Tag: Yancey Strickler

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. “

Men fear wanderers for they have no rules

A few years ago, when I was at Mozilla, a colleague mentioned a series of books by Bernard Cornwell called The Last Kingdom. It seemed an obvious fit for me, he said, given that my interest in history and that I live in Northumberland. A couple of years later, I got around to reading the series, and loved it. The quote that serves as the title for this article is from the second book in the series: The Pale Horseman.

Another book I read that I wasn’t expecting to enjoy was Ender’s Game, a sci-fi novel by Orson Scott Card. I was looking for a quotation about Ender’s access to networks when I came across this one from another one of the author’s novels:

“Every person is defined by the communities she belongs to.”

Orson Scott Card

Some people say that you’re the average of the five people with which you surround yourself. In this day and age, ‘surrounding yourself’ isn’t necessarily a physical activity, it’s to do with your interactions, however they occur.

It’s easy to think about the time we spend at home with our nearest and dearest, but what about our networked interactions? For example, I’ve been playing a lot of Red Dead Redemption 2 with Dai Barnes recently, so that might count as an example — and so might the time we spend on Twitter, Instagram, and other social networks.

All of this brings us to an article I came across via Aaron Davis. Entitled The Dark Forest Theory of the Internet, Yancey Strickler explains how we’re moving into a different era of interaction. He channels sci-fi author Liu Cixin:

Imagine a dark forest at night. It’s deathly quiet. Nothing moves. Nothing stirs. This could lead one to assume that the forest is devoid of life. But of course, it’s not. The dark forest is full of life. It’s quiet because night is when the predators come out. To survive, the animals stay silent.


Dark forests like newsletters and podcasts are growing areas of activity. As are other dark forests, like Slack channels, private Instagrams, invite-only message boards, text groups, Snapchat, WeChat, and on and on. This is where Facebook is pivoting with Groups (and trying to redefine what the word “privacy” means in the process).

These are all spaces where depressurized conversation is possible because of their non-indexed, non-optimized, and non-gamified environments. The cultures of those spaces have more in common with the physical world than the internet.

Yancey Strickler

What Strickler doesn’t go into is the effect that this may have on western democracies. This is something, however, that is covered by an excellent book I read last week called The People vs Tech by Jamie Bartlett. The author explains how even mainstream social networks have become fragmented:

Over the last few years… the nature of political disagreement has changed. It’s gone tribal. It is becoming hyper-partisan, characterised by fierce group loyalty that sometimes approaches leader workshop, a tendency to overlook one’s own failing while exaggerating one’s enemies and a dislike of compromise with opponents.

Jamie Bartlett

Bartlett cites the work of cyber-psychologist John Suler, who theorises about why people act differently online:

Suler argues that because we don’t know or see the people we are speaking to (and they don’t know or see us), because communication is instant, seemingly without rules or accountability, and because it all takes place in what feels like an alternative reality, we do things we wouldn’t in real life. Suler calls this ‘toxic disinhibition’. This is what all the articles about ‘echo chambers’ and ‘filter bubbles’ miss. The internet doesn’t only create small tribes: it also gives easy access to enemy tribes. I see opposing views to mine online all the time; they rarely change my mind, and more often simply confirm my belief that I am the only sane person in a sea of internet idiots.

Jamie Bartlett

We’re witnessing the breakdown of the attempt to create general-purpose social networks. Instead, just like the offline world, we’ll end up with different spaces and areas for different purposes. Here’s a Slack channel to talk with former colleagues; here’s a Telegram group to talk with your family; here’s a Twitter account to share blog posts with your followers.

I’m not so sure this is such a bad thing, to be honest. So long as those spaces aren’t subject to the kind of dark advertising that’s led to political havoc and ramifications over the last few years, I see it as a sort of rebalancing.

Also check out:

  • A parent’s guide to raising a good digital citizen (Engadget) — “How do kids learn digital citizenship? The same way they learn how to be good citizens: They watch good role models, and they practice.”
  • Can “Indie” Social Media Save Us? (The New Yorker) — “When you confine your online activities to so-called walled-garden networks, you end up using interfaces that benefit the owners of those networks.”
  • I was wrong about networks (George Siemens) — “I’ll hold to my mantra that it’s networks all the way down. I need to add a critical caveat: all connections and networks occur within a system.”