have a dream” moment.
Moglen’s keynote was entitled “Innovation under austerity”, and tackled a range of big themes: the effects of disintermediation brought about by the Internet; the global financial crisis; the imposition of austerity; the increasing levels of youth unemployment in parts of the Eurozone; and the desperate need for innovative ideas to get us out of this mess. He tied all these together by observing that the multi-trillion dollar economy created by e-commerce had been made possible by innovation born of the passion and curiosity of mostly young people hacking on open systems.
As Moglen said, transcribed here by Stephen Bloch:
That curiosity of young people could be harnessed because all of the computing devices in ordinary day-to-day use were hackable, and so young people could actually hack on what everybody used. That made it possible for innovation to occur where it can occur without friction, which is at the bottom of the pyramid of capital. Hundreds of thousands of young people around the world hacking on laptops, hacking on servers, hacking on general purpose hardware available to allow them to scratch their individual itches — technical, career, and just plain ludic itches (“I wanna do this; it would be neat”) — which is the primary source of the innovation which drove all of the world’s great economic expansion in the past ten years. The way innovation really happens is that you provide young people with opportunities to create on an infrastructure which allows them to hack the real world and share the results.
From this central observation, Moglen noted that such open innovation offered a possible way out of the current economic crisis, since, uniquely, it thrived in conditions of austerity (think of Linus Torvalds writing the Linux kernel in his Helsinki bedroom on a PC bought partly thanks to a student loan from the Finnish government.)
Where the banking institutions of our day have failed spectacularly, and shown themselves to be forces for wealth destruction, open innovation as practised by free software and Wikipedia and all the other collaborative endeavors around the world, has been quietly creating real value on an unprecedented scale and in an extremely short time.
Moglen suggested that open innovation was fuelled by the energy of the young — precisely the part of society that is paying the price for the older generation’s mistakes. To help pull ourselves out of the current crisis, he urged the world to tap into that youthful potential by making knowledge as widely available as possible — through open content — and by providing young people with open tools to explore and invent with.
He concluded by warning that the rise of the digital behemoths like Apple and Facebook were exactly the wrong solution, offering closed hardware and something just as bad on the software side. As Moglen put it:
The browser made the Web very easy to read. We did not make the Web easy to write. So a little thug in a hooded sweatshirt made the Web easy to write, and created a man-in-the-middle attack on human civilization.
The whole speech is pretty much at that level of sharp analysis combined with sharp-tongued wit. Watch it below — it lasts around 45 mniutes — and decide for yourself whether this will go down in history as one of the key moments of the early digital age.