Communications of the ACM (CACM), Existential Education, May 2000

The Right to Think: Existential Education in the era of Personal Cybernetics

Adapted from Richard Stallman's 1996 article published in the February 1997 issue of Communications of the ACM (Volume 40, Number 2).

New York Ltd., United Corporation of America, 2038

I remember very clearly the morning of Tuesday, January 19, 2038 at 3:14:07am, which, very strangely, 1 second later, was also the afternoon of Friday, December 13, 1901, at 20:45:52. I say "very strangely", because UNIX (and its variants such as the GNUX of the GNU cult) was forbidden due to ITAR export regulations. This date was clearly associated with UNIX which was classed as a munition within the United Corporation of America. It was for export regulations, we were told, that the learning or thinking of operating systems for which thought escrow could be easily bypassed was illegal. That's why the third hemispheres of our brains were pre--taught with the new Win2K operating system, which was said to be y2K (year 2048) compliant.

Most all of us remember exactly what we were doing that day, which later became known as the y2K-10 (year 2048-10) bug. Little did we know that Win2K (Windows 2048) was just an intellectually encrypted adaptation of GNUX (the criminal efforts of the GNU cult group combined with the highly illegal Linux kernel). The government knew this, no doubt, but accepted it given the built in thought escrow capability of the Win2K operating system.

My predicament began in college, when my friend Lisa asked me what I had learned in last week's lectures. She had missed the lectures due to illness, and unless she could learn the material, she would probably fail her midterm project. There was no one she dared ask, except me.

This put me in a dilemma. I had to help her, but if I told her what she had missed, she might learn something from me. Aside from the fact that I could go to prison for many years for teaching without a teaching license, the very idea shocked me at first. Like everyone else in New York Ltd., I had been taught since elementary school that unauthorized sharing of knowledge was nasty and wrong -- something that only pirates would do.

Everyone had learned since their kindergarten days, that it was immoral to steal ideas, and just plain unfair since others had to pay for their knowledge. And since everyone signed the Knowledge License Agreements prior to each University course, it was pretty clear to everyone what the rules were. Nobody forced us to live in the United Corporation of America --- we were all there by choice. We were completely free not to go to University. For example, we were completely free to accept a low paying manual labor job if we didn't agree with the Knowledge License Agreement.

And if we didn't agree to the Corporate Employement Agreement associated with a manual labor job, we were totally free to or to sleep on the streets and be homeless. Of course the homeless were often rounded up and used for various experiments, but that was all part of living in our free world.

But I had, by my own choice and free will, accepted the terms of the Knowledge License Agreements which forbid the unauthorized or unescrowed sharing of knowledge. But there wasn't much chance that the IPLC -- the Intellectual Property Licensing Corporation -- would catch me. In the aftermath of the y2K-10 bug, also known as the "Friday the 13th" bug, there were plenty of loopholes in our third hemispheres. In my Thoughtware Engineering courses, I had learned that each of us had a copyright monitor that reported to the Intellectual Property Licensing Corporation each time we thought of something that was copyrighted or patented. They used this information to catch thought pirates and idea pirates, and also to sell personal thought profiles to retailers. It wasn't considered a violation of privacy, because there were strict laws about what the information could and could not be used for. Only government officials, or law enforcement corporations were entitled to acquire or use the monitor channels. The Law Enforcement Access Field (LEAF) was simply installed with the standard Thought-tech hardware. The courts ruled that it wasn't really much different than the wiretap provisions installed in all the wireless communications systems of the old wearable and handheld computing and communications devices that were the predecessors to our modern etelepathy and ecommerce Thoughtware technology.

So if I helped Lisa, The next time one of us was networked, the Intellectual Property Licensing Corporation would find out. I, as a thought criminal, would receive severe punishment.

Of course, Lisa did not necessarily intend to learn from me. She might want to talk to me just for companionship. But I knew she came from a middle-class family and could hardly afford the tuition, let alone lecture license fees for last week's material. Learning from me might be the only way she could graduate. I understood this situation, as I myself had to borrow money to pay for licenses to all the ideas and knowledge I had applied to my problem--solving exercises.

Three percent of those fees went to the researchers who made the original discoveries. Since I was aiming for a mathematics career, I could hope that my own mathematical derivations, if frequently thought of, would get me enough money to repay my loan, especially if my thoughts were frequently downloaded and taught to others.

Later on, I would learn there was once a time when anyone could think of anything they wanted, without paying any royalties, or breaking the law. There were independent storytellers who once sat around campfires, and spread knowledge and culture through stories and songs. This was before the days of the printing presses, when thoughts, ideas, and songs became entities of something called ``server push'', of which the printing press was a notable example. Until that time, people were both consumers and producers of information and thought. Back then, anyone could participate in shaping culture by uploading thoughts into the minds of others. Of course that was long before the days of modern communications devices such as mental prosthetics and etelepathy implants, and even before the days of EyeTap Technology and its crude predecessor, the ``Wearable Computer'' (WearComp), and communications devices such as television, radio, and the telephone.

But with the invention of the printing press, and later the television, we became ``consumers'' of information rather than thinkers and creators. Sheet music (the so-called ``source code'' of music) was once printed on paper, so people could play it themselves on old fashioned mechanical musical instruments called pianos. The families of the past would gather around these early mechanical musical instruments and sing songs. But playing music required independent thought because it was necessary for the brain to compile the sheet music source code into executable keypresses to make the sound. This form of independent thinking was later replaced with something called radio. (Radio was another predecessor of etelepathy, and another form of ``server push'', very much like the printing press in the sense that it was also a broadcast medium.) We were told (or convinced), that we like our music pre--digested and pre--compiled. That way we don't have to expend precious mental resources to make (compile) it oursevels. That way we can save all our mental energy for more important things like doing our jobs. At the end of the working day, when all our mental energy is used up, we can then be passively entertained by thought--push in the same way our ancestors were entertained by server--push or early broadcast technologies like radio and television.

The Internet threatened to upset the corporate bodies that had been profiting from their visions of centralized production of thought. For a while, the Internet took us back to the days of sitting around a campfire and singing songs or telling stories without paying any royalties. It had begun to take us back to that era in which people started to become producers as well as consumers of information.

At first, the Internet actually caused people to start to think independently again. Then in the 1990s, both commercial and nonprofit internet publishers had begun to address this problem by creating something called e-commerce (the predecessor of etelepathy), and by charging fees for access to information.

Although the fees were often so small as to become negligible, it allowed them to reify the concept that numbers, thoughts, ideas, and the like, were property. For example, it allowed them to define a particular number as being owned by a particular entity, so that each time one thought of that number one needed to pay a royalty to the ``owner'' of that number.

By 2038, concepts like free independent thought, or the idea of libraries offering free public access to scholarly literature were a dim memory. The IPLC had made certain that the execution of proprietary thoughts would provide due compensation to the original thinkers (after the IPLC deducted their share of the profits, of course).

There were ways to get around the IPLC and Central Licensing. These thoughts were themselves illegal. Dan had had a classmate in Thougtware Engineering EECS-385, Frank Martucci, who had learned some illicit debugging thoughts, and used these thoughts to skip over his copyright monitor when reading online books, and downloading thoughts from the Internet. But he had told too many friends about it, and one of them turned him in to the IPLC for a reward. Students in severe debt were easily tempted into betrayal of their colleagues by these huge icash rewards. In 2038, Frank was in prison, not for pirate reading, but for having learned debugging and thoughtware disassemblers.

Dan would later learn that there had been a time when anyone could have debugging knowledge. There had even been free debuggers available on the Internet. But ordinary users started using them to bypass copyright monitors and thought escrow, so that eventually a judge ruled that this had become the principal use of debugging knowledge in actual practice. This meant they had to be made illegal in order to protect the revenues of original thinkers. Without a revenue stream, we were told, all creative and innovative thought would grind to a halt, and the human race would no longer be capable of thinking if there were no financial incentive to think. Accordingly, the teachers of illegal thought debuggers had to be sent to prison.

Professors and course instructors still needed debuggers, to develop new thoughtware, for improved teaching, but debugger knowledge vendors in 2038 distributed numbered copies only, and only to officially licensed and IPLC bonded thinkers. The debugger Dan used in Thoughtware Engineering EECS-385 was kept behind a special firewall so that thoughts could be passed into it only for closely monitored class exercises.

It was also possible to bypass the copyright monitors by learning a modified mind kernel. Dan would eventually find out about the free kernels, even entire free thought systems that had existed just after the turn of the century (back when people still used external computers that were handheld or wearable). But now, not only were they illegal, like debuggers--you could not install one if you had one, without knowing the root password of your brain's third hemisphere. And neither the FBI nor Biosoft Support in Redmond Washington would tell you that.

In the end, Lisa did not report Dan to the IPLC. His decision to help her led to their marriage, and also led them to question what they had been taught about piracy as children. The couple began reading about the history of copyright, about the Soviet Union and its restrictions on copying, and even the original United States Constitution. They moved to Canada, where they found others who had likewise gravitated away from the long arm of the IPLC. When the Toronto Uprising began ten years later in 2048, the universal right to think eventually became one of its central aims.

The fundamental philosophy called Idiabatism was born. Idiabatism was a natural outgrowth of the ``multinational individual'' in the cyborg age of wearable and implantable communications. Idiabatism pertains to the construction of a shell around the mind of the free thinking individual to protect it from the forces of Thought Police.

There are many such forces that act upon the individual. Three for example, are:

  1. government,
  2. corporations, and
  3. criminals (terrorists, robbers, bandits, etc.).
The first allegedly protects us from the other two, but increasingly the first is becoming the other two. Or might we say that the first is teaming up with the second, and that this form of corruption is making it become the third. The idiabatic individual functions on equal footing with entities such as ``country'', ``multinational corporation'', or the like. The goal of idiabatism is to create a flat hierarchy in which the thoughts of the individual are not compromosed by or a subject of control by entities such as ``country'' or ``corporation''. Ultimately, it is the individual free spirit that will protect itself from these three forces.

Accordingly Dan and Lisa formulated the manifesto of free thinkers as reproduced freely below:

The 10 elements of free thinking (manifesto against the Thought Police)

1. my thoughts are my own, not yours.
2. you have no business knowing what i am thinking.
3. you have no right to prevent me from thinking certain thoughts.
4. the privacy and solitude of thought is an inalienable right.
5. you have no right to patent or copyright any kind of thinking,
   nor the right to know if i am thinking thoughts to which you claim copyright
   or patent.  nor do you have right to prevent me from thinking such thoughts.
6. the left side of my brain has an inalienable right to talk to the right side
   or the center without telling you.
7. i am free to think thoughts, such as sqrt(2), without your knowing my
   thoughts, notwithstanding any claim you might have to any ``algorithms''.
8. you have no right to tax my synaptic signals, which have neither mass nor
   occupy space.
9. you have no right to a percentage or restriction of the information that
   flows across my corpus collosum.
A. my corpus collosum extends as i see fit, and includes the connection
   between left brain, right brain, and center brain of myself or of others,
   as we reserve the right the share thoughts in an idiabatic fashion
   (e.g. closed to you).
B. my mind is an idiabatic process, closed to you if i so desire.
C. your only rights to use the force of violence against me are when i damage
D. i pay only for that which i deprive others of.
E. accordingly (to D), tax me for the natural resources i consume, or the
   waste i produce, but not my thoughts.
F. as an idiabatic entity, i remain free to share some of my thoughts with
   some others, and different of my thoughts with different others.
10.the terms of this right to think are severable.  if any term or provision
   is declared invalid, it shall not affect the remaining terms or provisions.

Author's Notes:

As computers evolve from mainframe business machines, to personal computers, and eventually to personal cybernetics (wearable, prosthetic, or implantable devices), there will be a paradigm shift in which the boundary between execution of machine instructions and our own thoughts will blur.

We are at a pivotal era in which computing machinery is moving into our prosthetic territories, and beginning to function as a true extension of our minds and bodies.

The traditional view of the computer as a business machine is a holdover from the mainframe era, and will need to change when the boundary between thinking and computing breaks down. The cyborg self will need to fight for freedom of thought, or else be monitored by totalitarian Thought Police.

The right to think is a battle being fought today. Although it may take many years for our present way of life to fade into obscurity, most of the specific laws and practices described above have already been proposed--either by the Clinton Administration or by the providers of wares. Even the word ``software'' is an attempt at codifying a list of numbers that happens to be a computer program, into a tangible article of commerce:

ware n. . wares.  a. Articles of commerce; goods.
                  b. An incorporeal asset or benefit, as a service or personal
                     accomplishment, that is regarded as an article of
                     commerce. [waru]

The idea that a remote entity (the FBI or a corporation) would want to keep the root passwords for personal prosthetics is an extrapolation from the Clipper chip and similar Clinton Administration key-escrow proposals, together with a long-term trend: computer systems are increasingly set up with DHCP, to give absentee operators control over the people actually using the computer system. Trends that are particularly disturbing are that of so--called ``thin clients'', and electronic books.

The equivalent of the IPLC is currently already threatening small Internet service providers, demanding capabilities to monitor all users. Most ISPs surrender when threatened, because they cannot afford to fight back in court. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 1 Oct 96, D3).


The Right to Read, Richard Stallman, Communications of the ACM (Volume 40, Number 2), February 1997

Owning the Future, Seth Shulman, February 1999, Houghton Mifflin, ISBN: 0395841755, 224 pages

Union for the Public Domain--a new organization which aims to resist and reverse the overextension of intellectual property powers. For more information, see

Thanks to Robert Erlich for pointing out the gmtime function in PERL, e.g.:

print "$sec\n";


Steve Mann, inventor of the so-called "wearable computer" (WearComp) and of the EyeTap video camera and reality mediator (WearCam), is currently a faculty member at University of Toronto, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Dr. Mann has been working on his WearComp invention for more than 20 years, dating back to his high school days in the 1970s. He brought his inventions and ideas to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1991, founding, what was to later become the MIT Wearable Computing Project. He also built the world's first covert fully functional WearComp with display and camera concealed in ordinary eyeglasses in 1995, for the creation of his award winning documentary ShootingBack. He received his PhD degree from MIT in 1997 in the new field he had initiated. He is also the inventor of the chirplet transform, a new mathematical framework for signal processing.

Mann was both the founder and the Publications Chair of the first IEEE International Symposium on Wearable Computing (ISWC97).

He also chaired the first Special Issue on Wearable Computing in Personal Technologies Journal, and has given numerous Keynote Addresses on the subject, including the Keynote at the first International Conference on Wearable Computing, the Keynote at the Virtual Reality conference, and the Keynote at the McLuhan Conference on Culture and Technology, on the subject of Privacy issues and Wearable Computers.