As a student, I read some book -- I think Michael Scott Rohan's original Winter of the World trilogy -- in which the hero, a blacksmith, had his legs deliberately broken to keep him from leaving town.
I thought then that this was the essence of barbarism. To deliberately maim someone -- to intentionally make an able body less able -- and to do it, for no better reason than that you didn't want the burden of having to treat them decently. Surely, I thought, this is what the Law is really for: to protect us from such arbitrary and selfish uses of power.
In 1989, the 80486 computer chip came onto the market -- the fourth in the series that began with the 8086, and direct ancestor of the various types of Pentiums that probably power the computer you're reading this on. It was shockingly expensive. But among its advances over its predecessor, the 80386, it had a floating-point co-processor built into the chip itself.
I'd always wanted one of those. It meant you could play games that involved drawing detailed graphics on the screen in real time. Things like flight simulators. I waited, eagerly, for the price to come down to the point where I could afford one.
In 1991, the chip manufacturer, Intel, produced the cheap version: the 80486SX. As everyone knew in those days, the "-SX" suffix meant "cut-down"; in this case, it meant "without the co-processor". To me that seemed the epitome of pointlessness. But by then I was a technical journalist, and it was my business to read lots of reports and writings about developments just like this. And I learned something that shocked me deeply:
The 486SX did have the co-processor built onto the chip -- it was exactly the same chip, built on the same lines in the same factory as the full version -- but the co-processor was artificially disabled. Like Rohan's blacksmith hero, the chip had been deliberately crippled to make it less useful.
In my economics lessons, I'd learned that the purpose of work is to add value to something. Everyone who adds value makes the world a slightly better, or at least richer, place; somebody, somewhere, gains some utility that they would not otherwise have had.
So what should I think of people who work, on purpose, to make a product less useful?
To me that seemed, and still seems, no better than vandalism, or at best theft. I can understand the motivations -- but then I can understand the motives of vandals and thieves, too, and it doesn't mean I accept them as legitimate.
And today the same argument is going on with a much higher profile, although no-one seems to recognise it.
It's called "digital rights management". What it means, in a nutshell, is that publishers add bits of code to their products that prevent them from being used in ways they otherwise could.
Now, the amount of virtual ink that's been spilt in debating the rights and wrongs of DRM in general is, approximately, enough to fill the Atlantic. You don't have to look far to find rants or measured opinions on either side of the subject, including some by yours truly. (I have mostly taken the position that publishers have no moral or legal right to do most of the things they do. The vast majority of their measures are used to enforce "rights" that the law was never meant to grant them in the first place.)
But that's not my real objection. That's just the legalistic formulation of the underlying problem, which is a moral one. It is intrinsically wrong, I believe, to devote time and effort to make your product less useful than it would be if you didn't. That means you're working to make the world a poorer place. And that means you're a vandal, and you belong in jail.
But our economic system is so perverse that it rewards such behaviour. Even worse: our laws are being perverted to not merely protect, but actively support, it. To my mind, that's enough to discredit the entire consumerist economic system; what we are fighting over now is whether the legal and political systems that go with it can be redeemed. They're meant to protect us, the consumers, from this kind of abuse. If they won't do that, what are they good for?