I'm Andrew. I write about the past and future of tech, music, media, culture, art, and activism. This is my blog.

Community Software: Building The Future Inside The Rotting Husk of The Past

Posted: May 23, 2024

It’s amazing to me how we’re watching the tech world fall apart at the feet of monetization, enshitifiction, AI, and whatever other Bullshit trend they’re chasing this week. This is basically all exactly the consequences that the Free Software folks have been warning about and talking about for decades!

But the free software folks are, often, aggressive ideological purists, or incredibly gatekeep-y, or outright bigots, fascists, etc. and free software as a movement has been seriously hampered by that, and also by the same monetization push that is eating everything else. Cannonical partners with Amazon, Firefox partners with Google, Duck Duck Go is just Bing in a trench coat. Heck, one of the most widely used Free image editing programs is named after an ableist slur, and is actively hostile to anyone who suggests the name should change.

We built our entire world on computers! We embedded them in every facet of our lives. We climb inside computers and hurl ourselves across concrete at 70 miles per hour, while other people let their computers also control the steering wheel. We have ceded our communication, our entertainment, our news, and our safety to The Machine.

I’ve spent my entire life With The Machine.

And yet…

The Machine isn’t our friend.

If you can’t install your own software on your Device, from the source of your choice, you are at the mercy of the person who decides what software you can install. This is bad! It’s bad when Apple does it in the name of security, it’s bad when Microsoft does it in the name of monetization.

If you can’t install your own operating system on it, from the source of your choice, you are at the mercy of the person who decides what operating system you can install. This is bad, but it’s also super common. How many mobile devices only run android or lineage/free-android? How many can’t even run lineage? What about all those iOS tablets? What about all those M1 laptops?

If someone else is in charge of what you can publish, or what you can read, or who you can connect with, you are at the mercy of the algorithm. This means you watch what google (or Amazon, or Netflix, or Comcast, or Zaslav) wants you to watch, you read what facebook (or google, or Microsoft, or Elon Musk) wants you to read.

If someone else controls your distribution pipe, you can only publish what google, or facebook, or Elon Musk want you to publish, and it can only be seen by the people they want to see it. When your business only has a Facebook Page or conveys all it’s important updates via Twitter, everyone is at the mercy of Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg if they want to interact with you.

There has to be another way!

And there is another way! Mastodon proved that alternatives can exist. Debian proves that alternatives can exist. Podcasts, RSS, Email. These are all shining examples of another path.

But this other way? Well, it’s fragile. Right now, it mostly depends on the kindness of strangers, and it imposes a somewhat significant additional cognitive barrier to entry. Getting started on Mastodon means picking an instance or self hosting. Picking an instance feels hard. Self hosting can be complicated. Picking an email provider, in today’s climate, mostly means dealing with Google or Microsoft (even though lots of others exist, even though you could self host, because Google and Microsoft won’t let most people read your messages if they didn’t come from a big provider.)

And self hosting? That means being responsible for outages, for backups, for infrastructure, for Payment.

It’s all hard.

I haven’t used a microsoft OS for anything other than interfacing with printers and industrial equipment in almost a decade. (unless you count windows 3.1, but I’m not going to.) I haven’t used macOS outside of work basically ever, and I’m not working anymore so I have no reason to do it in the future.

I use popOS, Debian, and occasionally when I’ve made bad choices in the past, I end up with Ubuntu somewhere. (Or Ubuntu Studio, which is less of a bad choice and more of a compromise) Eventually, if things continue in the direction they’re going, I’ll have Debian most places. This is great, it means that I have an operating system that is maintained by a well funded, well respected non-profit that has repeatedly demonstrated itself to make Software Decisions that I agree with. But I have the ability and the privilege to make those choices, and also the freedom to live with the consequences. Not everyone does.

Too Big To Succeed

The shape of the world is changing quickly, and some of these tech companies, Microsoft in particular, are not only Too Big To Fail, they’re also too big to be allowed to continue to exist without significant external governance. Google, Amazon, Facebook… I mean, these companies shouldn’t exist. Their products, such as they are, should be ripped apart and rebuilt as a million tiny things.

But Windows? I think Windows has it’s place, or at least I think that it has so completely captured the modern technological world that we’re worse off without it. Which is what makes things like AI PCs that take a screenshot of your workload every 10 seconds so dangerous.

Windows is too big to continue to be owned by any company.And yet, it is owned by a company, and we’re at their mercy. Even those of us who have tried to opt out of their ecosystem have to suffer under their decisions.

Because we’re all a community. The things that happen to one of us cascade. As long as windows exists, it’s likely someone I communicate with on a regular basis will be a Windows user. This means that it’s likely microsoft is training it’s AI on my communications without my consent. They bought the biggest repository of Open Source software and they used it to train another AI model to pretend to write code, while actually just source laundering open source code that was released without locking those new works in to the same licsense.

Is it legal? Who knows! But Microsoft doesn’t care.

Microsoft exists. They can inflict a huge amount of harm at a whim and no one can stop them from doing it, and even I who have spent decades trying to escape them still depend on them for various core aspects of my life.

So what do we do?

Well, we keep doing what we’ve been doing, mostly. We distribute indpendent media, we host public resources for sharing video, we keep building things like Peertube, GoToSocial, etc. We keep writing blogs, we keep making podcasts, and we fight silos.

Don’t get your podcast from Apple, subscribe via RSS. Don’t get your fediverse from threads, sign up on an independent instance. And, possibly most importantly, when we can afford to do so, we financially support the people who make the software that provides an alternative to these closed worlds.

We build the future in the rotting husk of the present.

I guess what I’m saying is that Free Software isn’t enough, and that specifically the Free Software movement as it exists today has failed to protect the vulnerable or to support those at risk, and is full of nazis and bigots.

I dropped out of the tech industry. If I’m very lucky, I’ll never have to go back. I spend my time hosting open source infrastructure, and writing open source software, and producing remixable media. (and running a bookstore, and dealing with people driving dump trucks in to my building (apparently?) but that’s beside the point.) I call the media that we produce Community Media, and I think it’s well passed time that we develop a similar concept for Software.

Community Software?

I don’t want to talk about the FSF, I don’t want to talk about GNU. I want to talk about what small software, made by regular people, to help one another I want to talk about software that takes the principles of Community Media that I outlined in my book, and applies them to technology. Software for the people. Software for communities. Software to empower.

I believe that this is the best path towards a more equitable future, and the best way to separate building that more equitable future from a concept of Free Software that should be values alligned but is tainted by the fact that so many of the other people who are engaged in this work are the kinds of people I hope never to associate with.

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