My views about software, privacy, technology and have changed a lot since I first wrote on this blog sixteen years ago, and with them, my understanding of how our society works. Back then, I was passionate about free and open-source software. Now, not so much.
The kind of software that I use has always largely reflected ways in which I connect to the world. When I first installed Firefox on the family computer, things clicked into place in my mind, and I felt part of something larger than me; that feeling never completely went away. After I finished my studies, I found myself dedicating nearly two years of my life to trying to have the world adopt free and open-source software. I meant what I wrote back then: software as just math, tools to empower individuals to do and think independently.
The problem with this view, I now realize, is that it fails to take into account the way in which accountability and ownership are built into software. Fast forward 10 years from that blog post, and you find me teaching in a lecture hall with 70 engineering students. Two laptops running Debian, with two projectors, PDF sharing, open-source everything, creative commons slides, you name it. Well, the open-source software running the online quiz on a university server, it crashed, several times, each time taking down the effort and motivation of the students with it. I had no-one to call, no-one to complain to. I would have paid for that. And then it occurred to me that it was perhaps not a coincidence that I there was no-one to call and no owner for the service.
So the first tower to topple was called “free as in freedom, not as in free beer”. When I had first discovered the free software movement, I had instantly been annoyed by the Free Software Foundation’s rigidity with words and language. Yet I somehow failed to see through that particular myth. It’s not ”not free as in free beer”. It’s free as in free piano: you can have it for nothing, but you have to put in the work of dragging it down the stairs and up into your apartment again. Private property has some drawbacks, but it’s one of the very best mechanisms we have for making sure things are taken care of; and however far backwards the free software people bend over to explain that commercial relationships are possible with free/open-source software, they do not exist at scale because of the nature of the thing.
Another tower started leaning and then fell when I measured the size of the emotional and social deficit in my communities. Imagine a project built to emancipate people worldwide, actively focused on collaboration, and purportedly open to anyone. And then it’s exclusively made of cis white dudes. As I pushed against that (in, I now see, quite an imperfect way), I faced head-on many cultural shortcomings of what was then my home world. Despite being stunningly good at technical leadership (the Linux kernel code sees 4000 lines of code added and 2000 lines removed every day), free and open-source software communities are appallingly bad at human leadership. Projects are most often just the brainchildren of opinionated fathers with no skills in inclusion, diversity, organizational culture, or leadership. The burden imposed on the participants who are not like them is too much, and so the only people who keep showing up are all the same kind. They call the system “a meritocracy”.
Laurie Penny wrote an incisive, witty and at times hilarious piece called “Four Days Trapped at Sea With Crypto’s Nouveau Riche” which unpacks the contradictions embedded in the cryptocurrency communities. The free and open-source software world so very much deserves to be roasted the same way. As much as it claims to being diverse and open-minded, the cultural and structural foundations that would make that true were never there.
In parallel to these transformations, I started to understand better how and why corporations work. The biggest lesson I learned is that just because I am not very interested in money personally, I should not remain uneducated about it. My understanding of corporations had been largely shaped by an observation of their abuses and failures, as pictured for example in the 2003 documentary The Corporation and Naomi Klein’s 1999 book No Logo which both had a large influence on me. These are an important part of the picture, but I had missed the other ones. In particular, I was convinced that non-profit organizations were the answer, but could never clearly formulate why (and the answer to what, to begin with?). There was something about trustworthiness and sympathy, but these were mostly personal feelings. Now, I see better that corporations have a major advantage over non-profits: they have sustainability built right in. If they don’t succeed covering their expenses, they disappear, and that’s fine too. There is an enormous emotional and intellectual baggage that non-profits and their employees lug around, figuring out an alignment of mission and funding, that ends up dragging them down (it certainly drowned me).
The second big thing I learned here is that economics is not a zero-sum game. Corporations can create more value than they extract. I also discovered very late that corporations can have a social mission, and can make social contributions that go way beyond “providing jobs”.
All of these changes in my mind made me drift away from the place I used to called home. I have always been interested in computing technology and I would say that I understand better than most what it means to make a Google search, to click on a link, or to have an iCloud account. For years, I have experienced how empowering and liberating it can be to be the one administering and controlling my own digital life. And now I get to see the other side. In July of 2022 I stepped into an empty classroom, having just signed a work contract to be a high school teacher. I decided right then that I was going to buy a smartphone that (in contrast to every phone I had owned until then) actually works — one that could take pictures all the time, that would unlock without typing a PIN, and whose software still received security fixes. I ended up with a second-hand iPhone. In the wake of this purchase came a deluge of changes that would horrify twenty-year-old me: I now have pretty much the same online life than everyone around me. Friends, my life is so much better for that. And, I am a much better teacher. Non-free-software running on my phone or on distant computers, that everyone has taken for granted in the last 20 years, reduces friction, abstracts things away from me, and lets me devote my energy to more important things, like my own thoughts, or interacting with 25 teenagers in a classroom.
Looking back, I have no regrets. The path I took to where I am has enriched me greatly (the six year-old Debian laptop that I am typing this on is one of its many gifts). I am curious to see what comes next.