closed phones, open philosophy

Listen to an audio version here.

In the basement of the house where I’m typing this, there used to be a land-line telephone with a clear plastic cover, exposing the circuits, lights, and wires. Never technically minded enough to understand what I was looking at, I nonetheless liked the idea of visible electronics, and I remember dreaming of a world where everything was built to be radically transparent, where you could see through the cosmetic and superficial, all technology giving up its secrets, spilling its source code—cars, washing machines, computers, governments…

There is a passage in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which I couldn’t find but still believe is in the book somewhere, where Robert Pirsig contrasts a design aesthetic where the functional workings of a given device are openly displayed (as in the transparent telephone) against a closed, commercial aesthetic where the essential insides of an object are sealed in an opaque shell, a casing that casts you as consumer rather than observer–preventing, not encouraging, understanding. You can buy things, use them, but don’t try to fix them or change them. Conceptually, they are like Monsonto’s terminator seeds, sterile beyond a single brief, encrypted cycle.

“The trouble is that essays always have to sound like God talking for eternity, and that isn’t the way it ever is. People should see that it’s never anything other than just one person talking from one place in time and space and circumstance. It’s never been anything else, ever, but you can’t get that across in an essay.”

-Robert M. Pirsig

Just this morning I saw a news item that illustrates this closed, consumerist trend: any unauthorized repairs will cause the new iphone to stop working. Over and over I find examples of for-profit companies crippling their products as a way of ensuring customer loyalty, in a kind of parasitic marketing that increases sales while reducing functionality and compatibility. Capitalism, as a way of organizing human activity, is woefully wasteful and inefficient. For the environment, of course, it is simply death.

By contrast, when I searched for Robert M. Pirsig to see what he has been up to, I found a complete online graduate course on his new metaphysics, with conference papers, transcripts of lectures, research, everything searchable and free.


I far prefer Pirsig’s slap-dash business model to the poisoned, cynical schemes of Apple. Everything I put online will be free and open, part of the creative commons. This is the transparent casing of my mind—here are the wires and circuits. Those are my ambitions, these my tools. You can see the blueprints, diagrams and illustrations, all given away for free.



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