Arthur C. Clarke famously said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic and, but for our knowledge that it’s not, most people would already say information technology fits that criteria.
The problem is that we computer wizards, being only human, have done as humans do and assumed that the time of plenty will always be upon us. (If you haven’t already read Collapse by Jared Diamond, I strongly recommend it just from the excerpts I’ve had read to me from borrowed copies.)
There are a great many incumbents (and unethical newcomers) who feel their revenue streams threatened by the freedom to innovate and many of them have a great deal of power.
Now, this is a big problem because these people see no problem in stagnating technological and cultural progress to feed the lifestyle they’ve become accustomed to. What’s worse, in most cases, they have a fiduciary responsibility to use the power granted to them by the corporations they head to extract as much profit as possible, regardless of the externalities.
Eben Moglen (the guy who heads the Software Freedom Law Center) has given two excellent keynote speeches on the cultural burden of this sort of behaviour which I strongly believe everyone should listen to:
- Software and Community in the Early 21st Century (transcript)
- Innovation under Austerity (transcript)
The first, from 2006, talks about the importance of free software while the second, from 2012, talks about the power of decentralized innovation to help the economy recover and the harm middlemen like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple can cause.
To paraphrase Moglen, we’re filling our pockets with robots that only serve us so long as their true masters say so.
On that topic, another excellent speech to listen to would be Cory Doctorow’s “The Coming War on General Purpose Computation” (transcript) which he’s also turned into an article named Lockdown. This focuses less on the social benefits of free innovation and communication and more directly on how and why governments and big businesses either do or will want to put up barriers to it.
In short, SOPA, PIPA, and ACTA are only the tip of the iceberg and, like Alastor Moody, even the most vigilant of us can be caught off guard when so few of us speak out against things like the restrictions imposed by platforms such as iOS and Windows RT.