Some developments in – and commentary on – digital architectures of control to end 2006:
Peter Gutmann’s ‘A Cost Analysis of Windows Vista Content Protection’ (via Bruce Schneier) looks very lucidly at the effects that Vista’s DRM and measures to ‘protect’ content will have – on users themselves, and knock-on effects elsewhere. The more one reads, the more astonishing this whole affair is:
Possibly for the first time ever, computer design is being dictated not by electronic design rules, physical layout requirements, and thermal issues, but by the wishes of the content industry.
Vista appears to be just about the worst consumer product of all time. However, unlike other discretionary purchases, consumers will have less of a choice: Vista will come with any PC you buy from a major store, and all the hardware manufacturers will have to pass on the extra costs and complexity required to customers, whether or not they intend to use that hardware with Vista. When critical military and healthcare systems start to be run on Vista, we’ll all end up paying.
As Peter puts it:
In a similar vein, the ‘format wars’ over high-definition video appear to have descended into a farce:
The Vista Content Protection specification could very well constitute the longest suicide note in history
Basically, what we have is a series of anti-consumer DRM infections masquerading as nothing in particular. They bring only net negatives to anyone dumb enough to pay money for them, and everything is better than these offerings. They sell in spite of the features they tout, not because of them.
And, of course, HD-DVD encryption has already been “(partially) cracked” as Uninnovate puts it, with that decryption effort being triggered directly as a result of consumer frustration with incompatibility:
“Consumers buy only 23 songs per iPod” – clearly, the vast majority of music on iPods and other portable music players has been acquired through CD-ripping or file-sharing, something which we all know, but which has been an elephant in the room for a long time when the industry is discussed (and remember that the Gowers’ Review has only just recommended that ripping CDs be legalised in the UK).
I just bought a HD-DVD drive to plug on my PC, and a HD movie, cool! But when I realized the 2 software players on Windows don’t allowed me to play the movie at all, because my video card is not HDCP compliant and because I have a HD monitor plugged with DVI interface, I started to get mad… This is not what we can call “fair use”! So I decide to decrypt that movie.
Of course, Bill Gates also recommends ripping CDs (see also some great commentary from LilBambi on this).
Andrew Kantor in USA Today has some pragmatic analysis of the situation:
Finally, Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer tells us that in 2007 the consumer will be “back in control”. It doesn’t mean much out of context, nor in the context he used it in fact, but it looks like Doublespeak is alive and well.
People want their music without restrictions, and too many legal downloads, like those from iTunes, come with restrictions. You can’t copy them to another player, or you’re limited to how often you can do it, or you have to jump through the hoops of burning your iTunes tracks to CD and re-ripping them to a more useful format… as cellphones with built-in MP3 players gain popularity, users will find themselves up against an entirely new set of usage restrictions. Some subscription services will delete the music from your player when you cancel your subscription.
Buy a CD or use a program like eMule… and you have no restrictions. And that’s what people want.
They don’t want to have to match their music store with their music player any more than they want to have to match their brands of gasoline with their brands of car. They want, in short, to be able to use today’s music the same ways they used yesterday’s: Any way they want.
In fact, the industry’s been down this road before and hit a similar wall. In the first decades of the 20th century, the wax cylinders (and, later, 78rpm disks) on which music was recorded worked only with specific players. Industry attempts to monopolize the technology led only to poor sales.
Image from uninnovate.com
I’ve just come across a very interesting new blog, uninnovate.com, which focuses on the phenomenon of “engineering expensive features into a product for which there is no market demand in order to make the product do less.” The first few posts tackle ‘Three legends of uninnovation‘ (the iPod’s copy restrictions, Sony’s mp3-less Walkman, and Verizon’s rent-seeking on Bluetooth features), Microsoft’s priorities (patching DRM flaws vs. security flaws that actually damage users), Amazon’s absurd new Unbox ‘service’ and ‘Trusted’ computing for mobile phones. The perspective is refreshingly clear: no customer woke up wanting these ‘features’, yet companies direct vast efforts towards developing them.
In a sense the ‘uninnovation’ concept is a similar idea to a large proportion of the architectures of control in products I’ve been examining on this site over the last year, especially DRM and DRM-related lock-ins, though with a slightly different emphasis: I’ve chosen to look at it all from a ‘control’ point of view (features are being designed in – or out – with the express intention of manipulating and restricting users’ behaviour, usually for commercial ends, but also political or social).
Uninnovate looks to be a great blog to watch – not sure who’s behind it, but the analysis is spot-on and the examples lucidly explained.
Ulises Mejias on ‘Confinement, Education and the Control Society’ – fascinating commentary on Deleuze’s societies of control and how the instant communication and ‘life-long learning’ potential (and, I guess, everyware) of the internet age may facilitate control and repression:
“This is the paradox of social media that has been bothering me lately: an ’empowering’ media that provides increased opportunities for communication, education and online participation, but which at the same time further isolates individuals and aggregates them into masses —more prone to control, and by extension more prone to discipline.”
Slashdot on ‘A working economy without DRM?’ – same debate as ever, but some very insightful comments
Slashdot on ‘Explaining DRM to a less-experienced PC user’ – I particularly like SmallFurryCreature’s ‘Sugar cube’ analogy
‘The Promise of a Post-Copyright World’ by Karl Fogel – extremely clear analysis of the history of copyright and, especially, the way it has been presented to the public over the centuries
(Via BoingBoing) The Entertrainer – a heart monitor-linked TV controller: your TV stays on with the volume at a usable level only while you keep exercising at the required rate. Similar concept to Gillian Swan’s Square-Eyes
Following on from the last post about the Neuros MPEG4 recorder, looking on the Neuros website reveals something pretty unusual for a company involved in consumer product design – a clear statement of design philosophy, ‘What do we stand for?’ that’s heavy on content and light on vague rhetoric:
“Your Digital Rights and Why They’re Important to You
Throughout the history of technology, Hollywood has fought innovation at every turn. Even technologies that benefit the studios, and that we take for granted, exist only because someone fought the studios for their very existence
The more such legislation [e.g. Analog Hole Bill] gets passed, the less innovation consumers will see, and the fewer options you will have for enjoying your content
There are two opposing forces at odds here. On the one hand, there are exciting new technologies that offer more and more choices for consumers to access and enjoy digital media when and where they want it. On the other, there is Big Media and a few of its powerful allies working behind the scenes to limit consumer choices to when and where they want it. How this all plays out will depend on how the rest of us respond in the coming days, weeks and months.”
The statement even exhorts customers to get involved with the EFF and to get in touch with their elected representatives, which is again a great initiative.
This is just the kind of intelligent engagement by product designers & engineers with the political implications of – and influences on – their work for which I’ve been looking throughout the ‘Architectures of Control’ project. Whether it meets the kind of criteria proposed by Jennie Winhall’s ‘Is Design Political?‘, I don’t know, but by standing up for users’ rights in such an open and frank way, and indeed structuring its business around that philosophy, Neuros seems a lot closer to real user-centred design than the vague waffle so often promulgated as such.
Image adapted from Neuros website
Via EFF DeepLinks, details of the Neuros MPEG4 Recorder 2, a product specifically designed to allow users to break through the arbitrary architectures of control imposed by other video devices and formats, and hence make the most of the content you own:
“[It] digitizes analog video output and records it to a CF card or a memory stick in MPEG4 format. The video can then be put on your computer, burned to DVD, moved to your video iPod, or slotted right into your Sony PSP. You can also output video to a display device from the R2.
In turn, the R2 helps you make legitimate use of your media and lawfully escape DRM restrictions…
* Free your recorded TV content: TiVo and other PVRs restrict moving recorded video to other devices. The DMCA limits removing these DRM locks, and, if the broadcast flag proposal passes, these restrictions will get even worse. Regardless, you can lawfully use the R2 to create a DRM-free copy, recording straight from your TV or TiVo.
* Free your DVDs: DVD ripping software is widely available, but using it to rip a film to your computer and video iPod may violate the DMCA. The R2 gives you a legal (albeit more cumbersome) alternative. Similarly, though region-free DVD players are available, you can use the R2 to help create a region-free copy of the movie itself.
* Free your VHS tapes: You’ve probably faced the unhappy choice between rebuying your VHS collection on DRM-restricted DVDs or lugging around a legacy player. The R2 helps you liberate your movies from their VHS chains.”
Of course, the R2 device’s legality – as a video analogue-to-digital converter – is threatened by proposed US legislation aimed at ‘plugging the analogue hole‘, hence its ‘endangered gizmo‘ status applied by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. This would seem to be a case where a device really has been designed with the users’ needs and convenience uppermost in mind, yet it may be ruled out of existence by a legislature which listens more to (certain) corporate lobbying than to its own citizens.
Via Boing Boing, ‘Researchers develop prototype system to thwart unwanted video and still photography’, news from Georgia Tech of a system that scans and finds the CCDs of digital imaging equipment and shines bright light (or a laser) into them in order to flood them with light and prevent usable images being recorded.
“Commercial versions of the technology could be used to stymie unwanted use of video or still cameras. A Georgia Tech camera-neutralizing prototype could soon be used to stop movie piracy and other forms of unwanted digital-camera photography…
The prototype device, produced by a team in the Interactive and Intelligent Computing division of the Georgia Tech College of Computing (COC), uses off-the-shelf equipment — camera-mounted sensors, lighting equipment, a projector and a computer — to scan for, find and neutralize digital cameras. The system works by looking for the reflectivity and shape of the image-producing sensors used in digital cameras…
…the small-area product could prevent espionage photography in government buildings, industrial settings or trade shows. It could also be used in business settings — for instance, to stop amateur photography where shopping-mall-Santa pictures are being taken…