What can a bustling electronic components bazaar in Shenzhen, China, tell us about building a better technology future? To researcher and hacker Andrew “bunnie” Huang, it symbolizes the boundless motivation, excitement, and innovation that can be unlocked if people have the rights to repair, tinker, and create.
Huang believes that to truly unleash innovation that betters everyone, we must replace our current patent and copyright culture with one that truly values making products better, cheaper, and more reliably by encouraging competition around production, quality, and cost optimization. He wants to remind people of the fun, inspiring era when makers didn’t have to live in fear of patent trolls, and to encourage them to demand a return of the “permissionless ecosystem” that nurtured so many great ideas.
Huang speaks with EFF’s Cindy Cohn and Jason Kelley about how we can have it all – from better phones to cooler drones, from handy medical devices to fun Star Wars fan gadgets – if we’re willing to share ideas and trade short-term profit for long-term advancement.
This episode is also available on the Internet Archive.
In this episode you’ll learn about:
- How “rent-seeking behavior” stifles innovation.
- Why questioning authority and “poking the tigers” of patent law is necessary to move things forward.
- What China can teach the United States about competitive production that advances creative invention.
- How uniting hardware and software hackers, fan fiction creators, farmers who want to repair their tractors, and other stakeholders into a single, focused right-to-repair movement could change the future of technology.
Andrew “bunnie” Huang is an American security researcher and hardware hacker with a long history in reverse engineering. He’s the author of the widely respected 2003 book, “Hacking the Xbox: An Introduction to Reverse Engineering,” and since then he served as a research affiliate for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab and as a technical advisor for several hardware startups. EFF awarded him a Pioneer Award in 2012 for his work in hardware hacking, open source, and activism. He’s a native of Kalamazoo, MI, he holds a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from MIT, and he lives in Singapore.
Music for How to Fix the Internet was created for us by Nat Keefe of Beatmower with Reed Mathis. This podcast is licensed Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International, and includes the following music licensed Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported by their creators:
- CommonGrond by airtone (c) copyright 2019 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) Ft: simonlittlefield
- Probably Shouldn’t by J.Lang (c) copyright 2012 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license. Ft: Mr_Yesterday
Additional beds and alternate theme remixes by Gaëtan Harris.
SFX a loud exciting vibrant market in China selling electronics
Andrew “bunnie” Huang:
It’s like if you went to a wet market, like a bazaar kind of thing. But instead of pork and beads and art or whatever, it’s just selling every variety of the electronic animal. They just carved it up into little pieces and you could buy the different cuts and put them together and make your own electronic roast at home at the end of the day, right?
And I remember standing on the bridge and just being like, God, what I would give to have every top US lawmaker just stand here for 30 seconds and take in the magnitude of economic activity and excitement and the energy of the scene. It’s like nothing else that I’ve ever experienced. It’s so much energy. There’s so much motivation, so much excitement, so much potential. Everywhere I looked, every corner had a different surprise. Every corner had someone doing something new and interesting, finding a different way to do a different thing. Every single time I went back to the market, I was just gobsmacked by the things I would see there.
Theme music starts
That’s Andrew Bunnie Huang. He’s talking about the former electronics market in ShenZhen China – a place where, to be frank, the American approach to patents and copyrights doesn’t really apply. Instead, it’s a place where people copy, tweak, improve and Modify actual stuff like phones and other electronics and then sell it openly, without serious fear of punishment. Is that a good thing? Well … maybe.
I’m Cindy Cohn, the Executive Director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
And I’m Jason Kelley, EFF’s Associate Director of Digital Strategy. This is our podcast series: How to Fix the Internet.
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The idea behind this show is that we’re trying to fix the internet. We’re trying to make our digital lives better. You know, EFF spends a lot of time talking about all the ways that things can go wrong and jumping into the fight when things do go wrong, but what we’d like to do with this podcast, for all of us, is to give us a vision of what the world looks like if we get it right. That of course includes everything from the way our networks work to actually the way our physical devices work and how they’re built and innovated on.
Our guest this episode is Andrew Bunnie Huang. He’s a security researcher and hardware hacker with a long history in reverse engineering. Nearly two decades ago, he wrote a widely respected book, Hacking the Xbox, and since then he served as a research affiliate for the MIT Media Lab and a technical advisor for several hardware startups.
Bunnie, thank you so much for joining us. Let’s start off with my phone. I have a decent phone. It’s not the brand new model, but it’s pretty new. It can do a ton of stuff, but what can’t it do? What’s wrong with the phone that I have that you would like to fix or change?
Well, if you start with an iPhone, it’s pretty locked down. There’s a lot of things you can’t do with it. You have to have Apple’s permission to essentially put software on it.
I actually myself routinely avoid Apple phones because I find them really frustrating to use, but I had a little bit of experience trying to, for example, do some stuff with like GPS and some sensors on it. I can’t get raw sensor data.
I was getting some sanitized versions of the GPS logs, I could tell, that didn’t make sense for what I was putting into it, and it was really frustrating to me. That’s an example of something that you can’t do with it that I’d like to do with it.
There’s a whole bunch of other things that are difficult to do with it. It’s hard to fix them, it’s hard to repair them. It’s hard to reuse them in any particular meaningful way. It’s hard to incorporate them into another product. There’s a whole bunch of things that are problematic with the phone as it is today.
Our dear friend Peter Eckersley, who passed away recently, called Apple the crystal prison. It’s really beautiful. It’s really shiny, but there are hard limits on what you can do if you are the kind of person who wants to innovate and take things in a direction that Apple doesn’t want you to go.
That’s a great metaphor, crystal prison.
What’s holding back this kind of innovation? What’s in your way?
Well, there’s a whole bunch of things that prevent us from doing the things we want to do with it. I guess first I want to frame it by thinking about some of the things that could be different if we could do the things I want to do with it.
Oh, excellent. Let’s look at this shiny world that Bunnie could build us.
Well, not just me, anybody. That’s the exciting part about it.
I think actually a really good real world example of what could happen if phones became more open actually does exist. If you look at the company DJI, the one that makes the drones out of China, the early drones they made, if you took them apart, were basically smartphones with four brushless motors on them. In Shenzhen at the particular time when they’re starting up, the whole kind of Shanzhai movement where phones were being copied and the plans were out there and the circuit boards were being circulated, were very prevalent and very available.
You could basically rip, mix, and burn with the pallet of cell phone ingredients. So when these people were presented with a challenge of we need something that’s very lightweight, battery powered, powerful, has a good camera, has a full feature software stack on the inside, instead of having to go and build everything from the bottom up and deal with all sorts of stuff, they were basically able to rip, mix, burn, take out portions of the cellphone guts, put them into a lightweight frame, put motors on it, and they had a revolutionary new drone that took the world by storm.
Now, the inverse story of that is, some hardware startups are doing things like medical diagnostics and it would be really helpful for them to, in low volume, be able to create a diagnostic device. For example, they can stick something in your mouth that has a camera on it to look for disease and these sorts of things.
These beg for basically a smartphone with a nice camera on them, but all these startups, particularly when they come from the west, are stymied by the inability to go ahead and take these components and incorporate them into their devices. They’re actually having to backtrack it. They live in the country that ostensibly has the rights to produce the world’s best iPhone, but they go to China to go and figure out how to access that technology to put it back into the products they’re developing in America. It’s this weird, bizarre, why are we running across the entire globe to go ahead and do this? What are the factors that brought us to the point where this becomes the accepted normal thing to do? That is the counterpoint to the example you see that happened with DJI, for example.
Well, I see that you’re coming at this from a really unique perspective, as sort of a builder. I can see how as you’re creating a product or a piece of hardware, having access to all these different facilities, potential tools is really helpful. But I think a lot of us come at this from the perspective of, frankly, a user. I don’t want to say consumer, but a user. As an example, you mentioned IOT devices. When I’m trying to buy something that will turn on my lights or something like that with my smartphone, what I want is something that connects to as many protocols as possible so that I know that in the future I’m not limited, but companies don’t tend to do that. It seems like what they want is to put you in that crystal prison. What’s the benefit to them and what’s their thinking?
To me this is classic rent seeking behavior. Rent seeking behavior is one of those terms that I actually didn’t understand fully until I read the Wikipedia page on it. I’ll just say my version, how I understand it out loud to make sure we’re all on the same page.
The example I read was that you have a river and boats are going through it and doing commerce, and then someone gets the bright idea that they can put a chain across the river and then charge people for removing the chain. The person who has put the chain across the river is collecting rent from the river, but not adding any particular value to the river. The whole economic value they bring is actually removing obstruction that they introduced in the first place.
By definition, that type of behavior is the most profit you can generate for the least amount of effort. In an economic system that rewards maximized profits for minimum effort, rent seeking behavior is really, really typical and very common. The whole idea of locking people into devices, you can essentially make much more money, much more value, extract much more rent out of a resource by erecting barriers rather than simply allowing commerce to travel down the river.
Yeah, I think that’s all true. Look, there’s a benefit to creating a zone of scarcity. That’s why it’s in the American Constitution that in order to promote sciences and useful arts, we’re going to have a patent system. We understand that some scarcity, some limiting, can help support innovation. Then the question is, what’s the right timeframe, or scope to make that all work?
I think that at least from our perspective, we would never say that there ought to be no ability to control something, but I think that the sense that I’m hearing from you is that we’re actually overprotected and now innovation is suffering as a result of overprotection, but the reason that we put it into the Constitution is the idea that we recognize that some protection will help.
If you’re going to take a risk, you should be able to have a reward. Whatever, if you’re the person who cleaned up the river so that people who go through it, maybe should have a period of time where you can collect rent and recover that investment. That totally makes sense. It gives you incentive to go ahead and make ways more passable for other people, at the end of the day.
The problem is that it just turns out that one of the most high reward activities you can do is to take that rent, invest in extending your lease longer, effectively than was originally intended. There’s a certain amount of time it takes to go ahead and collect the investment and make it profitable and give you incentive, but then there’s this huge extra time that’s been added over and over again by revising the laws and pushing that out longer.
If you look at the original time that was allotted in the Constitution, it’s much shorter than the current limits today. I would be a fan actually of this original interpretation of what the extent should be, the problem is there’s different categories of investment. There’s some things that generally do take 10, 20 years to really come to fruition, so you may want to seek protection and really do a long slot to it, but there is a ton of stuff, particularly in technology, 20 years is an eternity.
We’ve been talking a little bit about patents; we’ve talked about copyrights; There’s also section 1201, the anti-circumvention provisions and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and contractual terms. There’s an array of laws that turn out to be rent seeker protection acts… Am I right? Am I listing all of these? Obviously we represent you in a little case called Green vs. DOJ that’s on the anti-circumvention provisions. But can you talk a little bit about how these laws are creating obstacles to cool new phones and other things you might want to build?
Yeah, no, that was actually, when you’re first talking about why we can’t load stuff onto the iPhones, it’s not specifically in the copyright sense but section 1201 really, that really puts a chill on a ton of innovation. In fact it is incredibly chilling actually, because as an entrepreneur, as a person who’s just into technology or an engineer or a geek hanging around, the threat that you could be exposed to legal liability is often enough to scare these people away.
And someone goes ahead and starts doing maybe what they naturally do, figuring out how to go ahead and jailbreak an iPhone and put some application and whatever it is. Then one of their friends tells them, “By the way, do you realize there’s this law, you can read it just as well as I do, and it’s these penalties and these fines and you go to jail and there’s all sorts of stuff
And so when people really start thinking about it, they’re like, man, I could innovate, or I could just go home and not get involved in this whole mess and walk away from it. I remember when we were working on an open hardware startup called Chumby. We were trying to build this little device before the iPhone existed that could stream content and that sort of thing. YouTube was around, it was a thing, but the content was not coded in the right format for us. It was too heavy for our little device. We’re like, oh, but we could transcode it, we can buy servers, we can do certain stuff. Then someone’s like, “But the DMCA.” Then we were just like, “Oh, but you’re right, and it would cause so much trouble and we don’t have the money to fight it, and we’re just a little startup.” Oh, I guess we won’t have videos on our product. That’s like classic chilling effect.
Maybe today people will point out and say, “Well, people transcode stuff all the time and it’s fine, whatever.” But very large companies with lawyers have taken the risk and done this sort of stuff. All these little innovators essentially, were scared away out of the pool.
I think that’s right and these are the people that EFF helps, but of course we can’t help everybody. But this idea that innovation can only come from a big company that can afford to negotiate and pay a lot of terms and all of that, we leave a lot of stuff on the cutting room floor
Absolutely. I think the cycle does have a tendency to repeat in every ecosystem, because what happens is that when you go to a greenfield, everyone’s a small player and everyone has a fair shake, but then the first one to rise up and get big realizes they came from nothing, so could their competition. So we should use this legal system to go ahead and prevent competition, essentially. We don’t want, you know, The best use of our money is not actually to plow more money into engineering and R&D, but actually to go ahead and create a barrier for the competition to go ahead.
For example, when Japan was coming up, they copied a lot of American technology to create the first transistor radios and to create the first cars and whatever it is, and they were maligned for being copycats, whatever it is. Now they love IP protection. They love laws because it keeps everyone else down the chain and keeps them from competing up the thing, it takes on different forms of wherever it is.
And the challenge is how do you strike that balance between allowing new greenfield innovation, but still obviously protecting and keeping big companies around because they employ people and they’re an economic engine and they have a place too. I obviously am more on the greenfield side of things. I’m not saying you should obviously just break up all the big companies or whatever it is and smash all the walls or whatever it is. I’m not that crazy, but I would definitely like to see a lot more barriers reduced, particularly for small innovators, people getting started. The biggest question I get from a lot of people all the time is, “How do I even get started?” When they look at the litany of potential legal problems and barriers facing them of getting a product into the US market, it’s really daunting and really discouraging.
You’ve mentioned China a bit, and I know you’ve talked in a variety of places about China being, at this moment, a place where innovation can happen. I wonder if you can just give us a sense of what that looks like and maybe how that fits into what you would like to see in a different global system overall.
In the Chinese ecosystem, the thing that struck me about it the most was that before I went to China, I was taught in the traditional American legal sense that people will not take risk to innovate unless they’re promised a monopoly reward. That was just gospel, motherhood and apple pie to me. Why would I do anything if I don’t have patents? I got out of college thinking we should have lots of patents and all this sorts of stuff. This is a good thing.
Then I landed in China and I was told it’d be a fishing village and it’d be destitute and all sorts of stuff. All these people were telling me. I landed and I was like, holy cow, this is a modern city with the bustling ecosystem of people. I’m looking around and everyone’s building a smartphone at a time when smartphones were really hard to build. It was just all over the place. I’m like, why are people bothering to take the risk to even do anything when it could all be stolen? It really flew in the face of that profound belief that I had put into me about the legal system when I was much younger.
That really got me. It bothered me, so I started just yanking on that chain and digging deeper and deeper. What is the mechanism that allows people to recover their investment in a system where you don’t have strong patents, you don’t have strong copyright protection? It boils down to fundamentally a cultural values thing, I think. China is a communist country, and in the communist set of values, workers are glorified. Blue collar is not a stigma
When I first went to China, parents would literally say, “I hope my child gets a job at a factory. It’ll be a better life for them.” “I hope people produce things and build things and own factories.” As a result, because of this sort of very pro-factory stance, lots of people owned factories. There’s lots of means of production, and the way that you made money, the way you produced wealth was through production. It wasn’t through rent seeking or barriers to IP, it was gaining customers and what is the best way to gain customers, but to go ahead and just interop and share as much as you can?
Basically, if you went ahead and you came up with a little module and you said, “Here’s the module, anyone can produce it. Here’s the specs of how to integrate it, but my factory will make it the cheapest of everyone else. My know-how, my IP so to speak, isn’t so much about the design, but actually the production, how to make it better, how to make it cheaper, how to make it more reliable, more desirable for you as an end product. I’m just going to put it out there and I want everyone to buy and put it into their stuff.” That became the de rigueur in China. That’s what everyone essentially ended up doing. It became a very competitive system around production, optimization of costs, quality, these different factors. That became the value, not so much around the design.
When you look at it that perspective, the ecosystem makes a lot of sense and it only works in a system where people really want to have factories, want to be producing stuff, want to be providing that service in the first place versus an ecosystem where the ideal job is you have a window office, you kick back and you watch some green lines on the screen ticking up or something like this and shareholder profits, that sort of thing. You’re not getting your hands dirty on the factory line. Those are two very different outcomes you see at the end of the day.
Could we move that ethos you’re describing into the US in some way?
That boils down to alternating with the question is what does a jury of peers, where would they come down in a case, for example? If you say, I went ahead and I built a factory in the United States, and it’s incredibly successful and it employs a lot of people, but I violated a couple patents along the way. Now in front of a jury of peers, and they look at me and they say, “Okay, well why’d you do this?” “Well, we had to create a factory making jobs, and this other person here, they didn’t do anything. They actually just bought their patents from a troll or whatever it is, and they’re coming after us. If you go and shut us down, then we won’t have these factories and jobs.”
If those people say, “Ah, our values are really on your side, we’re going to go ahead and say the patent system is wrong and decide in your favor,” then I think you would see more of that culture coming around. But unfortunately, generally these cases don’t go that way. They don’t cut that way for whatever reason.
Whereas oftentimes in China, when you have disputes over stuff like this, the government has a fairly pragmatic look in it.
I see this. We have this culture in America. It’s the right to repair culture. When I was a kid, we called them the gear heads, the people who would pull their cars in and open them up and change out the systems to a system that they liked. It’s funny because this framing is very interesting because it’s almost class-based framing, the blue collar, roll up your sleeves, fix your own tractor. We have a huge problem now with John Deere and not wanting people to repair their tractors. The right to repair movement is really gaining steam because there’s something profoundly feeling very un-American about the idea that you can’t fix your own things, and that there’s something I think really powerful there that is building.
I see that as the ethos that you’re talking about quite a bit, that the innovation is not in the idea space for the person who has one good idea and then just lives off of it and their family lives off of it for generations. To me it’s an old school traditional way of thinking about things that ought to be a very American way of thinking about it, because people on frontiers had to fix their own stuff.
I want to jump in here… for a little mid-show break to say thank you to our sponsor.
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What does it look like Bunnie? Let’s say we get rid of all the barriers that are getting in your way and all the other tinkerers out there, all the other people who want to build the cool new things. What do we get? What does our world look like?
I mean, I think in an ideal world if we could rewind a whole bunch of bad decisions that were made, we would end up in a situation where the stuff that’s in our phones today is exactly equivalent to what we’re getting right now and in Arduino or Raspberry Pi. The stuff that we have as access at maker level is identical essentially to pro level. The reason why I think that’s not an unrealistic ask is if you look at the last N generations of phones, there hasn’t really been a lot of change in fundamentally the core specs or anything like this. And so that to me indicates that the playing field could level. We’ve arrived at the point and there’s just artificial barriers preventing us from getting there.
People talked a lot about these of digital fabrication revolutions and building stuff at home. A lot of it didn’t materialize. Part of it, the physics is hard for it, but a lot of it didn’t materialize also because a lot of the sub modules and sub-components that you would want to have available aren’t there. You can’t just snap in the electronics knowledge you want inside of the case they just 3D printed. The best you could do is print a case for an existing phone as opposed to take the guts and remodel them on the inside.
And the corresponding thing that would come with an ecosystem that provided these modules is you would actually also have lots of people who knew how to customize them. Anyone could build it, anyone could service them. We would see much more custom shapes and sizes, much more interesting things that you wouldn’t even expect to come out.
There’s a whole bunch of examples of these little sorts of gee whiz hardware startups that came and went, the GoPro and the Fitbit and all these sorts of things, but I think they would’ve been very different, much more interesting, much more integrated, much more exciting if we had more modules to play with at the end of the day. If you actually walk into a biology lab, you’ll notice a lot of the equipment has really old school displays on it. They’re not connected to the internet, but they’re ungodly expensive, right? Those things would all be modern and cool looking, and research would be happening at a faster pace with lower costs. In a way that whole economic base would be lifted up and you would see a lot more interesting things.
You would see a lot of quirky things come out too. People would be like, I’m just really into karaoke or something like this, and so I’m going to build a karaoke microphone into my umbrella, so I always have it with me when I’m traveling or something like this. This is actually a product I saw in China. But it’s one of those things that you can do if you’re just really into technology and all the production base is there. Everyone has a little itch to scratch, can go ahead and scratch the itch without any sort of barrier to block it.
I would love to have my phone be able to talk to my car better. Car interfaces are horrible.
I love devices. I want the devices to work for me and I want to unleash all the people who have the technical knowledge to build versions of these things that fit what I want, not a cookie cutter set of things.
The other piece that I think is really important is we’re ending up with the worst of both worlds here. We have IOT stuff that’s tremendously insecure. We have a lot of this stuff that’s horribly insecure, and people could actually build products that fill some of the holes in our current ecosystem. Right now, the reason for some of this regulation is often in the name of security, but it’s not actually making us more secure. Instead we end up with things that don’t work very well, things that don’t talk to each other very well, and then we also don’t get the benefit of stuff being more secure.
I think there’s also just an interesting cultural aspect that could rise out of it, particularly if you also were in our magical world reform copyright. You could just unleash the fans essentially on all the media and stuff and you would have just weirdo bespoke little outfits and gadgets that mimicked what was in the movie and people would have these awesome things that the rip, mix, and burn off of the Star Wars franchise and making these things that look Star Wars-like and making a living off of selling gadgets that were inspired by science fiction. But you can’t do that right now. If you wanted to go ahead and take something you saw in Star Wars and build something like that, that perform what you saw, or Guardians of the Galaxy or Star Trek or whatever this thing is, someone will definitely come after you and you’ll have some very expensive lawyers coming after you, so you’re scared from doing that sort of thing.
But I think fundamentally actually, that type of permission to innovate is what gets everyday people more excited, I think, more interested in technology. When we talk about securing IOT, “ah, that’s just for nerds,” but my favorite fan fic or whatever it is can now be built and I can buy it and I can play with it. I can modify it. I can mix it with this other franchise and do these types of things. People really get into that sort of stuff and that pulls more people into the technology conversation and that just strengthens your overall technology base as opposed to just being spoon fed whatever the product marketing guy came up with for Black Friday.
We had Adam Savage on last season and he said some of the exact same things that you’re saying, literally with the same franchises about the movement to tinker and the right to tinker, Here’s what he said about that.
Adam Savage clip:
“One of the things that I have also encountered is, I once played poker with the head council for Lucasfilm, and he was telling me, this is 20 years ago, but he was like, “We know everybody who’s making stuff out there. We know all the stormtrooper costume makers. We know who’s making what.” He said, “We’re not interested in stopping someone from making them. We just don’t want someone to turn it into a multimillion dollar business. Which fair enough actually, but they wouldn’t ever say that publicly and therein lies the problem.”
Do you see a movement towards this? Because I think we do on our end, a movement towards this idea that we should be able to tinker in these ways. I think that’s what we’re fighting for, but do you yourself see that as you do the work that you do?
I hope to God there is a movement for that. Otherwise I’m wasting my time.
The biggest challenge I see for that really movement catching on is actually reminding people that there was a time when this was legal and that actually was okay. The problem I have now when I talk to some people is they just assume this is how it always was. Somehow in 1770, the Constitutional framers are like, “this is the world we envision and this is exactly how it was supposed to come out, and that is great.”
The US was a copyright piracy nation. You’re exactly right.
No, we took all the great technology from Europe and steel furnaces and whatever it is, and improved them and built railroads and all that sort of stuff. A lot of that stuff came from over on the other side of the pond, just like is happening, people taking stuff to the other side of the pond from the United States. It’s a cycle that repeats itself, but I was born early enough that I remember a time before the DMCA. At that time innovation was permissionless. When you took off the cover of something, you expected to see a schematic on the inside. That was just a given. You had to fix stuff yourself, and you were just putting stuff together.
There were magazines and journals that went around and people were excited to share how to put things together, and the source code was just printed on pages of paper with, and there was no copyright particularly, I mean obviously there’s the native copyright was bestowed in print, but the whole thing about GPL and lines of code, no one had to talk about it. No one even really worried about that at the time. People just typed it in and ran the code and then they shipped a product based on it. It was a great time to be in.
And that kind of permissionless ecosystem was a lot of fun. It was really inspiring and really interesting to be able to tinker with my hardware in that way. I really miss it. I really feel like that’s one of the things that is going away from the world today. People today, not even just kids, but people who are even just 20 years old or just getting off college, they never saw that world. They don’t understand a world that exists in that way, and that lack of knowledge of how big the horizon can be, the fact they were always in that well, makes them not dream big. That is the biggest risk actually to the movement, is that these people who are coming out don’t dream big enough, don’t see a world that could be when they have all sort of stuff.
As I get older and older, people think of me more as that weird curmudgeon who’s standing on the lawn and shaking my fist at kids these days and that sort of stuff. My challenge is to try and find ways to connect with people and inspire them and get those cultural values to return to where it was before. I think that’s fundamentally how that movement maintains steam and keeps going, right?
I just think that’s so beautiful. I think that the thing that we get, if we get this right, is we get people’s imaginations bigger. We get people to dream bigger and think of bigger things they could do because they’re going to be able to do it. I also hear, what I really love is, there is actually a pretty big movement, but we’ve kind of separated into pillars. Hardware hacking feels separate from software hacking, which feels separate from fan fiction, which feels separate from the kinds of crazy innovation stuff that Adam Savage does where he brings wookies to life and has them do things. But they’re all the same story.
If we count all the different pillars up, I think we have a pretty good-size movement. Maybe our work at EFF, but also our work together as people who think about this, is to try to tear down all of those phony walls because I think if you add all of us together, the farmers that want to fix their tractors, we actually are a pretty big group of people, but we’ve been segmented in a way that I think isn’t serving us.
Yeah, yeah. No, I agree. That might be part of a deliberate strategy. I don’t know. Maybe not deliberate, that’s a little too conspiracy. It’s a consequence of the adversaries trying to split our groups and getting us hyper-focused on these demons, these very high-risk legal cases. As individuals, what happens is that you get scared of the thing that growls, and you don’t look at the world around you and all your friends are with you. When the tiger growls, you’re looking at the tiger that’s growling. By just creating these growling tigers around the innovators, they’re getting them to look and be distracted in different ways and not band together and not actually see the bigger picture for these things.
Obviously, I’m not a lawyer, this is not legal advice, but I think that a lot of this is just tigers growling. People should not be so afraid to go ahead and poke the tigers, at the end of the day. I’ve been poking tigers my entire life, and I still have all my fingers and toes. I might lose them one of these days, but I think my life is better for feeling okay to do that. That lack of imbuing of that value to go ahead and question authority and to look for allies and to grab all the means at your disposal to go ahead and innovate is missing somewhere from that ecosystem.
I don’t know where we put it back in. I know a lot of people are trying to figure out how to put this back into the ecosystem, but definitely I feel like every university should at least have some mandatory course on both ethics and law essentially to.. not formal law, not making lawyers, but practically speaking, this is how it’s going to go down when you get your first demand for payment on a patent. You just basically say, “No, I’m not going to pay it. You guys are trolls and it’s going to be fine.”
It’s a very short course.
Well, and EFF is around as well, and we’re happy with our coders rights project and other things. Of course Bunnie is a frequent flyer EFF client, but to help guide people through it. But we’re just one little organization compared to the size of it. I would love to see more classes on fearless innovation in places. Well Bunnie, we really, really appreciate this conversation. It’s been great fun.
And very inspiring.
Thanks. Yeah, I’m glad I was able to make it onto this show. I thought we’re just getting started. Thank you very much for having me, it was great fun talking and connecting.
Well, that was a really great conversation with a lot to unpack. And I want to ask you, Cindy, of everything that Bunnie talked about, what’s the one thing that sticks with you that you’re going to tell people later today? You go out for dinner and you think, “You know, I interviewed Bunnie Huang today, and here’s something that he said that really struck me.”What would that thing be?
I think his vision of the market in Shenzhen is really compelling. And what I appreciate about it is, he’s seeing what to somebody’s eyes might look like, just a wall of piracy. And he’s seeing the innovation behind it. He’s seeing what happens if you free people up to rip, mix, and burn their tools. They’re going to build a whole bunch of cool things and the cornucopia of good ideas – some good, some not so good – but different ideas that you get when you open that up. It’s visually something he saw by going to that market, and the excitement of what we could do if we got all these barriers out of the way and the kinds of innovation we could open up. I think that vision is the big takeaway.
I would cheat a bit and add a second one, and the second one is this idea that all of the various fights about freeing up innovation are actually connected. So whether you’re writing fan fiction or you want to fix your tractor, or you want to build hardware from scratch. And if you add all of us up together who are trying to innovate in that space, there’s a lot of us, and that we could be a stronger political and social force.
That’s exactly what stuck with me. You have the kind of car culture of the ‘50s or something like that at some level that you can I think compare to the maker movement. We’ve talked about that before, but it never really occurred to me that when you combine all these movements, it is probably more people at this point that care about this than ever cared about it 75 years ago when it wasn’t a thing, but also it was a smaller thing in some ways because it just, these laws didn’t touch on every single aspect of the work that we do.
I think that’s right, and it’s core to the adversarial interoperability work that we’ve been doing, or competitive compatibility, but it also reminds me of the conversation we had with Anil Dash last season where he was talking about the K-pop kids building Heardle, a version of Heardle or other kinds of things. Again, it’s not just the technical side. It’s the cultural side as well where we really will see an explosion of innovation if we get some of these barriers out of the way.
Theme music in
Well that’s it for this episode of How to Fix the Internet.
Thank you so much for listening. If you want to get in touch about the show, you can write to us at [email protected] or check out the EFF website to become a member or donate.
This podcast is licensed Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International, and includes music licensed Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported by their creators. You can find their names and links to their music in our episode notes, or on our website at eff.org/podcast.
Our theme music is by Nat Keefe of BeatMower with Reed Mathis
How to Fix the Internet is supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s program in public understanding of science and technology.
We’ll see you again in two weeks.
I’m Jason Kelley
And I’m Cindy Cohn.
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