If there is one way to kill technology generativity, lock the technology up to such an extent that you can’t even repair it, let alone hack at it to do something new and innovative.
I’ve written about generativity before (in the context of open textbooks). Briefly, generativity is the capacity a system has to be changed and modified by someone other than the original developer to do something new and interesting that the original developer may never have imagined.
As I read this Motherboard article How to Fix Everything, it hit me again just how difficult technology companies make it for their systems to be repairable, much less generative.
“Normally if I purchase a hammer, if the head of the hammer falls off, I’m allowed to repair it and fix it. I can use the hammer again,” Charles Duan, director of Public Knowledge’s Patent Reform Project, told me. “For a lot of these newer devices, manufacturers want to say ‘We want to be the only ones to repair it’ because they make more profits off the repairs. They’ve found lots and lots of way to do this. Intellectual property law, contracts, end user license agreements, lots and lots of ways to try to make sure you can’t do what you want with your stuff.”
A few weeks ago I came across the story of farmer Matt Reimer and his brilliant robotic hack that turned an old tractor into a remote controlled tractor, saving him time, money, and from sending his old tractor to the landfill. If his tractor was a John Deere tractor, he would not have been able to make these modifications as John Deere makes it impossible to tinker with their tractors.
John Deere told the copyright office that allowing farmers and mechanics to repair their own tractors would “make it possible for pirates, third-party developers, and less innovative competitors to free-ride off the creativity, unique expression and ingenuity of vehicle software.”
Think about that for a moment – a farmer not allowed to fix his own equipment. If you are from a farming community, you know how ludicrous that sounds.
But beyond the silliness of not being able to repair your own stuff (let alone the terrible environmental consequences of forcing people who use their products to live in an even more disposable society), corporations that lock up their technology send a clear message that the only way innovation can happen is within their narrow confines and vision. It limits the scope of innovation to only what a corporation wants, and only in the ways that serve the corporation.
Because we should all have the ability to turn pop bottles into lights.