Paul's activities and perspectives around Free Software
On Not Liking Computers
Adam Williamson recently wrote about how he no longer really likes computers. This attracted many responses from people who misunderstood him and decided to dispense career advice, including doses of the usual material about “following one’s passion” or “changing one’s direction” (which usually involves becoming some kind of “global nomad”), which do make me wonder how some of these people actually pay their bills. Do they have a wealthy spouse or wealthy parents or “an inheritance”, or do they just do lucrative contracting for random entities whose nature or identities remain deliberately obscure to avoid thinking about where the money for those jobs really comes from? Particularly the latter would be the “global nomad” way, as far as I can tell.
But anyway, Adam appears to like his job: it’s just that he isn’t interested in technological pursuits outside working hours. At some level, I think we can all sympathise with that. For those of us who have similarly pessimistic views about computing, it’s worth presenting a list of reasons why we might not be so enthusiastic about technology any more, particularly for those of us who also care about the ethical dimensions, not merely whether the technology itself is “any good” or whether it provides a sufficient intellectual challenge. By the way, this is my own list: I don’t know Adam from, well, Adam!
Lack of Actual Progress
One may be getting older and noticing that the same technological problems keep occurring again and again, never getting resolved, while seeing people with no sense of history provoke change for change’s – not progress’s – sake. After a while, or when one gets to a certain age, one expects technology to just work and that people might have figured out how to get things to communicate with each other, or whatever, by building on what went before. But then it usually seems to be the case that some boy genius or other wanted a clear run at solving such problems from scratch, developing lots of flashy features but not the mundane reliability that everybody really wanted.
People then get told that such “advanced” technology is necessarily complicated. Whereas once upon a time, you could pick up a telephone, dial a number, have someone answer, and conduct a half-decent conversation, now you have to make sure that the equipment is all connected up properly, that all the configurations are correct, that the Internet provider isn’t short-changing you or trying to suppress your network traffic. And then you might dial and not get through, or you might have the call mysteriously cut out, or the audio quality might be like interviewing a gang of squabbling squirrels speaking from the bottom of a dustbin/trashcan.
One may be seeing a profession that requires a fair amount of educational investment – which, thanks to inept/corrupt politicians, also means a fair amount of financial investment – become devalued to the point that its practitioners are regarded as interchangeable commodities who can be coerced into working for as little as possible. So much for the “knowledge economy” when its practitioners risk ending up earning less than people doing so-called “menial” work who didn’t need to go through a thorough higher education or keep up an ongoing process of self-improvement to remain “relevant”. (Not that there’s anything wrong with “menial” work: without people doing unfashionable jobs, everything would grind to a halt very quickly, whereas quite a few things I’ve done might as well not exist, so little difference they made to anything.)
Now we get told that programming really will be the domain of “artificial intelligence” this time around. That instead of humans writing code, “high priests” will merely direct computers to write the software they need. Of course, such stuff sounds great in Wired magazine and rather amusing to anyone with any actual experience of software projects. Unfortunately, politicians (and other “thought leaders”) read such things one day and then slash away at budgets the next. And in a decade’s time, we’ll be suffering the same “debate” about a lack of “engineering talent” with the same “insights” from the usual gaggle of patent lobbyists and vested interests.
Neoliberal Fantasy Economics
One may have encountered the “internship” culture where as many people as possible try to get programmers and others in the industry to work for nothing, making them feel as if they need to do so in order to prove their worth for a hypothetical employment position or to demonstrate that they are truly committed to some corporate-aligned goal. One reads or hears people advocating involvement in “open source” not to uphold the four freedoms (to use, share, modify and distribute software), but instead to persuade others to “get on the radar” of an employer whose code has been licensed as Free Software (or something pretending to be so) largely to get people to work for them for free.
Now, I do like the idea of employers getting to know potential employees by interacting in a Free Software project, but it should really only occur when the potential employee is already doing something they want to do because it interests them and is in their interests. And no-one should be persuaded into doing work for free on the vague understanding that they might get hired for doing so.
The Expendable Volunteers
One may have seen the exploitation of volunteer effort where people are made to feel that they should “step up” for the benefit of something they believe in, often requiring volunteers to sacrifice their own time and money to do such free work, and often seeing those volunteers being encouraged to give money directly to the cause, as if all their other efforts were not substantial contributions in themselves. While striving to make a difference around the edges of their own lives, volunteers are often working in opposition to well-resourced organisations whose employees have the luxury of countering such volunteer efforts on a full-time basis and with a nice salary. Those people can go home in the evenings and at weekends and tune it all out if they want to.
No wonder volunteers burn out or decide that they just don’t have time or aren’t sufficiently motivated any more. The sad thing is that some organisations ignore this phenomenon because there are plenty of new volunteers wanting to “get active” and “be visible”, perhaps as a way of marketing themselves. Then again, some communities are content to alienate existing users if they can instead attract the mythical “10x” influx of new users to take their place, so we shouldn’t really be surprised, I suppose.
Blame the Powerless
One may be exposed to the culture that if you care about injustices or wrongs then bad or unfortunate situations are your responsibility even if you had nothing to do with their creation. This culture pervades society and allows the powerful to do what they like, to then make everyone else feel bad about the consequences, and to virtually force people to just accept the results if they don’t have the energy at the end of a busy day to do the legwork of bringing people to account.
So, those of us with any kind of conscience at all might already be supporting people trying to do the right thing like helping others, holding people to account, protecting the vulnerable, and so on. But at the same time, we aren’t short of people – particularly in the media and in politics – telling us how bad things are, with an air of expectation that we might take responsibility for something supposedly done on our behalf that has had grave consequences. (The invasion and bombing of foreign lands is one depressingly recurring example.) Sadly, the feeling of powerlessness many people have, as the powerful go round doing what they like regardless, is exploited by the usual cynical “divide and rule” tactics of other powerful people who merely see the opportunities in the misuse of power and the misery it causes. And so, selfishness and tribalism proliferate, demotivating anyone wanting the world to become a better place.
Reversal of Liberties
One may have had the realisation that technology is no longer merely about creating opportunities or making things easier, but is increasingly about controlling and monitoring people and making things complicated and difficult. That sustainability is sacrificed so that companies can cultivate recurring and rich profit opportunities by making people dependent on obsolete products that must be replaced regularly. And that technology exacerbates societal ills rather than helping to eradicate them.
We have the modern Web whose average site wants to “dial out” to a cast of recurring players – tracking sites, content distribution networks (providing advertising more often than not), font resources, image resources, script resources – all of which contribute to making the “signal-to-noise” ratio of the delivered content smaller and smaller all the time. Where everything has to maintain a channel of communication to random servers to constantly update them about what the user is doing, where they spent most of their time, what they looked at and what they clicked on. All of this requiring hundreds of megabytes of program code and data, burning up CPU time, wasting energy, making computers slow and steadily obsolete, forcing people to throw things away and to buy more things to throw away soon enough.
We have the “app” ecosystem experience, with restrictions on access, competition and interoperability, with arbitrarily-curated content: the walled gardens that the likes of Apple and Microsoft failed to impose on everybody at the dawn of the “consumer Internet” but do so now under the pretences of convenience and safety. We have social networking empires that serve fake news to each person’s little echo chamber, whipping up bubbles of hate and distracting people from what is really going on in the world and what should really matter. We have “cloud” services that often offer mediocre user experiences but which offer access from “any device”, with users opting in to both the convenience of being able to get their messages or files from their phone and the surveillance built into such services for commercial and governmental exploitation.
We have planned obsolescence designed into software and hardware, with customers obliged to buy new products to keep doing the things they want to do with those products and to keep it a relatively secure experience. And we have dodgy batteries sealed into devices, with the obligation apparently falling on the customers themselves to look after their own safety and – when the product fails – the impact of that product on the environment. By burdening the hapless user of technology with so many caveats that their life becomes dominated by them, those things become a form of tyranny, too.
Many people need to find meaning in their work and to feel that their work aligns with their own priorities. Some people might be able to do work that is unchallenging or uninteresting and then pursue their interests and goals in their own time, but this may be discouraging and demotivating over the longer term. When people’s work is not orthogonal to their own beliefs and interests but instead actively undermines them, the result is counterproductive and even damaging to those beliefs and interests and to others who share them.
For example, developing proprietary software or services in a full-time job, although potentially intellectually challenging, is likely to undermine any realistic level of commitment in one’s own free time to Free Software that does the same thing. Some people may prioritise a stimulating job over the things they believe in, feeling that their work still benefits others in a different way. Others may feel that they are betraying Free Software users by making people reliant on proprietary software and causing interoperability problems when those proprietary software users start assuming that everything should revolve around them, their tools, their data, and their expectations.
Although Adam wasn’t framing this shift in perspectives in terms of his job or career, it might have an impact on some people in that regard. I sometimes think of the interactions between my personal priorities and my career. Indeed, the way that Adam can seemingly stash his technological pursuits within the confines of his day job, while leaving the rest of his time for other things, was some kind of vision that I once had for studying and practising computer science. I think he is rather lucky in that his employer’s interests and his own are aligned sufficiently for him to be able to consider his workplace a venue for furthering those interests, doing so sufficiently to not need to try and make up the difference at home.
We live in an era of computational abundance and yet so much of that abundance is applied ineffectively and inappropriately. I wish I had a concise solution to the complicated equation involving technology and its effects on our quality of life, if not for the application of technology in society in general, then at least for individuals, and not least for myself. Maybe a future article needs to consider what we should expect from technology, as its application spreads ever wider, such that the technology we use and experience upholds our rights and expectations as human beings instead of undermining and marginalising them.
It’s not hard to see how even those who were once enthusiastic about computers can end up resenting them and disliking what they have become.