Freedombone Blog

Freedom in the Cloud

Retrospective on the decade

About a decade ago I started running a server on a SheevaPlug. Initially just Apache and MediaWiki. So for me the 2010s have been the decade of personal servers, ARM hardware and the practicalities of maintaining servers.

My subjective impression is that in 2010 there was a lot more optimism about technology generally, although the Great Recession was by that time in full swing. People tended to like Google, and Google Wave (now Apache Wave) was perhaps the last of "late Google stage 1" in which they were still supporting open protocols.

About a year later I started running my own email server. Initially purely as an experiment. I didn't know whether it would be possible, but it worked. I had a Gmail account which remained dormant from about 2011 onwards and by 2013 I was confident enough about my own server that I ditched Gmail altogether. Perhaps an early example of de-Googling.

For the first few years that I was running my own email people were constantly telling me not to do it. The common viewpoint was that only Experts At Google could competently run an email server. That it was not something which mortals could aspire to, and if they tried they would be instantly owned by the badest hombreys from the Wild West of the interwebs. I waited for the ownage to happen, but it didn't. Even if it had, my plan was always to be able to recover fast from failures, not expecting the technology to be perfect or unbreakable.

Until the 2010s my knowledge of web technologies was quite limited. I had mostly been doing things like programming industrial motion controllers in the decades prior. Over the last ten years I learned a lot about the unglamorous side of the web. The part that the Silicon Valley people never mention. How a lot of it is held together by crude hacks and rough consensus. How shockingly bad the documentation is. Most people building web systems expected the web 2.0 monolithic "everyone on my server" model and so having coherent installation instructions obviously wasn't a priority if you only ever expect to do one deployment. Another assumption I often came across was that of unlimited storage space. Often web systems don't have any way to keep the amount of storage space used within a finite upper bound. In the Silicon Valley model if you run low on space you just install another hard drive, but on something like a SheevaPlug or a Beaglebone that's not possible.

The big technology event of the 2010s was the Snowden revelations of 2013. Much has been written about this, but now existing in the post-postSnowden era I think it can be said that a lot of the security advice during the postSnowden phase was really quite bad. There was a scramble to fix encryption systems and apply them, usually retroactively to existing things. My thinking during the various news events of 2013 was something like:

"Well, this all looks horribly broken, and the bad guys are totally screwing everyone in every way we imagined in the worst case scenarios, plus a few more. Is there anything I can do about this?"

The robotics stuff I was working on at the time wasn't going anywhere. The direction of travel of the field wasn't heading where I had expected, and I was quite burned out on it. So I thought I'd formalize the server project a bit more and give it a name. Thus the Feedombone project began.

Since then I've been pretty much doing Freedombone, and things related to it. After 2013 the overall direction of technology went the way I expected. i.e. towards ever greater abuses of power by increasingly gigantic and monopolistic tech companies. The part that I hadn't quite anticipated was that a significant fraction of the mindshare in those companies would after 2016 adopt a far right political posture, epitomised by "the sexist manifesto" from a now former Google employee. It makes the tech monopolies even more of an existential threat that the people in the driving seats also are following a misanthropic or misogynistic ideology.

The 2010s was also the decade when Open Source won. And here I specifically mean Open Source and not Free Software. If you go back and read about the original context from 1998, Open Source always was a business strategy following a pragmatic agenda, particularly around lowering labor cost and time to market. I think we can now say with confidence that this has become the dominating paradigm in software production. Even the "made men" of Microsoft had to follow along - however reluctantly - or else risk becoming totally irrelevant. The purpose of Open Source was never to improve society or strive for gender equality or anything like that, but the public relations of various companies successfully conflated the issues, primarily as a recruiting method. Today the most despotic companies and governments on the planet are all running on Open Source, and don't give two hoots about whether or not you have any kind of freedom.

Another aspect of the 2010s in the UK context is the lost decade of austerity. It's not that the government directly purged a bunch of people, but the withdrawal of public support systems meant that some could no longer survive. Sometimes it's called "excess deaths", but it's less abstract than that for me. Before 2010 food banks and absolute poverty were practically unknown in the UK. What little welfare remains has become a kind of punitive system of constant surveillance and punishment.

In the last six months I diverted from Freedombone to write an ActivityPub server. There were various reasons for doing that, but this is the first time that I've written any non-trivial web system using an open standard. Possibly I could write more federated web systems in future.

In the 2020s the forces which have been gathering in this decade will clash. So things like the differing priorities of Free Software and Open Source. Maybe Free Software will become part of a larger solidarity movement. The tech monopolies will either have to somehow resolve/externalize their contradictions or change their business model. Regulation will be tried, and have unintended consequences.