Surveillance Knights: Doctorow and Felten

doctorow hermann felten

Liberation can turn into surveillance, they warned. Two anti-surveillance knights of the internet, science fiction author Cory Doctorow and Princeton University tech guru Ed Felten, spoke at Labyrinth Bookstore today, co-sponsored by the Princeton Public Library.

The Internet is the nervous system of the 21st century, said Felten. Just as language helped cave men collaborate, the Internet helps us organize at lower costs. It transcends what a single person can do. It is a mistake to try to control the Internet and fit it into something small, said Felten. “It was architected to let people try things and discover what worked.” If over controlled and regulated, we will lose that freedom.

YouTube needs to be free from regulation. Every minute, 96 hours of video are uploaded onto YouTube, most of it personal, says Doctorow, and that’s OK. Each of the seemingly banal interactions  — like the ubiquitous cute cat videos — is important. “Relationships are built up on these little moments,” said Doctorow.

What these like-minded experts said can be found in their writings, but Felten used a homey example to explain his objection. When the Keurig coffee maker patent expired, you could buy private label pods. Then Keurig engineered its new coffee makers so only its own pods worked. “That’s like patenting shoelaces, so you need European rights to tie your shoelaces in Germany.”

Doctorow cited software that can deactivate engines if the car is stolen. It might be sold to vendors of subprime car loans. Wireless pacemakers can be hijacked. For instance, one demo showed a pacemaker hooked up to a strip of bacon — and it fried the bacon.

As efficient and valuable as the Internet is, the Doctorow/Felten meeting demonstrates that nothing beats personal networking. PPL’s Janie Hermann (between Doctorow, on the left, and Felten) encountered Doctorow at a library convention over two years ago and learned that he was a buddy of Felten’s. Since that meeting several attempts were made to bring the two together for a conversation in Princeton, but schedules never matched. Three weeks ago Hermann learned that not only did Doctorow have a new book coming out but that he would be in the area for New York City Comic Con. She zoomed in on the rare opportunity and with very little notice was able to connect Doctorow and Felten at last, but the library’s community room was not available. Dorothea von Moltke from Labyrinth Books stepped in to offer her space for what turned out to be a standing room only event.

 

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