Your Data. Your Server. Your Place.

Freedombone is a home server system which enables you to run your own internet services, individually or as a household. It includes all of the things you'd expect such as email, chat, VoIP, web sites, wikis, blogs, social networks, media hosting and more. You can run Freedombone on an old laptop or single board computer. No ads and no built-in spying.

Abolish Silicon Valley

Here is an interesting interview with Wendy Liu about the problems of the technology industry described in her book, Abolish Silicon Valley. These problems aren't really all that new, but as software has become a bigger part of the economy and everyday life it has just become more obvious that capitalism mediated through and amplified by software technologies is something grotesque and often anti-human, not even meeting many real human needs.

One point raised is that we should democratize the creation of technology, and this is really what Free Software has been about since the 1980s. When I'm developing some Free Software there is no boss belittling me or telling me I'm not allowed to do it, and systems created within that paradigm can be a lot more focused on what people really want or need out of software.

But Free Software hasn't been without its own problems. It emerged from the ivy league US universities and hence much of its history has reflected the sorts of upper middle class interests which people who attend those institutions are accustomed to, which are typically not exactly the same as the general population. Many of the problems we now see are really classism amplified and enforced through technology, and in its current formulation the Free Software movement doesn't have solutions for this. One really obvious indicator of the underlying divide is that most people who develop Free Software can't afford to fly to conferences in arbitrary locations on the globe at least once per year, and this tends to mean that only certain middle class narratives are told and become integrated into the lore of hackerdom. On rare occasions grants might be made available to try to increase diversity, but nobody wants to become someone else's charity case.

What I think is needed is something like Free Software, but with enough of a surrounding organization to it that the value it generates can't easily be captured by large corporations such as Google. We definitely also need standards making organizations which are not just corporate consortia, as W3C is.

Free Software remains a struggle

There's a pretty good talk at the Australian Linux conference from Karen and Bradley of Software Freedom Conservancy about the various problems which continue to be obstacles to having personal agency over what computers do. They have given talks on this theme before, but I think this is the best version of it so far.

Some points raised:

  1. Too many Linux-related conferences are sponsored by surveillance capital companies, and this makes it difficult to talk about certain things or promote certain issues.
  2. Living entirely without proprietary software is becoming increasingly difficult and/or impractical.
  3. Using older hardware sometimes means you get treated as a second class citizen.
  4. Explaining to people why Software Freedom is important is difficult, not just because there are so many other things going on but because many of the issues are invisible to the average person. Unless you know about some of the technical stuff happening behind the scenes then you don't encounter many conspicuous ethical issues.
  5. Conservancy sometimes only was able to use Free Software because it pushed the interactions with proprietary systems over onto its supporters/interns. This wasn't very ethical and in future they will try to do the reverse - handling the proprietary stuff so that supporters don't have to.
  6. In terms of practical software freedom, 2006 was a kind of utopia by comparison to now.
  7. Feeling like you are in a constant battle and being tempted to give up is ok. Keep trying anyway and small successes still count.
  8. Although more Free Software is being written it's often focusing on cloud-like use cases which big companies care about, and isn't necessarily benefiting average users. This is the shifting "who is really the beneficiary?" problem.

Another point which wasn't mentioned, but which I'd throw onto the pile would be:

  1. The organizational structures that we often use within the production of Free Software are probably not optimal. In the Linux kernel project I see maintainers getting older and not being replaced by younger people. This doesn't bode well for the next 10+ years when the older generation start to retire.

FOSS Sustainability

The people complaining that FOSS is "not sustainable" and that developers need to be paid more and add nagware to their software need to remember: most people using FOSS hardly have enough money to survive.

Free software at least is supposed to be a commons. A resource that anyone can use and learn from regardless of their financial status. Projects have come and gone, but the main system components have sustained for the last few decades.

The outrage at developers adding nagware is because it isn't respectful to repeatedly ask people who are hardly surviving to pay you, and to do so in a very entitled manner.

The need to survive under capitalism does conflict with a gift economy. This is what should be recognized. But we should also respect the user and not try to turn them into cash cows like the proprietary developers do.

A manifesto

Like it or not.

Personalities notwithstanding.

There isn't an alternative to free software.

Solidaric coding.

Or rather.

The alternative is total subjugation. Total loss of control. Of communities. Of knowledge. Concentration of power like you've never seen it.

There isn't a future free from struggle.

The powerful will try to take everything from you and turn you into a commodity.

Software is one thing they don't yet fully control. Corporate coders with comfortable incomes are not equivalent to motivated activists.

Don't give them an easy ride.

Deeds not Words

I've just returned from giving a talk about the Freedombone home server system at Manchester central library. Slides can be found here.

Before the event I was eating a sandwich in one of the parks and listening to nearby Hare Krishna buskers playing bongos, which was quite fun. Not many lyrics, but easy to learn.

Turnout this time was smaller than the previous year, but the venue was nice. It was also fitting to be giving a talk about public software in a place dedicated to keeping information accessible to the public.

Outside the library there is bronze statue of Emily Pankhurst amusingly standing on a chair giving a speech. The motto carved in the stone behind her says "deeds not words". I know what she means by that. You can engage in all manner of eloquent verbosity, but if it's not matched by corresponding actions then it doesn't amount to much. In earlier times there used to be a hacker motto of "show me the code". I don't see that written much anymore - even in the danker recesses of the interwebs - but it's the same kind of ethos.

There was an interesting talk about CSS which was quite relevant to my interests because the recent project which I've worked on called Epicyon makes extensive use of that for themes.

It's also a curious time to be someone doing Free Software. Reports from the Manchester group are that interest in "freedom related issues" such as software freedom, Open Rights Group and freedom of information has been in severe decline for some time. Perhaps there is a chilling effect from the ambient politics of reactionary populism and maybe the passing of the Snoopers Charter in 2016 was a devastating defeat for ORG.

And yet it seems like Free Software is more relevant now than it was decades ago. The problems around who has access to software and who controls it are a lot more tangible and the stakes are much higher. To paraphrase earlier sayings, either the public controls the software or the software controls the public. If the latter is true - and increasingly it appears to be - then we're really in a time of technology-enabled tyranny. Only deeds can even begin to do something about that.