A Line in the Sand
There's a new side to choose. It helps that each of us is already on it.
Linux Journal was born in one fight and grew through a series of others.
Our first fight was for freedom. That began in 1993, when Phil Hughes started work toward a free software magazine. The fight for free software was still there when that magazine was born as Linux Journal in April 1994. Then a second fight began. That one was against all forms of closed and proprietary software, including the commercial UNIX variants that Linux would eventually defeat. We got in the fight for open source starting in 1998. (In 2005, I got a ribbon for my own small part in that battle.) And last year, we began our fight against what Shoshana Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism, and Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger call re-engineering humanity.
This new fight is against actual and wannabe corporate and government overlords, all hell-bent on maintaining the caste system that reduces each of us to mere "consumers" and "data subjects" in a world Richard Brautigan described perfectly half a century ago in his poem "All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace". You know, like The Matrix, only for real.
They'll fail, because no machine can fully understand human beings. Each of us is too different, too original, too wacky, too self-educating, too built for gaming every system meant to control us. (Discredit where due: we also suck in lots of ways. For example, Scott Adams is right that we're easy to hack with a good con.)
But why wait for nature to take its course when surveillance capitalists are busy setting civilization back decades or more—especially when we can obsolesce their whole business in the short term?
Here at Linux Journal, we're already doing our part by not participating in the surveillance business that digital advertising has mostly become, and by doing pioneering work in helping the online publishing business obey the wishes of its readers.
At a deeper level, what all of us in the FOSS community have been trying to do all along is prove that free people are worth more than captive ones, both to themselves and to everyone and everything else. In Matrix terms, we want to make each of us a Neo.
Working to free people from The Matrix is hard, because it's not just making the software and hardware we need. Relatively speaking, those are low-hanging fruit. So is getting publicity for it.
The hard thing is that the big money and demand for work is mostly in making The Matrix less bad.
And it's true: we do need people pushing the status quo in a helpful direction. We also need activists to reform all our standing institutions, from politics to health care to education to social media and its platforms. It's also good that these kinds of work tend to pay, through credentials, experience and money. And let's face the fact that it's easier to see what's wrong in the world as it is, and to fight for changing it, than it is to see first causes at a deeper level, and then work to change damn near everything above that level with a few good hacks.
But it can be done. We did with all the free and open-source protocols and code bases on which our networked world now utterly depends. We can do it again to make free individuals more valuable than captive ones.
And that's the line we need to draw here: one between what we want for people as independent agents of themselves and all the ways we can work to improve the status quo for both institutions and the people who depend on them.
We can sort this out with a two-part question:
- Are you working to give people their own ways of dealing with companies and other organizations in the world, at scale? (By scale, I mean giving people single ways to deal with many others, such as we already get with protocols like TCP/IP, HTTP, IMAP, SMTP and FTP, and with apps, such as browsers and email clients.) Or...
- Are you working to help companies and other organizations (for example, governments) treat people better than they do already?
Neither side is wrong. I want to make that clear. I also want to make clear that the deepest work we need to do—the truly radical and world-changing stuff—is on the first side. And that's the side that needs us the most.
I think it's safe to say that most Linux Journal readers are on the first side. It's also safe to say that most people working to make existing life better for other people are on the other side.
So let's not try to recruit over there on the other side. Let's look instead at how best to recruit from our own ranks.
Three challenges there.
One is that everybody qualified to join and help a cause is already busy.
Another is that everybody doing good and original person-liberating work in the world is damn good at being self-liberated in the world as it is. For example, the wizards among us are very good at securing their own borders in the networked world, and at maintaining as many different login/password combinations as there are sites and services to log in to—while relatively few are working to obsolesce the whole login/password convention.
The third is that lots of us have the attitude Chris Hill lampooned in his brilliant Switch to Linux video back in 2003 (and I wrote about here). That video stars an alpha geek who says, "Linux runs on anything", then adds, "You've got to config it...write some shell scripts...update your RPMs...partition your drives...patch your kernel...compile your binaries...check your version dependencies...probably do that once or twice....It's just so easy, and so simple. I don't know why everyone doesn't run Linux." That litany has changed a lot in the last 16 years, but to assume that muggles should do what wizards do is just as wrong as it ever was.
So what's right? Glad you asked.
Last April, in "How Wizards and Muggles Break Free from the Matrix", I put up a punch list of 13 different things already being done to help break everyone free of institutions that would rather hold them captive—and to build bases for far better institutions in the process.
At the time I wrote that, I assumed that the GDPR would clear paths for work already moving forward within all 13 items on that muggle-liberating punch list. Alas, the GDPR's single positive achievement so far has been shaking things up. That's it. The worst thing the GDPR has done is encourage surveillance capitalists to keep doing the same damn things, only now with the "consent" of "data subjects" clicking "agree" to misleading cookie notices everywhere.
But the work proceeds (and the list of places where it's proceeding is now up to 17 items), and all of it can use your help.
So please, let us know which side of the line you stand on and what you're ready to do about it (or, better yet, already doing). Thanks.