Technology advances at a startling rate, almost everyday there is some great new gizmo, that is a must have. But increasingly it seems that we are limited in what we can do with the gizmo.

Most people ignore this disturbing trend, and that is not good. Maybe the highest profile example of Digital Handcuffs is the very popular iPhone. While it is a great little unit, and packed with features, it is also highly restricted. Mess with it and you can turn it into an iBrick! Apple has chosen to make the iPhone a very closed architecture, a fine example was reported this week. The unit is capable of ‘phoning home‘ and checking to see what applications are not permitted, a ban list if you will. If you have a program on your phone that does not meet Apple’s standards, it will get disabled!

For someone that likes to tinker, this is potentially very bad news. You have bought the device in good faith, but have no say in how you use it.

The iPhone though, is just the tip of the iceberg. Increasingly our technology toys are being loaded with features that we do not want, do not help us, and in fact hog tie us into some very restrictive practices.

I don’t want to pick on Apple, but they are a great example. iTunes has been a huge hit for them, but when you buy from iTunes you are not the ‘owner’ of the item, you are not free to select what device you can play the music back on. This ‘feature’ is called DRM, Digital Rights Management, or as I prefer to call it Digital Rights Mismanagement. DRM is a technique whereby the audio stream has some extra data included in it, and if the device can not unlock the code the song will not play.

To put this into perspective, I am older than dirt, so here is my analogy. It would be like buying an LP in the 70’s at the local record store, getting home, and then discovering that it was recorded by RCA, and you do not have an RCA turntable. You have just bought a Frisbee! Either that or you now own 10 different turntables, one for each major label.

In the 80’s Cassette Tapes were the rage, and a favorite place to listen to them was in the car. So when you buy your new wheels you have to decide which labels cassette drive you want. Do you thing this idea would have worked? Hell no!

Things got worse in the 90’s, the advent of the CD, DVD and Video Game created a new monster, Region Codes. Region Codes serve no purpose what so ever. But it does mean that if you buy a CD, DVD or Video Game in Japan don’t expect it to work in your US unit (even though the chances are the unit was built in Japan). Region codes are one of the most pointless, and stupidest features ever created. Some folks have tried to circumnavigate them, most popularly in the video game world. An industry grew up around the issue, it was known as ‘Mod Chips’, the installation of a ‘mod chip’ could unlock the unit so that it could play any region code. Sounds reasonable? Well it does to me, alas it did not to the gaming industry, or the Feds. It is illegal to sell the chips involved!

It is my belief, that if I buy something, I can do whatever the hell I want to with it. If I want to take a screwdriver and soldering iron to it, that is my damn business. Sure I void the warranty, but it is my right.

If I buy a couple of really nice Steaks and over cook them (the way my wife likes it), it is my prerogative. If the food world worked the way the consumer electronics world works, my steaks would be only approved for use on a Webber BBQ. The upshot of this would be that my ‘Not A Webber’ would not light, because it is not authorized to cook the steaks!

The latest front where this erosion of choice is being fought is in the world of home entertainment. The  Music and Video world seem to have persuaded the electronics industry that everything needs to be tamper proof. Your DVD player needs to talk to your screen, your amplifier, your speakers, and anything else that you have in the loop. The DVD that you want to watch has some hidden data that will validate the equipment, this is all in order to prevent piracy! I have even read a couple of articles that discuss the use of ‘smart’ cables, yes even the cables joining the components together have to be approved!

I love technology, but I hate the direction we are headed in.

Simon Barrett

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