Tag: freedom

Wretched is a mind anxious about the future

So said one of my favourite non-fiction authors, the 16th century proto-blogger Michel de Montaigne. There’s plenty of writing about how we need to be anxious because of the drift towards a future of surveillance states. Eventually, because it’s not currently affecting us here and now, we become blasé. We forget that it’s already the lived experience for hundreds of millions of people.

Take China, for example. In The Atlantic, Derek Thompson writes about the Chinese government’s brutality against the Muslim Uyghur population in the western province of Xinjiang:

[The] horrifying situation is built on the scaffolding of mass surveillance. Cameras fill the marketplaces and intersections of the key city of Kashgar. Recording devices are placed in homes and even in bathrooms. Checkpoints that limit the movement of Muslims are often outfitted with facial-recognition devices to vacuum up the population’s biometric data. As China seeks to export its suite of surveillance tech around the world, Xinjiang is a kind of R&D incubator, with the local Muslim population serving as guinea pigs in a laboratory for the deprivation of human rights.

Derek Thompson

As Ian Welsh points out, surveillance states usually involve us in the West pointing towards places like China and shaking our heads. However, if you step back a moment and remember that societies like the US and UK are becoming more unequal over time, then perhaps we’re the ones who should be worried:

The endgame, as I’ve been pointing out for years, is a society in which where you are and what you’re doing, and have done is, always known, or at least knowable. And that information is known forever, so the moment someone with power wants to take you out, they can go back thru your life in minute detail. If laws or norms change so that what was OK 10 or 30 years ago isn’t OK now, well they can get you on that.

Ian Welsh

As the world becomes more unequal, the position of elites becomes more perilous, hence Silicon Valley billionaires preparing boltholes in New Zealand. Ironically, they’re looking for places where they can’t be found, while making serious money from providing surveillance technology. Instead of solving the inequality, they attempt to insulate themselves from the effect of that inequality.

A lot of the crazy amounts of money earned in Silicon Valley comes at the price of infringing our privacy. I’ve spent a long time thinking about quite nebulous concept. It’s not the easiest thing to understand when you examine it more closely.

Privacy is usually considered a freedom from rather than a freedom to, as in “freedom from surveillance”. The trouble is that there are many kinds of surveillance, and some of these we actively encourage. A quick example: I know of at least one family that share their location with one another all of the time. At the same time, of course, they’re sharing it with the company that provides that service.

There’s a lot of power in the ‘default’ privacy settings devices and applications come with. People tend to go with whatever comes as standard. Sidney Fussell writes in The Atlantic that:

Many apps and products are initially set up to be public: Instagram accounts are open to everyone until you lock them… Even when companies announce convenient shortcuts for enhancing security, their products can never become truly private. Strangers may not be able to see your selfies, but you have no way to untether yourself from the larger ad-targeting ecosystem.

Sidney Fussell

Some of us (including me) are willing to trade some of that privacy for more personalised services that somehow make our lives easier. The tricky thing is when it comes to employers and state surveillance. In these cases there are coercive power relationships at play, rather than just convenience.

Ellen Sheng, writing for CNBC explains how employees in the US are at huge risk from workplace surveillance:

In the workplace, almost any consumer privacy law can be waived. Even if companies give employees a choice about whether or not they want to participate, it’s not hard to force employees to agree. That is, unless lawmakers introduce laws that explicitly state a company can’t make workers agree to a technology…

One example: Companies are increasingly interested in employee social media posts out of concern that employee posts could reflect poorly on the company. A teacher’s aide in Michigan was suspended in 2012 after refusing to share her Facebook page with the school’s superintendent following complaints about a photo she had posted. Since then, dozens of similar cases prompted lawmakers to take action. More than 16 states have passed social media protections for individuals.

Ellen Sheng

It’s not just workplaces, though. Schools are hotbeds for new surveillance technologies, as Benjamin Herold notes in an article for Education Week:

Social media monitoring companies track the posts of everyone in the areas surrounding schools, including adults. Other companies scan the private digital content of millions of students using district-issued computers and accounts. Those services are complemented with tip-reporting apps, facial-recognition software, and other new technology systems.


While schools are typically quiet about their monitoring of public social media posts, they generally disclose to students and parents when digital content created on district-issued devices and accounts will be monitored. Such surveillance is typically done in accordance with schools’ responsible-use policies, which students and parents must agree to in order to use districts’ devices, networks, and accounts.
Hypothetically, students and families can opt out of using that technology. But doing so would make participating in the educational life of most schools exceedingly difficult.

Benjamin Herold

In China, of course, a social credit system makes all of this a million times worse, but we in the West aren’t heading in a great direction either.

We’re entering a time where, by the time my children are my age, companies, employers, and the state could have decades of data from when they entered the school system through to them finding jobs, and becoming parents themselves.

There are upsides to all of this data, obviously. But I think that in the midst of privacy-focused conversations about Amazon’s smart speakers and Google location-sharing, we might be missing the bigger picture around surveillance by educational institutions, employers, and governments.

Returning to Ian Welsh to finish up, remember that it’s the coercive power relationships that make surveillance a bad thing:

Surveillance societies are sterile societies. Everyone does what they’re supposed to do all the time, and because we become what we do, it affects our personalities. It particularly affects our creativity, and is a large part of why Communist surveillance societies were less creative than the West, particularly as their police states ramped up.

Ian Welsh

We don’t want to think about all of this, though, do we?

Also check out:

What is no good for the hive is no good for the bee

So said Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius. In this article, I want to apply that to our use of technology as well as the stories we tell one another about that technology use.

Let’s start with an excellent post by Nolan Lawson, who when I started using Twitter less actually deleted his account and went all-in on the Fediverse. He maintains a Mastodon web client called Pinafore, and is a clear-headed thinker on all things open. The post is called Tech veganism and sums up the problem I have with holier-than-thou open advocates:

I find that there’s a bit of a “let them eat cake” attitude among tech vegan boosters, because they often discount the sheer difficulty of all this stuff. (“Let them use Linux” could be a fitting refrain.) After all, they figured it out, so why can’t you? What, doesn’t everyone have a computer science degree and six years experience as a sysadmin?

To be a vegan, all you have to do is stop eating animal products. To be a tech vegan, you have to join an elite guild of tech wizards and master their secret arts. And even then, you’re probably sneaking a forbidden bite of Google or Apple every now and then.

Nolan Lawson

It’s that second paragraph that’s the killer for me. I’m pescetarian and probably about the equivalent of that, in Lawson’s lingo, when it comes to my tech choices. I definitely agree with him that the conversation is already changing away from open source and free software to what Mark Zuckerberg (shudder) calls “time well spent”:

I also suspect that tech veganism will begin to shift, if it hasn’t already. I think the focus will become less about open source vs closed source (the battle of the last decade) and more about digital well-being, especially in regards to privacy, addiction, and safety. So in this way, it may be less about switching from Windows to Linux and more about switching from Android to iOS, or from Facebook to more private channels like Discord and WhatsApp.

Nolan Lawson

This is reminiscent of Yancey Strickler‘s notion of ‘dark forests’. I can definitely see more call for nuance around private and public spaces.

So much of this, though, depends on your worldview. Everyone likes the idea of ‘freedom’, but are we talking about ‘freedom from‘ or ‘freedom to‘? How important are different types of freedom? Should all information be available to everyone? Where do rights start and responsibilities stop (and vice-versa)?

One thing I’ve found fascinating is how the world changes and debates get left behind. For example, the idea (and importance) of Linux on the desktop has been something that people have been discussing most of my adult life. At the same time, cloud computing has changed the game, with a lot of the data processing and heavy lifting being done by servers — most of which are powered by Linux!

Mark Shuttleworth, CEO of Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu Linux, said in a recent interview:

I think the bigger challenge has been that we haven’t invented anything in the Linux that was like deeply, powerfully ahead of its time… if in the free software community we only allow ourselves to talk about things that look like something that already exists, then we’re sort of defining ourselves as a series of forks and fragmentations.

Mark Shuttleworth

This is a problem that’s wider than just software. Those of us who are left-leaning are more likely to let small ideological differences dilute our combined power. That affects everything from opposing Brexit, to getting people to switch to Linux. There’s just too much noise, too many competing options.

Meanwhile, as the P2P Foundation notes, businesses swoop in and use open licenses to enclose the Commons:

[I]t is clear that these Commons have become an essential infrastructure without which the Internet could no longer function today (90% of the world’s servers run on Linux, 25% of websites use WordPress, etc.) But many of these projects suffer from maintenance and financing problems, because their development depends on communities whose means are unrelated to the size of the resources they make available to the whole world.


This situation corresponds to a form of tragedy of the Commons, but of a different nature from that which can strike material resources. Indeed, intangible resources, such as software or data, cannot by definition be over-exploited and they even increase in value as they are used more and more. But tragedy can strike the communities that participate in the development and maintenance of these digital commons. When the core of individual contributors shrinks and their strengths are exhausted, information resources lose quality and can eventually wither away.

P2P Foundation

So what should we do? One thing we’ve done with MoodleNet is to ensure that it has an AGPL license, one that Google really doesn’t like. They state perfectly the reasons why we selected it:

The primary risk presented by AGPL is that any product or service that depends on AGPL-licensed code, or includes anything copied or derived from AGPL-licensed code, may be subject to the virality of the AGPL license. This viral effect requires that the complete corresponding source code of the product or service be released to the world under the AGPL license. This is triggered if the product or service can be accessed over a remote network interface, so it does not even require that the product or service is actually distributed.


So, in other words, if you run a server with AGPL code, or create a project with source code derived from it, you must make that code available to others. To me, it has the same ‘viral effect’ as the Creative Commons BY-SA license.

As Benjamin “Mako” Hill points out in a recent keynote, we need to be a bit more wise when it comes to ‘choosing a side’. Cory Doctorow, summarising Mako’s keynote says:

[M]arkets discovered free software and turned it into “open source,” figuring out how to create developer communities around software (“digital sharecropping”) that lowered their costs and increased their quality. Then the companies used patents and DRM and restrictive terms of service to prevent users from having any freedom.

Mako says that this is usually termed “strategic openness,” in which companies take a process that would, by default, be closed, and open the parts of it that make strategic sense for the firm. But really, this is “strategic closedness” — projects that are born open are strategically enclosed by companies to allow them to harvest the bulk of the value created by these once-free systems.


Mako suggests that the time in which free software and open source could be uneasy bedfellows is over. Companies’ perfection of digital sharecropping means that when they contribute to “free” projects, all the freedom will go to them, not the public.

Cory Doctorow

It’s certainly an interesting time we live in, when the people who are pointing out all of the problems (the ‘tech vegans’) are seen as the problem, and the VC-backed companies as the disruptive champions of the people. Tech follows politics, though, I guess.

Also check out:

  • Is High Quality Software Worth the Cost? (Martin Fowler) — “I thus divide software quality attributes into external (such as the UI and defects) and internal (architecture). The distinction is that users and customers can see what makes a software product have high external quality, but cannot tell the difference between higher or lower internal quality.”
  • What the internet knows about you (Axios) — “The big picture: Finding personal information online is relatively easy; removing all of it is nearly impossible.”
  • Against Waldenponding II (ribbonfarm) — “Waldenponding is a search for meaning that is circumscribed by the what you might call the spiritual gravity field of an object or behavior held up as ineffably sacred. “

Man must choose whether to be rich in things or in the freedom to use them

So said Ivan Illich. Another person I can imagine saying that is Diogenes the Cynic, perhaps my favourite philosopher of all time. He famously lived in a large barrel, sometimes pretended he was a dog, and allegedly told Alexander the Great to stand out of his sunlight.

What a guy. The thing that Diogenes understood is that freedom is much more important than power. That’s the subject of a New York Times Op-Ed by essayist and cartoonist Tim Kreiger, who explains:

I would define power as the ability to make other people do what you want; freedom is the ability to do what you want. Like gravity and acceleration, these are two forces that appear to be different but are in fact one. Freedom is the defensive, or pre-emptive, form of power: the power that’s necessary to resist all the power the world attempts to exert over us from day one. So immense and pervasive is this force that it takes a considerable counterforce just to restore and maintain mere autonomy. Who was ultimately more powerful: the conqueror Alexander, who ruled the known world, or the philosopher Diogenes, whom Alexander could neither offer nor threaten with anything? (Alexander reportedly said that if he weren’t Alexander, he would want to be Diogenes. Diogenes said that if he weren’t Diogenes, he’d want to be Diogenes too.)

Tim Kreider

Of course, Tim is a privileged white dude, just like me. His opinion piece does, however, give us an interesting way into the cultural phenomenon of young white men opting out of regular employment.

As Andrew Fiouzi writes for Mel Magazine, the gap between what you’re told (and what you see your older relatives achieving) and what you’re offered can sometimes be stark. Michael Madowitz, an economist at the Center for American Progress, is cited by Fiouzi in the article.

While there’s a lot of speculation as to why this is the case, Madowitz says it has little to do with the common narrative that millennial men are too busy playing video games. Instead, he argues that millennials… who entered the labor market at a time when it was less likely than ever to adequately reward them for their work — “I couldn’t get any interviews and I tried doing some freelance stuff, but I could barely find anything, so I took an unpaid internship at a design agency,” says [one example] — were simply less likely to feel the upside of working.

Andrew Fiouzi

By default in our western culture, no matter how much a man earns, if he’s in a hetrosexual relationship, then it’s the woman who becomes the care-giver after they have children. I think that’s changing a bit, and men are more likely to at least share the responsibilities.

So in the end, it may be the very inflexibility of an economy built on traditional gender roles that ultimately brings down the male-dominated labor apparatus, one stay-at-home dad at a time.


Part of the problem, I think, is the constant advice to ‘follow your heart’ and find work that’s ‘your passion’. While I think you absolutely should be guided by your values, how that plays out depends a lot on context.

Pavithra Mohan takes this up in an article for Fast Company. She writes:

Sometimes, compensation or job function may be more important to you than meaning, while at other times location and flexibility may take precedence. 


Something that can get lost in the conversation around meaningful work is that even pursuing it takes privilege.


Making an impact can also mean very different things to different people. If you feel fulfilled by your family or social life, for example, being connected to your work may not—and need not—be of utmost importance. You might find more meaning in volunteer work or believe you can make more of an impact by practicing effective altruism and putting the money you earn towards charitable causes. 

Pavithra Mohan

I’ve certainly been thinking about that this Bank Holiday weekend. What gets squeezed out in your personal life, when you’re busy trying to find the perfect ‘work’ life? Or, to return to a question that Jocelyn K. Glei asks, who are you without the doing?

Also check out:

  • Is pleasure all that is good about experience? (Journal of Philosophical Studies) — “In this article I present the claim that hedonism is not the most plausible experientialist account of wellbeing. The value of experience should not be understood as being limited to pleasure, and as such, the most plausible experientialist account of wellbeing is pluralistic, not hedonistic.”
  • Strong Opinions Loosely Held Might be the Worst Idea in Tech (The Glowforge Blog) — “What really happens? The loudest, most bombastic engineer states their case with certainty, and that shuts down discussion. Other people either assume the loudmouth knows best, or don’t want to stick out their neck and risk criticism and shame. This is especially true if the loudmouth is senior, or there is any other power differential.”
  • Why Play a Music CD? ‘No Ads, No Privacy Terrors, No Algorithms’ (The New York Times) — “What formerly hyped, supposedly essential technology has since been exposed for gross privacy violations, or for how easily it has become a tool for predatory disinformation?”

A useful IndieWeb primer

I’ve followed the IndieWeb movement since its inception, but it’s always seemed a bit niche. I love (and use) the POSSE model, for example, but expecting everyone to have domain of their own stacked with open source software seems a bit utopian right now.

I was surprised and delighted, therefore, to see a post on the GoDaddy blog extolling the virtues of the IndieWeb for business owners. The author explains that the IndieWeb movement was born of frustration:

Frustration from software developers who like the idea of social media, but who do not want to hand over their content to some big, unaccountable internet company that unilaterally decides who gets to see what.

Frustration from writers and content creators who do not want a third party between them and the people they want to reach.

Frustration from researchers and journalists who need a way to get their message out without depending on the whim of a big company that monitors, and sometimes censors, what they have to say.

He does a great job of explaining, with an appropriate level of technical detail, how to get started. The thing I’d really like to see in particular is people publishing details of events at a public URL instead of (just) on Facebook:

Importantly, with IndieAuth, you can log into third-party websites using your own domain name. And your visitors can log into your website with their domain name. Or, if you organize events, you can post your event announcement right on your website, and have attendees RSVP either from their own IndieWeb sites, or natively on a social site.

A recommended read. I’ll be pointing people to this in future!

Source: GoDaddy