I’ve spent about a week now getting my internet house in order. It seems like a good time to say some words about computers, their uses and misuses.
Computers are tools that can follow fairly complex instructions, provided they are explicit and detailed enough. So far–googles “programming octopus”– humans seem to be the only species that has ever gotten this meta. As a species that has never found ourselves short of optimism or self-regard, we’ve spent the last 70 years or so busily writing down instructions for how things ought to work. And since we were finally able to write using instruction sets that could be interpreted by our tools, we’ve started to really get to see what happens when things do work the way (someone thought) they ought.
There’s a funny inversion that occurs when a decision that someone made–say, how a railway turnstile works–stops being a debatable choice about how the thing ought to work and becomes such a part of “common sense” that you might get yelled at for holding up the line. The best example of this is that, when we talk about “identity theft,” we are actually referring to an exposure of information assigned to us by businesses and governments– credit card details, social security numbers, etc. This inverts the concept of “identity” (credit card numbers do not come from within) and “theft,” but to a contemporary English speaker it’s perfectly clear. That is, the words aren’t wrong–they simply highlight an uncomfortable truth about which relationships we reflexively consider primary to our sense of self. Software turbocharges this problem–unless you get a feel for what computers do and how software systems are built, you may not even recognize a malicious decision as a decision at all.
I first came across these ideas in a corner of an open-plan office in downtown Boston. Bored in an office job where I spent eight hours a day in front of a computer, I had decided that I would learn programming. This led me to the free software movement, not initially because of any political motivation, but because the free software community places the highest value on making knowledge, especially about computers, accessible to everyone. And, at least at the time, the best spokesperson for that movement was Eben Moglen. A law professor at Columbia, Moglen articulated the effects that culture and computing technology were having on each other.
The choices we make about how we use computers are as much a part of our social responsibilities as the choices we make about which businesses or politicians we support. In the past few years we have seen the effects of easy and thoughtless acceptance of corporate social networks designed and operated to maximize the profits of their owners. Finding our way to a more ethical culture requires a better-informed and more careful approach to choosing whose software we place at the center of our lives.
For a long time I had no social media presence at all. I deleted my facebook account sometime early in the 2010s and haven’t returned. Last year I created an Instagram account because it seemed the best way to participate in the ceramics community. I still feel conflicted about that decision and hope that over time the communities I love will turn away from such Orwellian spaces. As a first step for myself in that direction, I’ve renovated this site as my base of operations on the internet. There are no third-party trackers here; no cookies, no facebook buttons, no Disqus comments, not even Google Analytics. Instead, I’m using Free Software and basic cloud services to provide a space for which I can be accountable. All of the code that supports this website, including the logging and analytics, is available on github and from its respective authors.
The knowledge that I have about these systems is one part of my heritage of privilege, and it is with that awareness that I offer to share it. If you’re interested in learning to program, or in better understanding how computer systems work, or if you need help building your own online space, please don’t hesitate to ask.