“PC Free”: Mourning an Era

My attention span is shit. So instead of writing a 5,000 word piece in one go, I’m going to try blogging it in realtime. Let’s see how this goes.

Planet of the Apps

“Think about the architectural revolution: from a network made of peers, to servers that serve the communication with humans, to clients which are programs running on heavy iron, to clients which are the computers that people actually use in a fairly dis-empowered state and servers with a high concentration of power in the Net, to servers as virtual processes running in clouds of iron at the center of an increasingly hot galaxy and the clients are out there in the dusty spiral arms.”

In 2010, I ambled in to a talk at NYU’s Courant Center for Mathematics. The speaker was stout and bearded, and his high voice carried to the back of the small theater and filled the whole crescent hall. The audience was—eclectic, let’s say—students with dyed mohawks, mid-career professionals, wizened faces of the free software movement. The audience certainly skewed male, and there was a higher than usual proportion of beards.

The speaker was waving and gesticulating, his voice rising and falling as he he made his points. He was expressive, good-natured, and funny—but grave. “We have thinned the clients out further and further and further… we made them mobile. We put them in our pockets and we started strolling around with them.”

The audience was rapt, completely fascinated by what they were hearing. But outside of this room, almost no one would understand what the fuck he was talking about.

“We aggregated processing and storage increasingly in the cloud—in centralized places, far from the users, from the users who thought they controlled the operation of the computers that increasingly dominated their lives. This was a recipe for disaster.”

The speaker was Eben Moglen, professor of law and legal history at Columbia University, founder of the Software Freedom Law Center, and free software stalwart. If you’re not a computer history buff, you could be forgiven for not understanding Moglen’s rant.

[part 2] [part 3] [part 4] [part 5]

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