Toasting Freedom: Trading Choice for Convenience

The growth of clustered HPC is do in part to the freedom to choose (and toasters).

I’m taking a short detour from HPC this week. The following resulted from an email discussion between some of the linuxdlsazine writers and publisher. The topic was closed vs. open products. This issue definitely effects HPC because the current market has been built on an open framework that supports the freedom to choose. As technology progress accelerates, these issues become more and more important. To make my point, we have to venture into the world of kitchen alliances.

Consider toasters. They toast. If my toaster stops toasting I may try to fix it, take it to the repair shop, or throw it away because the repair cost is almost as much as new toaster (funny how that works out). I own the toaster, however. I have the freedom to decide what to do with it. I can toast what I want, when I want, and how I want. Truth be told, I even stuck a fork in it when my thick piece of sourdough bread got stuck. It sounds silly to speak about a toaster this way.

The balance of convenience and freedom is a slippery fish. Our society is built upon trading rights for convenience. We agree on laws that say things like “I chose to give up the right to take your blender if you agree to not take my toaster.” In the technology world the equation is not so simple. Technology is complicated and often blurs many boundaries, however trading freedom for convenience is often how technology succeeds in the market place. Where I live, I have given up the freedom to have a coal fired mega-watt power generator in my back yard in lieu of buying power electrical power from the utility company. It is a good deal because I don’t want to be bothered with shoveling coal and such.

As computing becomes more “appliance based” there is a constant trade-off between convenience and choice. To some people it matters, to other they could care less — although they should. Privacy, safety, and even freedom to speak are all on the bargaining table. Because everyone wants the latest gizmo and at times seem willing to offer their soul for such devices, I thought I would use a more mundane device, the toaster, to illustrate what could happen when we trade all our freedom for convenience.

If toasters were built and sold by the high-tech industry things would be different. I would not own the toaster outright. There would be aspects that are out of my control. The intellectual property (patents, copyrights, etc.) in the toaster would be used keep some control long after I purchased it. Such a long hand, goes far beyond the original intention of rewarding true innovation or creativity with patents and copyrights.

I like my high-tech toaster. It does some nice things like automatically monitoring both sides of the bread to provide an even toasting. Even though I purchased the toaster I would not be allowed to open it up to see how it worked or modify it, which is fine for me because really I just want toast. Very few people try to fix or modify their toaster. I often try to fix simple things, but if looks like it will take too much time, I don’t bother. In a sense, giving up the freedom to something I don’t care about (fixing or modifying my toaster) is well worth the convenience of good toast.

Technology progresses. The next generation of toaster will only allow toasting of “approved toast” because the wrong toast could catch fire and burn down my house making the toaster company liable. Now I have to buy approved expensive toast sold by the toaster company or those companies that bought a license to sell approved bread. At this point I don’t care that much because I buy that brand of bread anyway. But, you know every once in while I get that urge for piece of thick sourdough bread that is not on the approved list. When I try to put it in the toaster, it detects the un-approved bread and will not work. I begin think about my old toaster and the freedom I had, but I shrug it off because it does not seem to be that big of an issue,b after all it is only toast.

Then I find out the toaster has a “duty cycle” where it must be cleaned or it stops working. I cannot clean it, however. I must use a licensed cleaning/repair person that uses special patented toaster tools that are illegal for non-licensed users to even own. This cleaning cycle seems to happen every six months when the little indicator light goes on. What if I dropped a fork in it. I cannot turn it over and shake it because the warranty would be voided (shaking would be detected by the sensors inside). Another trip to the licensed repair shop. Now it is hitting me in the wallet. My toaster does not look dirty, but I cannot open it up to see if it really needs cleaning. Oh well, I assume all toasters are this way. What can I do?

Then one day I realize, I am not in control of my toaster anymore. Moreover, what was once a $49 product that lasted at least ten years is now costing me $99 a year and I still cannot toast my sourdough bread. Then I find out the toaster company discontinued the sale and support of my toaster. Now I have toaster that I can’t use. I cannot give it away to some one who really needs a toaster. It is basically useless and I have to buy a new toaster. Convinced not to make the same mistake, I am surprised to learn that all the major toasters now operate the same way, but it is funny because each has its own brand of approved bread. Many of the smaller toaster manufactures that must buy an expensive license to use the approved bread have gone out of business. There is still some unlicensed bread around, but it is hard to find because it will not work in the “standard” toasters. Sigh.

How did this happen? Slowly over time I gave up freedom for convenience. Maybe it was worth it at some point, but, I should have realized the consequences to my decsions. There were those strange people talking about choice and “open toasters”, but I did not care because I just wanted toast. I gave up all my freedom for convenience and now I have no more choice. It started with the little trade-offs, that I did not question, and ended up with me being “owned” by the toaster industry.

While this story is contrived, we all can relate to the loss of choice. I have always maintained that the success of HPC clusters is because we have the capability to design machines around problems. Without choice we have to design problems around a limited number of machines. Sometimes the little things are important. The hands that choke freedom usually start out gently and squeeze slowly.

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