Bonum Certa Men Certa

A farewell to Finland, an occupied territory

posted by Roy Schestowitz on May 22, 2024,
updated May 22, 2024

Andy Farnell

Guest article by Dr. Andy Farnell

Finland, Finland, Finland…

I love Finland. I'd say it's my adopted second country. But to think I'll never return there is heartbreaking.

Stories about digital technology are always so negative these days. Sorry, so is this one. But I want to start with something happy, at least to set the scene as I move to explain what is lost, and what I grieve.

Happiness in Moomin Valley

I've travelled to Aalto University in Helsinki for 13 years to teach "procedural audio" a subject I created and remain a world authority on to this day. Aalto University is a good place, filled with dedicated and creative students. Aalto helped me formalise some research aspects of procedural audio, which transformed how sound is done in the games and film industry.

In the early years I stayed at a picturesque waterside locations and heard free concerts in the Sibelius Conservatory. To me, Finland means culture, health and happiness, long early morning walks through the forest to the university where I worked for up to a month as a visiting professor of signal processing.

Finland always marked the transitions of springtime. I normally arrived in late April and left after the first weeks of May. It is a season of profound change in Finland. People emerge, happy, from winter slumber into the Mayday picnics in the parks. University graduates and their children celebrate learning, wearing the colourful overalls of their Alma Mater and caps to denote their arts or engineering pride.

I have so many nice thoughts about Finns too. Poetic, quiet but genuine, very serious on the surface but deeply humorous beneath. I will never forget how kindly my students treated me, and when they discovered I was a fan of The Moomins, bought me apparel.

A progressive nation

Finland's social fabric has always impressed me. It's a country where a homeless person (there are few) has better internet connection than I pay £50 a month for in the UK. It's a place where apartments are heated by civic geothermal projects and where there is hardly any litter because packaging costs are built into the price of a can of cola, and refundable when you return it.

Of course, Finland is the home of the Linux kernel. It's a place where one in three people work in digital technology and where I can go out to a random bar, and after a couple of insanely strong beers find conversation with a total stranger about memory management or preemptive scheduling. Finland was also one of the first places I visited in 'cyberspace'. Going back to 1990, FUNET is an historical landmark of the Internet.

Despite historical connections to Russia, Soviet era architecture, and a nervously patrolled border, Finland lives in an ambivalent but stable relation with its neighbour, having beaten back the Bear many times. Elements of liberalism, business and socialism mix naturally.

The invasion

What I never expected to see was Finland invaded. To see its treasures like Linux and Nokia usurped and humiliated by inferior interlopers, not from the East but from Redmond, Washington in the USA. Microsoft's destruction of Nokia, a 150 year-old company founded in 1865, was just the start. For me, it destroyed Finland's universities too.

In my final few visits to Helsinki, prior to the pandemic, I started to see the writing on the wall. Aalto's Art and Design departments moved to a new campus, and in doing so shed its open, pluralistic philosophy. Messy, lived-in laboratories once filled with musical instruments, soldering irons, electronics hacking gear, Linux machines and experimental single board computers became soulless glass-partitioned cubes dominated by giant black mirrors of touchscreens sporting the Microsoft logo.

Doing business with the university, it's Microsoft proprietary documents and web portals became a nightmare. None of my software or presentation tools worked any more. To even present a simple PDF beamer I endured a two or three hour-long battle with ICT to locate the right set of set of over-rides, permissions, cables and guest accounts. Bizarrely I found myself in an institution openly hostile to Linux in the country that is its home!

Last year was the final visit. I can no longer teach in Finland. I refuse to use Microsoft products because they are unethical and substandard. I will not support the hegemony and economic subjugation of a culture I love. Without a Microsoft "identity" life in Finland is becoming that of a second class citizen. It feels like an occupied territory.

Microsoft is not the only reason. Finland has overzealously embraced many dangerous aspects of a technological society pushed by business that shows no tolerance for marginal life or ideas. Because my bank stiffs me on overseas card transactions I always carried cash in Finland, and spent it generously. That's almost impossible now. Helsinki, at least on university campuses, has become a hellish dystopia for technological pluralists. You cannot even buy a sandwich that isn't tracked, data-mined and tied eternally to your identity. It sickened me so much that I went without food for several days.

Finland has a population of only five and a half million people, most of whom are concentrated in one place around Espoo/Helsinki. That makes it a perfect testing-ground for technological cultural capture.

In the past weeks I learned that Microsoft is further exploiting Finland by building gargantuan "green" data centres that "generate heat"… in a country already oversupplied with geothermal and suffering the obvious melting heat of climate change.

I also read this Techrights article by Sami Tikkanen on Microsoft's Attack on Education in Finland. Sami wrote;

"They say that I'm the only one who has problems but I don't believe that"

To find another person who has been marginalised and gaslighted by this steamroller organisation was helpful, but also rekindled my sense of loss. These stories inspired me to write this eulogy to Finnish academia and also a Cybershow blog post on gaslighting and isolation in tech. I hope that one day Finland will be liberated again. Much love to all of my friends there.

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