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Reflections on Firmspace (2024-03-04)

Illustration from the 1877 edition of Jules Verne's *Hector Servadac: Voyages et aventures à travers le monde solaire,* by P.D. Philoppoteaux via oldbookillustrations.com. Illustration from the 1877 edition of Jules Verne's *Hector Servadac: Voyages et aventures à travers le monde solaire,* by P.D. Philoppoteaux via oldbookillustrations.com.
Illustration from the 1877 edition of Jules Verne's Hector Servadac: Voyages et aventures à travers le monde solaire, by P.D. Philoppoteaux via oldbookillustrations.com.

Some notes towards something that might feed an essay later, which started from an offline discussion from some time ago. Thinking first of all, of freespace, also known as firmspace. Both of these terms are proposed as alternative synonyms to the pejoratively connotated "meatspace." Properly analogous to "firmware" in that it isn't completely a hardware phenomenon, but is not dependent on being loaded and run on a computer, and it can be changed. For instance, we can (with care and effort) change a habit, or learn a new skill – or break a leg, on a really bad day. The alternative form, "freespace," seeks to echo the kinds of freedom Richard Stallman identified as critical to free software. Stallman is (in)famous for his uncompromising definition of what he describes as the four essential software freedoms:

  1. The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  2. The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  3. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help others (freedom 2).
  4. The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

Admittedly the freedom to study and change a program demands more than access to the code, it is also necessary to have a compiler for the code, and indeed one of the earliest and most important completed parts of the GNU project was and is the GNU compiler collection. It is also true that Stallman was focussing on freedom as a right to speak, act, or think without restrictions. The closest firmspace parallel to software freedom is probably "free speech" as argued about in the united states, and subsequently the growing controversy over the ongoing attempt to enclose culture with the false concept of "intellectual property." Explicitly drawing out the connection to speech, ideas, and culture is important, not least because it helps improve understanding of why the software case has become such a lightning rod for controversy.

To my knowledge, no one who thinks seriously about free/libre software and advocates for it thinks it is an example of a license for people to use software to do harm. The expectation is that by ensuring that source code can be audited for bugs and backdoors, it becomes that much harder for them to remain uncorrected and therefore a source of risk. It is notable also that free/libre software advocates, including Stallman himself, question the insertion of computers and software into places and uses that put the personal freedom, security, and privacy of people at risk. By acknowledging the dangers of digital surveillance and trying to impose software where it opens up options for severe harm, as in the case of the so-called "internet of things" and opposing those applications of software, such advocates also insist there are broader ethical considerations that can't be ignored. Clearly the software freedoms can no more stand alone than "freedom of speech." The parallels between the subset of speech that is software and "speech" more broadly reminds us of those who deliberately abuse the notion of "free speech" to license abuse of selected groups of people.

The great difficulty speech, culture, and so on present on a daily basis is they are not simple, abstracted things built up from minimal, simple rules with only a few narrow allowed possibilities. They are all social relations, which drags in those difficult ethical considerations, all willy nilly. Hence cyberspace, where "software" is supposed to rule is also a medium in which more than one scholar has argued that software is not just computer code, but a type of law code. Lawrence Lessig is the most famous literal lawyer working in related areas, but I am thinking more of someone like Alexander R. Galloway, who wrote the 2004 book Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization. A central aspect of his argument is that software programs and protocols guiding its development and implementation impose a structure that is difficult to change or work around. Mere decentralization does not prevent such structures from affecting people using the software, whether those structures are implicit or explicit. Richard Stallman has sought in part, to break down and replace the structures entrenched in the production and distribution of software via its origins in the military. We would all be unwise to lose sight of the fact that computers and their attendant software are rooted in a desire to control and replace people, people deemed a source of error and social disorder. This is true from Charles Babbage trying to automate production of perfect mathematical tables to Herman Hollerith seeking to create a machine to swiftly and accurately tabulate census data so that central governments could try to manage populations.

One of the most recent developments in "artificial intelligence" is programs taking massive databases of digitized visual artworks, and using those databases as a starting point for forward modelling of new "art." I think it is fair to use scare quotes here, because what people typically mean by art is some item, be it a visual, audio, or sculpture that expresses the thoughts and feelings of the person making it. These latest programs are impressive in how they both imitate art so well and so badly. They are fascinating in the weird juxtapositions they produce, and in the subtle but stubborn oddness of even the most impressive results. The fact these oddities persist reiterates how we humans continue to lack understanding of how exactly we feel or think, and how much we learn by trying to create software that mimics at least our thinking. I am fascinated by people who get annoyed with this sort of commentary. It seems like they want to believe that somehow the computer runs a program, thereby magically becoming able to think, not just imitate thinking, to create "real art" not just a simulacrum of it. As if the fact of software producing simulacra at best is some kind of derogation or denial of the achievement represented by getting a result of this sort at all. Yet I don't think it is either of those things, but instead a recognition of the understandable limitations of the software on one hand, and programmers' understanding of how thought and creativity work on the other. We have something verging on a proof by induction that neither randomness nor pattern matching can explain them. If nothing else, referring at least to firmspace rather than meatspace enables us to see both the achievements represented by these massive software projects, and the fact that there is nothing superior about computers and software compared to firmspace. There isn't a hierarchy between the two.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2024
Last Modified: Saturday, June 15, 2024 00:45:53