08.06.20

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The Psychology of Developers

Posted in Free/Libre Software at 11:39 pm by Guest Editorial Team

2020 figosdev

Index

Psychology's mental health series
Chapter 5: The Psychology of Developers

Summary: “It turns out, there are ways around a free license — you can make software “less free” or more imposing, without changing the license at all.”

Imagine a person shows up at your door. You offer them a seat, have some conversations with them, get to know a little bit about them. As it turns out, this person is looking for a place to stay. They’re willing to be your personal assistant, and all they ask in return is a desk to sit at, a small cot to sleep on and an Internet connection.

“You run upstairs and move the vase of flowers your assistant put in your bedroom, and find a small microphone.”Things go well initially. Your new assistant is constantly making various aspects of daily life easier. Want to buy something, see a film, go somewhere to eat? Your assistant takes care of everything, except driving. You notice they ask lots of personal questions, but you trust them — you can’t imagine anything would go wrong if you told them more about your life. Technically you have an assistant, but they seem more like a good friend. Besides, your friends don’t do all these things for you.

One day, your assistant is about to take a pile of envelopes to a post box. They drop them on the floor, and as you help to pick them up you notice they’re all addressed to the same corporation. Curious, you ask your assistant what they’re for.

“Oh, I tell them everything I learn about you in long, boring detail” your assistant says. “But that’s not what what I hired you for,” you say. “No,” your assistant replies — “that’s what THEY hired me for.”

“You move other objects your assistant put around the house, and find microphones and cameras. You ask your assistant what the hell is going on, but they tell you to relax.”You run upstairs and move the vase of flowers your assistant put in your bedroom, and find a small microphone. You move other objects your assistant put around the house, and find microphones and cameras. You ask your assistant what the hell is going on, but they tell you to relax.

“Look, they don’t do anything BAD with all this — it just helps me assist you! The more I know about you, the better I can help!”

You get some geeks from a nearby university to help you find and get rid of the rest of the corporate gadgetry in your home, and ask a lawyer how you can sue this person and their company. But when you go over the employment contract for your assistant, it turns out you agreed to all of this — it was simply put in vague terms that you didn’t stop to think about the implications of.

“Not all developers are evil, or narcissists — but with great power comes great responsibility.”Now imagine that the assistant is a robot. You buy it on sale and bring it home, and the rest of the story is more or less the same — they don’t even need the cot to sleep on. You’re told the microphones are voice activated, and work out for yourself that they only listen when you talk to them. Later on you find out this isn’t quite true, but you’re already used to thinking of it as something inert that only becomes active when you want it to.

Maybe you find that whole idea creepy, and wonder why people would actually shell out money for such intrusive technology. Meanwhile, actual companies are turning your phone and your PC into the same thing, and eventually you will have the same “features” in your home whether you go out and buy these robot assistants or not. As time moves forward, your thermostat, toaster oven, refrigerator and vacuum cleaner become just as creepy and presumptuous. Sadly, this sort of thing is no longer fiction.

“On their own, most developers are harmless.”There is a word for the sort of narcissist that cons you into giving them this much power in your life: “Developers”. Not all developers are evil, or narcissists — but with great power comes great responsibility.

If it’s privacy you’re trying to preserve, then the sure way to have it is for developers to not collect your data in the first place. If you want control over your own work on your computer, then you need to be able to put limits on what developers can do without you granting them specific access.

But how did we get to this dystopian reality? Aren’t “developers” the same people who make harmless toys like Pong, Mario and Final Fantasy games? Absolutely.

On their own, most developers are harmless. Its not like they’re a different species, you could even become one if you wanted. Developers sometimes form groups, groups sometimes create development frameworks and toolkits, and eventually if a framework or toolkit becomes powerful and popular enough, some developers get corrupted ethics and start to IMPOSE themselves on users.

“Developers sometimes form groups, groups sometimes create development frameworks and toolkits, and eventually if a framework or toolkit becomes powerful and popular enough, some developers get corrupted ethics and start to IMPOSE themselves on users.”Funnily enough, it’s often the most corrupt developers that expect the most gratitude. A humble developer is a wonderful thing, and if more people learned some coding skills and put a few more projects together, it might erode some of the power complex that has led developers to become spies and sell out users. However, there are reasons it’s not quite that simple.

You might have no interest in technology, and that is very understandable. But you are also surrounded by it — this technology exists in your pocket, your car, in the skies overhead and it is carried around by most people. Technology does have a good side — it can build the largest library that mankind has ever created. It can let you talk to your loved ones practically anywhere on the planet. Either way, technology is here. Much of it is programmable. Will you decide what it does, or will it decide what you do instead?

Knowledge is power, and being able to say “No” to the people that wire your home for eavesdropping and spy on everything you do is power as well. The strongest recommendation that can be given is — if you don’t wish to understand technology at all, avoid it as much as possible.

“As for developers, we can try to set a better example for them. And we can call them out when they stray from creating ethical software.”Henry David Thoreau was a minimalist for several reasons, among them not wanting to support unjust wars. If you do not wish to learn more about technology, or even if you do wish to learn more and want more control over the technology you own, being able to say “No” is one of the most important lessons you can learn. Say “No” to turning everyone’s home into part of a spy network. Say “Yes” to basic human rights.

As for developers, we can try to set a better example for them. And we can call them out when they stray from creating ethical software. But that will require better education for users.

The best place to start that education is with Free software, and coding.

Note if you will, this dichotomy between the idea of “user” and the idea of “developer”. While there are bad things that developers can do that users may not be able to do themselves, per se (a user can use software to do bad things, while a developer can design it to do them) the line between “user” and “developer” is artificial.

“It would still be useful to explore the politics and group behaviour that turn developers into unethical software authors.”A developer is someone who makes software — computers are designed for making and running software. A user is not only a potential developer by definition, but the line between the two used to be a lot smaller. As Chapter 2 explained, people used to buy magazines with programs to type in. If you could write an article for a magazine, you got to call yourself a writer. If you could write a program that other people would enjoy or find useful, you got to call yourself a developer.

It would still be useful to explore the politics and group behaviour that turn developers into unethical software authors. Understanding how that happens might give the rest of us a better idea of how the world can say “No” to software that takes advantage of the user.

“It turns out, there are ways around a free license — you can make software “less free” or more imposing, without changing the license at all.”For many years, Free software made incredible progress along just those lines. The politics have adapted, and now you have users of (allegedly) Free software doing oppressive things that users hate and resent. But don’t you worry, Free software says — the license means you can change it!

So why are things getting worse instead of improving? It turns out, there are ways around a free license — you can make software “less free” or more imposing, without changing the license at all. That too is part of this subject of ethical developers vs. corrupt development groups. And you will barely find the “Free Software Foundation” talking about this — they prefer to sidestep the topic and reframe it in old rhetoric!

If Free software won’t tackle this issue, and no one else will tackle this issue, so-called “free” software will become just as oppressive as “non-free” software. There are already real-life examples of this happening, though so far very few people have stepped forward to say “No” to any of it.

Licence: Creative Commons CC0 1.0 (public domain)

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