What Does It Take To Create Something Useful AND Good?


Monday, 9.55pm

Sheffield, U.K.

You must exorcise the evil proprietary operating systems from all your computers, and then install a wholly [holy] free operating system. And then you must install only free software on top of that. If you make this commitment and live by it, then you too will be a saint in the Church of Emacs, and you too may have a halo. – Richard Stallman

Do you work best alone or with others?

Do you have a point of view that is balanced or at one extreme or another?

Are you an activist or someone that just wants to get on with the day to day jobs that need to be done?

I recently found my installation disks for Red Hat GNU/Linux from 1999.

The reason we have the choice of systems and software technology that powers so much of the Internet is because of the work done by a small number of people.

And, along the way, we sometimes forget the lessons of history.

For example, if you use one of the popular Linux distributions out there now you will be interrupted by your computer asking to install updates on a regular basis.

If you use a browser from Europe almost every site will not have a pop up that attempts to comply with GDPR by asking you to click a button accepting unseen terms before you can get to the content.

I don’t know about you but I find interruptions unhelpful.

And I like coercion even less – and pop ups that demand you agree to terms before you get access to content are coercive.

So, what can you do?

The first thing is to figure out where the balance of power lies.

I was so irritated by the constant website pop ups that I turned off javascript on Chrome, the browser I use most of the time.

And something magical happened – most websites stopped hounding me for permission and just displayed content.

But Google didn’t – if you don’t turn on javascript you can’t access things like Gmail which are effectively a gigantic javascript program.

But you can enable javascript for certain sites – so that means you either turn it on because you want to or because the site is big and powerful enough to demand that you agree before it will let you interact with it.

It’s an object lesson in the balance of power.

Sometimes, as the user, you have it and at other times, the website has it all.

One way of getting back power is to retain control – to do everything yourself.

The patron saint of this movement is Richard Stallman, who has a fairly uncompromising approach to the ethics of computing.

His solution has been to use the law to protect rights – by creating software under a license that stops anyone from taking away rights from you or asking you to give them away.

The concept of free software – free as in free speech, not as in free beer – has underpinned the modern networked age.

Another individual that epitomises an individualist approach is Derek Sivers, who has been on the Internet for a while, doesn’t trust the cloud and runs his stuff on his own server.

In ages past people that wanted autonomy and control and freedom from oppression might have found it in monasteries and meditation.

These days you can have those things because other people who want the same things have helped to create tools that can help.

Other people, working in groups and organisations, in more traditional businesses have also created tools to help.

But how can you tell if the tools are good?

The simplest approach is to think in terms of utility – in terms of the benefits you get.

Many distributions of GNU/Linux focus on utility – on being useful and making things easier for you.

Platforms and services – from Facebook to Ebay exist to help people do things they never imagined they would need to do.

Isn’t that a good thing?

It probably depends on who you ask for an opinion.

I suppose you never really understand the value of freedom until you’re in a position where you’re unexpectedly deprived of it.

And that is not good.


Karthik Suresh

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