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 thinking

Something to think about given a certain understanding of a problem: social solutions to technical problems, versus technical solutions to social problems.

This is prompted by the recent brouhaha over NPR's linking policy, discussed in Wired.

What got me thinking was the end of the Wired piece, which suggests the ease of NPR technically stopping non-permitted linking to its content; the implication is that non-NPR referrers, or those from non-permitted sites, could simply be forbidden to access NPR content. In other words, a technical solution could be employed to easily defeat what NPR is constructing as a social problem -- the inappropriate use of its material and the diluting of its mission as a not-for-profit public service.

The technical solution, however, is adamantly decried by most of the net community when, for example, it is employed to stop non-licensed DVD software from decrypting DVD content. The outcry is that, first, CSS is a crappy technical solution, and that second, technical solutions are not the fix for social problems anyway. This argument is generally made alongside the claim that the legal attempts to control piracy (a la the DMCA) are equally misguided and inappropriately implemented (ie, a bad social solution to a social problem).

This is just a first take, and I'll reserve the right to re-think this. I'm sure I haven't laid out the principle claims quite right, and don't flame me as a DMCA advocate -- but the seed of the idea is there, and it's less about the particulars of NPR/linking and DVD/CSS/DMCA than it is about the need to understand problems in a sophisticated way. There may be technical and social solutions to both social and technical problems, and in different situations it's likely that one variety is more appropriate than the other. Making that determination rests on really knowing what the problem is all about.