The Way Things Work

Magic, they call it. And indeed we may add an appendix to that old saw: any sufficiently advanced, or sufficiently obscure, technology is indistinguishable from magic.

You must know the story of the Mechanical Turk. How princes and tradesmen were amazed by this ingenious device’s ability to play chess intelligently. In an age of steam and brass hinges! Yet at the time thousands were fooled. Had they known a bit more about machines, they might have realized it was not just improbable, but impossible.

The Mechanical Turks of our day aren’t designed for entertainment, but to be bought and used, yet a similar contrivance goes into preventing the secrets of their operation from being questioned. In fact, we are already at a time where it is more or less impossible for one person to understand or question them. Apple may be ahead of the curve on this trend, but while it appears they’ve been leading the industry by the nose, they in turn are being led by the inexorable forward motion of technology. Open hardware advocates fight the good fight, and they fight it valiantly, but defeat is inevitable.

And what would victory be, exactly? A laptop you can repair in the comfort of your home? Sounds good, to be sure — but how deep does that capability really go? If your hard drive breaks or your RAM is corrupted, will you pull out a magnifying glass and correct the faulty sectors with your electron drill? Adjust the drive head in your billion-dollar repair toolshop out back? No, you’ll order a new drive, new RAM, a new screen.

RAM used to be pieces too, you know. In an excellent (so far) book about the origins of the computer, Turing’s Cathedral, the mechanical nature of early computing machines is presented for your humble contemplation. ENIAC, for instance, had 17,468 vacuum tubes, 1500 relays, and 500,000 hand-soldered joints. Operation was complicated, but mechanical: if you weren’t careful, you might get your finger caught in the RAM. If something broke, you needed a wrench. Now a stored bit takes up so little space that if it gets much smaller it will cease to be governed by Newtonian physics.

This is the real problem. Technology actually is approaching the magic point. You want to know how your laptop works. You can’t know. Even the people who made it don’t know. Apple has to call up LG or Sharp when it wants a high-density display. LG has to call Samsung when they want MLC flash storage. Samsung has to call NVIDIA when they want graphics cores. NVIDIA has to call ARM to make SoC architecture. Vertical integration is a thing of the past because no company can do it all. It took Intel five years and billions of dollars to develop just the processor your laptop runs today. The whole system is the culmination of a century of work by geniuses and specialists. Control over your hardware is the flimsiest of illusions. You only understand the snow frosting the top of the iceberg, and even then all you can do to fix it is pay for more.

But that’s a bit of an academic (and existential) appraisal of the subject. Realistically speaking, there are better and poorer ways of creating a laptop, ways that enable such a device to last for five years instead of two, or to enable upgrades that cost a few hundred rather than a thousand dollars. The new Macs are, by some standards, the worst yet made.

Even this is on its way out, though. Integration and portability are the word now, not modularity, at least for the vast majority of users. Mobiles and tablets use SoC architecture that unifies logic, graphics, sound, and other functions all under the same chip for reasons of compatibility and power savings. I’ve assembled my own PCs for years, and I expect I’ll probably assemble one or two more, but even now it’s anachronistic, at least at the consumer level. Modular and open hardware (such as it is) will continue to exist, but as before they will only funnel into more usable, closed systems.

We’ve made this surrender many times. We surrendered control of our government to representatives because it’s better to have a few (ostensibly) informed individuals whose (nominal) duty it is to govern on our behalf. We surrendered control over our cars decades ago with electronically controlled fuel injection and timings, with parts we couldn’t fix or even reach, because it improves mileage and reliability. We surrendered control over the way we interact when we decided we’d use Facebook and text messages, because it’s convenient and fun. Each time we make a little bargain: we control less and we get more. Is anyone surprised it’s happening again?

We should certainly be able to do what we want after the fact. We can impeach our representatives, tweak our timings, and use Facebook to organize anti-Facebook rallies. And we can and should run our own programs, our own operating systems, do what we will with the platform we’ve bought.

The biggest threat is not to hardware, which has in truth been beyond the comprehension of users for decades, but to what we are allowed to do with it. Apple can solder their RAM and seal it with custom screws all they want. They are only creating the medium and in this case, the medium is not the message. Their computers are more locked down than others, but we mustn’t underestimate how locked down the others already were.

More troubling is the deeper marriage we are seeing between hardware and software. How many OS X and iOS-specific functions do you think lie beneath the placid mask of the A5 processor? How long before locked bootloaders and UEFI and intelligent cables prevent you from installing a new OS or streaming from non-approved sources?

For that matter, with virtualization of services and externalization of storage, how many steps are we adding between ourselves and the things we use? Running the software we want, even if it was on hardware we don’t understand, was one of our last strongholds. And now “our” software is running on other people’s hardware, people who give it to you for free and in return we… what, exactly? We don’t question that nearly enough.

The fight is not to control the hardware. The hardware has been out of our control for a long time. Despite that, hardware today, more complex and inaccessible than ever before, is more enabling and powerful than ever before. If you want a fight, don’t fight against technological progress, which constantly moves these things ever further out of your grasp. Whether you or Apple has to replace the drive or screen in your new MacBook Pro is immaterial. Whether Apple, or Amazon, or the MPAA, can stop you from using it the way you like is not. Forget the soldered RAM; there are those who would solder you down given a chance. They are the ones to fear, and therefore the ones to fight.