This is an essay addressed to my colleagues, those who make software for fun and profit and those who enjoy all the benefits technology brings to our lives. A recent Forbes article contained an amazingly illustrative anecdote revealing the corruption inherent in software patents, a dialogue between IBM lawyers visiting the then small company Sun Microsystems:
An awkward silence ensued. The blue suits did not even confer among themselves. They just sat there, stonelike. Finally, the chief suit responded. “OK,” he said, “maybe you don’t infringe these seven patents. But we have 10,000 U.S. patents. Do you really want us to go back to Armonk [IBM headquarters in New York] and find seven patents you do infringe? Or do you want to make this easy and just pay us $20 million?” After a modest bit of negotiation, Sun cut IBM a check, and the blue suits went to the next company on their hit list.
This is practically a scene from every mob movie and crime drama ever produced, except the numbers usually aren’t this big. I feel this anecdote speaks for itself and is a call to action for geeks like me who will be next on the current big boy’s hitlist, those of us who develop and distribute open source software, those of us who create and innovate in small businesses or consulting and those of us who feel blessed to live in a time where we can make a living with our minds. This is a real threat to our livelihoods, because it shows that the status quo has finally started understanding our turbulent times and are actively using their muscle to “protect” our neighborhood. So what do we do? My personal answer to this question is rooted in pop culture.
I have been extorted with threats of physical violence in my past, but in that case the balance of power was much less complicated than the situation we collectively find ourselves in, so I reach for the source of understanding I am most familiar with: pop culture. Whether its The Wire, the Godfather series, Sons of Anarchy, Brotherhood, Carlito’s Way, or any number of other criminal dramas the pattern is always the same. The “bad guys” use their power (money, guns or muscle) to control and extort members of their community for their own profit. Inevitably some of the small businesses fight back in desperation and are wiped out, other powers compete with the central characters and either destroy and replace them or negotiate power deals to maintain the status quo within some “reasonable” bounds. This always goes to show that the power wielded by the gangsters is real, and not playing by their rules has real consequences.
So if we have to play by their rules, how do we fight back? We don’t have the money, lawyers or violent inclinations to revolt, and even the mighty Google is besieged on all sides. There is one weapon that the gangsters have no defense against, the power behind the pen being mightier than the sword: pubic opinion. In all of these dramas, and in history too, the actions and crimes perpetrated by gangsters are tempered by public opinion. There are unspoken as well as spoken rules, codes of “honor” keeping thugs in line so that their actions do not bring attention and scrutiny on their organizations. A critical mass of public hatred for an organization is often the only way to remove their power and influence.
Why is this so? I’m no psychologist and I hope other’s will chime in, but it makes sense that a government of men (rather than laws) is vulnerable to the humanity of it’s rulers. Those humans have pride, ego, vanity and morals. They do not do unscrupulous deeds out of some sick pleasure, but rather to further their goals inside the world they have created for themselves with the resources at their disposal. We need to appeal to those human tendencies, or at the very least target their weaknesses.
I propose a new crime drama, one who’s context is the 21st century, the information age. The humanity of our generation has not changed, only the tools and environments in which we find ourselves. How do we convince people who care nothing about software that there is a threat to their way of life? By making them care about the characters who compose the story. How many people such as myself will never be the victim of small town violence yet eat up any compelling power drama? How thankful am I that the rule of law has progressed so I can feel secure in my station most places I go, and how thankful will the next generation be that we shined light on a mounting story of human greed and freed technological innovation from it’s shackles.
Let’s make them care, let’s tell a story.