The pig farmer's guide to IT politics

In 1945, Orwell published a classic fairy tale of power and betrayal. It still illuminates IT's dark side in 2007

George Orwell's Animal Farm is one of literature's treasures. An unsparingly lucid allegory of Stalin's great betrayals, it shows how winning freedom from oppression does not buy freedom from corruption. The pigs that lead the animals out of the farmer's control end up on two legs themselves.

Like all true classics, it illustrates its themes so well that the lessons apply across time and cultures, in small ways as well as large. We use the word "revolution" perhaps too easily in our industry, but with some justification: a new idea in IT can change more things more quickly than anywhere else. Yet those who create and benefit most from innovation are at the highest risk of denying it to others.

Take Verizon Wireless, one of America's largest mobile operators. It has done extremely well from the enormous upheaval in telecommunications caused by new technology and the liberation of spectrum. Yet it is currently suing the American regulator, which is planning to release a new chunk of airwaves with even fewer restrictions than before. To do so, says Verizon, would give unfair advantages to some business models and stifle innovation. Those with Orwell's sensitivity for language and irony may hear the echo of a distant oink.

Then again, there's Autodesk. Its AutoCad software created profound changes in design and engineering; it's an essential tool for many professionals, and the company charges accordingly. More than that, it forbids — on arguable grounds — the second-hand sale of its software. It found someone selling second-hand software on eBay and used legislation designed to protect online media to shut his store, and his livelihood, down. Having taken advantage of a free market to innovate, it seems, it is quite in order to change the rules. A moment's thought reveals many other examples of powerful companies using their power to protect themselves.

In Animal Farm, Orwell is too astute to suggest answers. The reader is left to realise how tragedy can be stopped, through vigilance, independence of thought and a willingness to stand up. In IT, that translates to asking hard questions, accepting no nonsense and dealing with companies that genuinely support the industry as a whole, not just their bottom line. As individuals and companies, we are free to do this. Anything less betrays us all.

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