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Informatics, Progress, and Technocracy — Part III: Free Software and Society

Posted in Free/Libre Software, GNU/Linux at 2:25 am by Guest Editorial Team

By Daniel Cantarín. Original version in Spanish here. Introduction and Part I published 2 days ago. Part II published yesterday.

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Summary: Part III of Daniel Cantarín’s article “Informática, progreso, y tecnocracia”

The two problems I’ve mentioned before happen because of a wrong distance from society. Technocracy is the abuse of a perhaps understandable specificity, while that nasty progress is simply closing our eyes in the face of the social consequences of what we’re doing. And I frequently feel these distances, even incrementing themselves, inside informatics communities. Also, both things happen according to our ideas of the limits in our communities, and our relationship with others. All of this is the reason or the motive behind this text. I would like to take note of some alerting trends/themes I believe we should have as community, and having them taken into account to also explain some of our internal problems.

“It is obviously unfair to make any of us responsible for such big problems: all of it is clearly bigger than any one of us.”But continuing or following up on that issue with the atomic bomb, an observation. Do you know how that ended? With the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It’s very interesting and important to remember — and also to reflect about — that event in our recent history, barely some 70 years ago. Think for a minute about this concept: the USSR, DURING STALIN, signing a pact that says “everybody has a right to property,” and at the same time the USA, DURING MCCARTHYISM, signing a pact that says “everybody has a right to food, clothes, house, health, and social services”. Do you understand the state the world would have to be in for such monsters to sign such a treaty? Seriously, take some minutes to consider the magnitude of what just did happen, in the XX century, for such an scene to be possible.

Today it’s absolutely unthinkable a treaty like that would get signed, even when it’s certainly urgent. And that’s symptomatic. At the same time, today it is not about physics (the one in the eye of the storm) but informatics: that young science born at the heat of the two great wars. Today, from biology to astrophysics, everyone understands the universe in terms of “information”, while papers all around the world tell us about the conflicts between GAFAM and the nation states because of the power over society those corporations are dealing with. Today, we, informatics people, are responsible.

It is obviously unfair to make any of us responsible for such big problems: all of it is clearly bigger than any one of us. Yet, I don’t believe it’s asking for too much to have all of this in mind when taking decisions, specially when we’re part of a political movement such as Free Software. And inside informatics this translates into changing lots of behaviours that actually look kind of immutable. Let’s see what we can deduce from some examples.

“When it’s not about purity of principles, then it needs to be about financial purity, or maybe even purity of soul.”RMS once called systemd “ethical” because “it’s free software”. This is a case of both: to be too technical, and to decouple from social consequences of software. While RMS is extremely specific about that being ethical and what is not in software, systemd was and still is a vector of absolute discord in Free Software communities in particular, and in the GNU/Linux ‘ecosystem’ in general. This is understandable, as it could have just been the way RMS answers random mails: we all know RMS doesn’t run away from political problems. But if we take a look at GNU’s FAQ, when mentioning systemd (and I’m sure there are a lot of frequent questions about systemd and its relation to GNU, since years ago to this day), the only thing we see is a brief comment about naming conventions.

We cannot just turn our backs on social conflicts: not our own internal and technical informatics conflicts, not the ones between technicians and users, and not the ones regarding society in general. The same thing that happened with systemd happens also with Wayland, with examples like the one I gave before regarding PHP against other programming languages (it also happened before, with other clearly sterile debates such as KDE vs GNOME, and it most likely will keep on happening). Dissent is welcome, but that ideological bias what leads the fantasy by which objectivity one can speak outside of societal conditions and be immune to subjectivity should be an idea long overdue. And sadly it is not.

“The thing is that we’re losing political battles, not that purity was ever to be found anywhere.”In the same way, no matter the conflict’s details, the conclusion always seems to be that somebody “sold out”: the FSF sold out when RMS was canceled, or RMS sold out when he did not criticise systemd, or Red Hat bought the Debian government, or Canonical sold out to Microsoft, or this or that corporation is infecting the project with their money and so on. When it’s not about purity of principles, then it needs to be about financial purity, or maybe even purity of soul. And the idea of objectivity does not help to humanise those conflicts. Sometimes it looks like we pretend that informatics people should ignore the way they pay the bills, or we’re otherwise corrupt. Or we even seem to want that the people making free software be martyrs whose only compromise in life is with… whatever the idea the person involved in the judgement interprets that should be what free software does; and of course they should be immune to real life economical conditions. It’s no surprise that there’s so little satisfaction these days inside informatics. The thing is that we’re losing political battles, not that purity was ever to be found anywhere.

Another typical case of political immaturity: the question of codes of conduct. The political movements related to racism, feminism, and gender issues, as some examples we may all know by now have a long history so far as organisation, failures, an successes. They’re actually movements with many generations involved, not just one or two like we have in informatics. And they have learned how to build real political power: they have real martyrs, with real entire lives dedicated to it. Also, consistently with their human ideological agenda (which they embrace), they get in the middle of every human sphere of praxis: just as economics do from centuries on and nobody seems to care much about it. If it has something to do with human beings doing something, then they have something to say, because they discuss what being human means. And when they get into informatics, again and again we receive them with hostility and contempt: we don’t read their books nor participate in their talks, yet we act like we have deep shit to argue when in fact we’re just trying to shut them off with some common sense that takes us back several decades. We don’t like other fields telling us how to behave: we believe ourselves to be isolated from “all that social bullshit”. We never say something like “I actually know shit about race, or feminism, or gender”: but that’s not an issue for us when it’s about telling them that changing words is an idiotic thing to do, and that moderated language is censorship. Too many times we pretend that our bigotry is justified by some objectivity that the other person ignores, corrupts, or is unable to understand. And this is painfully visible when it’s about codes of conduct. This is again giving the back to society, and is especially strong when the word “freedom” is involved somewhere.

But also, that veil of alleged objectivity we use makes us fantasise that we’re immune to ideological influence, when we’re far from it. Too many times I’ve seen debates in informatics where people speak of pretended meritocracies, virtuous competition, or even directly criticise the idea of the state, which all matches with neoliberal ideology. Of course there’s never anybody considering those coincidences: not even when feminism or anti-racism people focus on those kinds of details.

“Today we’re clearly being used by corporations that make informatics a worse place for users and technicians alike, at the same time they’re doing a shocking damage to society in general, while they show our precious flags with deep hypocrisy and shame us.”What we achieve by isolating ourselves from our social reality, being that by means of pretending it to be simpler than it is, or by pretending that anything not adequate to our theoretical standards is alien, is to delegate political power around those issues to other actors. That’s where corporate PR feasts, taking advantage of all the openings we left for them to speak in our name. Today we’re clearly being used by corporations that make informatics a worse place for users and technicians alike, at the same time they’re doing a shocking damage to society in general, while they show our precious flags with deep hypocrisy and shame us.

And it’s doubly tragic when all of this affects Free Software in particular, because we have lots to offer to society. In the same way racism- or feminism-centric activism gets into the world of software and tell us stuff, our ideas about the nature of exchange, of knowledge, of communitary practices, and collaboration, has deep consequences once installed in general society. And I’m talking about real life solutions to very important problems. We have the potential for, as they do, converging in heterogeneous and massive movements of political power, installing that way an agenda of social change. Meanwhile, GNU/Linux has won the war for servers but never for desktops, GNU has no inherence in the mobile world, Linux is more corporate-oriented every passing day, systemd is closer and closer to totally replacing GNU, corporations have users co-opted, and we as a community keep on discussing who’s an idiot.

“Meanwhile, GNU/Linux has won the war for servers but never for desktops, GNU has no inherence in the mobile world, Linux is more corporate-oriented every passing day, systemd is closer and closer to totally replacing GNU, corporations have users co-opted, and we as a community keep on discussing who’s an idiot.”We who work in informatics should not pretend to be isolated from the rest of society. But we who also are part of political initiatives, as people from the Free Software movement are, MUST NOT, EVER, do something like that. That’s a sin for us. We have the obligation to reflect and think about these issues, and do our best at handling it with intelligence and responsibility. But most important: we do ideology, and we need to embrace that idea once and for all. With all this in mind, I propose we do ideology with intellectual honesty and sensibility, as I’m convinced we’re much more in need of empathy rather than objectivity this days.

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