long . lines and ripples

The Right to Transparency

If “software is eating the world” and everything has a computer inside it, then a new kind of Ludditism is possible. You can be all for technological progress in most respects, but specifically reject the imperative to make any given product “better” by integrating digital hardware into it. Another version of this appeared on the Marginal Revolution blog the other day. This time it was about old farm tractors:

Tractors manufactured in the late 1970s and 1980s are some of the hottest items in farm auctions across the Midwest these days — and it’s not because they’re antiques.

Cost-conscious farmers are looking for bargains, and tractors from that era are well-built and totally functional, and aren’t as complicated or expensive to repair as more recent models that run on sophisticated software.

The trend relates to the “Right to Repair” movement, which advocates for products which are not technically or legally disabled from being serviced by their customers after purchase.

But there is another discomfort layered in here. Elsewhere: TVs are getting cheaper at the same time they are getting “smarter,” because the companies that want the data generated by smart TVs are willing to subsidize them for consumers. As cars become more hackable and tied to hardware and software, the number of people maintaining, finding, or even building a “dumb” car has grown.1

A digital device is usually less repairable because even a very handy person will not be able to fabricate their own hardware, or write their own software. But the resistance to a computer-in-everything world is also about the relationship of the owner to the product. For almost all us, the hardware in, say, our toothbrush is a black box. And so any product that contains hardware or software becomes more of a black box.

This kind of Ludditism does not object to complexity or technology, only digital opacity that it cannot reach into and control.

  1. A Google search autocomplete of “car without computer…” yields the first result “car without computer for sale.”[]