Wired - May 20, 2019
A decade ago, Amazon abruptly deleted copies of George Orwell's 1984 from the Kindles of its American customers. The move instantly evoked the “memory holes” in the novel's totalitarian dystopia, and it inspired about equal measures of shock, outrage, and jokes. (If a fictional Amazon in a dystopian novel had performed the same mass deletion, critics would have said it was too on the nose.) But in hindsight, Amazon's action was also a striking harbinger of a shift that has only become more pronounced since then: our wholesale tilt toward becoming a tenant society.
In that particular case, Amazon said the books had been added to the Kindle Store by a vendor who didn't actually have the rights to them. “When we were notified of this by the rights holder, we removed the illegal copies from our systems and from customers' devices, and refunded customers,” said a spokesperson at the time. Amazon quickly apologized and said that in the future it would leave books on people's devices even if there was an error in how they got there. But one thing the company couldn't take back was the demonstration of its sheer power. Even the biggest traditional retailer could hardly dream of reaching into people's houses and taking back what it had sold them.
Today, we may think we own things because we paid for them and brought them home, but as long as they run software or have digital connectivity, the sellers continue to have control over the product. We are renters of our own objects, there by the grace of the true owner.
Of course, “smart,” connected machines do come with plenty of upsides. A modern washing machine doesn't just agitate the clothes around for a fixed amount of time; it senses water levels and dampness and can adjust how long it spins so your clothes come out at just the right level of dryness. Cars are more fuel-efficient because their computers optimize many aspects of their operation, from fuel injection to braking. All of this is good for the environment and your wallet.
But that is not all that's happening. Connectivity and embedded intelligence are being used by large corporations to increase their profits and to exercise as much control as they can get away with. Perhaps the most egregious example involves John Deere tractors—those iconic, bright green giants that rumble across big fields, noisily harvesting wheat, corn, and soy. For generations, farmers have repaired their tractors right on the farmstead. But in its push toward building ever more automated, sensor-packed agricultural equipment, John Deere has put draconian software locks on its tractors, forcing customers to visit the company's own repair shops. Farmers complain they are charged exorbitant sums for even simple repairs. And they lose crucial time heading out to the shop during the harvest season. Desperate farmers have taken to hanging out in shady internet forums, looking for software that will get around John Deere's locks, trying to assert their right to repair the tractors they ostensibly own. ...
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