Sunday, January 14, 2007

Four Decades of Free

Peter Rinearson has pointed out two major milestones in computing: the mid-1980s when computing became free, and the mid-1990s when communications became free. (Not exactly free, of course, but so cheap that they were no longer limited to the elite.) He set me thinking about what happened since 1995, and what may be coming down the pike.

Arguably, the mid-2000’s were marked by data “becoming free.” Google’s web search is predicated on massive data stores, which would not be possible without very cheap data storage. The Bloggers, MySpaces and, especially, YouTubes of the web depend on being able to host data without charging users.
1980’s: Free Computing
1990’s: Free Communications
2000’s: Free Data

So far I’ve taken “free” to be “free as in beer, not free as in speech”. Both the Rinearson milestones also had non-commercially liberating consequences. The Open Source movement, for example, which was fuelled by cheap, fast global communications between people using powerful home computers.

The argument over digital copyright follows from Free Data: filling up the gigabytes of storage on an iPod is much easier when you don’t have to pay for all the songs. Similarly, the DIY culture of making your own video is enabled by YouTube offering free data hosting.

Prognosticating, I expect that the 2010s will be marked by Free Stuff: the ability to have any material thing you want produced instantly and at negligible cost. A teen will design their cell phone the way they create their MySpace page. (The phone might even by sponsored by MySpace...) Nanotechnology will at large emerge from the hype cycle. We’ll manipulate both inorganic and genetic material at will: mecha-nano and bio-nano.
2010’s: Free Stuff
The dark cloud looming behind Free Everything is its environmental cost. Materialism is part of human nature, and everybody on the planet naturally wants the surfeit of things the Developed World has pioneered. According to New Scientist, if the 5 billion-plus people in developing nations matched the consumption patterns of the 1.2 billion in the industrialized world, at least two more Earths would be needed to support everyone (Sidebar "Apocalypse Soon?" vol. 191, # 2571, 30 Sep 2006, p. 50).

The “dark under-belly of Moore’s Law” is that electrical consumption has increased rapidly, along with processing power. There is talk of skyrocketing energy bills in data centers. Free Stuff could make matters worse – but could also help if it’s designed from the start to be sustainable. Demanufacturing will be essential, as will the can-do attitude of groups like worldchanging.

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