Doctorow is an entertaining speaker, and he's delivered variants of this speech before, but he does a particularly good job with the speech this time.
He opens by observing that general-purpose computers, like other very general-purpose tools, provide a power than can be hard to comprehend by policymakers:
General-purpose computers are astounding. They're so astounding that our society still struggles to come to grips with them, what they're for, how to accommodate them, and how to cope with them.
The important tests of whether or not a regulation is fit for a purpose are first whether it will work, and second whether or not it will, in the course of doing its work, have effects on everything else. If I wanted Congress, Parliament, or the E.U. to regulate a wheel, it's unlikely I'd succeed. If I turned up, pointed out that bank robbers always make their escape on wheeled vehicles, and asked, “Can't we do something about this?", the answer would be “No". This is because we don't know how to make a wheel that is still generally useful for legitimate wheel applications, but useless to bad guys. We can all see that the general benefits of wheels are so profound that we'd be foolish to risk changing them in a foolish errand to stop bank robberies. Even if there were an epidemic of bank robberies—even if society were on the verge of collapse thanks to bank robberies—no-one would think that wheels were the right place to start solving our problems.
But as Doctorow goes on to explain, general-purpose computers are even more powerful than other general-purpose technologies (such as the wheel), because a general-purpose computer can, in our modern world, become any other sort of tool:
The world we live in today is made of computers. We don't have cars anymore; we have computers we ride in. We don't have airplanes anymore; we have flying Solaris boxes attached to bucketfuls of industrial control systems. A 3D printer is not a device, it's a peripheral, and it only works connected to a computer. A radio is no longer a crystal: it's a general-purpose computer, running software.
Doctorow's core point is that we need to be very careful about how we regulate computers, because the general-purpose computer is much more important than many of the social problems that have been ascribed to it so far:
Regardless of whether you think these are real problems or hysterical fears, they are, nevertheless, the political currency of lobbies and interest groups far more influential than Hollywood and big content. Every one of them will arrive at the same place: “Can't you just make us a general-purpose computer that runs all the programs, except the ones that scare and anger us? Can't you just make us an Internet that transmits any message over any protocol between any two points, unless it upsets us?"
Here's how to find Doctorow's speech:
Bonus: After you've listened to Doctorow, wander over to Freedom-to-Tinker and read this fascinating interview with Harvard professor Jonathan Zittrain: Applications and Appliances: A Conversation with Jonathan Zittrain.
JZ: Nothing’s inherently wrong with single-purpose devices. The worry comes when we lose the general-purpose devices formerly known as the PC and replace it with single-purpose devices and “curated” general-purpose devices.