purpose

Emacs is a text editor used for everything from editing text to writing code to organizing one’s entire life. It’s an older piece of software–originally written in 1976. It’s strength comes from extensibility–you can make emacs do whatever you want if you have the patience, time, and skills. Another way to word this is that it’s super crunchy and hard to use. It’s hard to save files, it’s hard to copy and paste, and it’s hard to become involved. One emacs hacker/user I know said:

…for social and technical reasons contributing to the project is hard and some people view this as a good thing and that’s really shitty.

My criticisms of FLOSS projects have a lot to do with difficulties in install processes, usability, and accessibility (a11y). Inaccessible software is bad. Software that is hard to use is bad. Software that is hard to install is bad.

(I will note that, from this perspective, all text editors are bad.)

Thinking about free software development and usability from a business perspective begs up the question: What does the customer want? The customer for a community is a contributor–the customer for an application, operating system, package is the person installing it. Looking at emacs as a case study, I recently found myself asking if it needs to be accessible and easy. I am not the natural user for emacs. I don’t use it now. Why is it important for it to cater to my needs?

Being able to code is important. So is being able to change a flat tire, swim, sharpen a kitchen knife, unclog a toilet, and understand the basics of how your hot water heater works so that if the pilot light ever goes out, you know what to do or at least how to figure out why your shower is cold.

Initiatives like Hour of Code are important because computers need to be normalized. Not everyone needs to be a developer, but everyone does need to know the basics of how computers work. It is not–and should not–be acceptable to say (with pride even) that you don’t know how computers work, what code is like.

It is not the job of emacs and the community to make sure I can use it to code–or use it at all. However, it should be the imperative of the community to make sure I know and understand the fundamentals of technology–this includes the basics of how computers actually do things. From a perspective of self-preservation, keeping technology in a black box is useful to the technical. As long as computers are not only difficult, but also scary, I need them. But, the fact is, I am going to need them anyway because I do not want to become an expert. I’d rather be an expert at growing delicious peppers, making an asplenium flourish, and identifying trees by their smell.

Technologists and hackers have made their way to where they are, in some cases, through trials by fire. They have fought against communities, proven themselves, and hacked their way through impenetrable code and processes in order to become a member of the club. They should have the tools they want. They should be able to have fun and be kind of elitist in their in-group the same way I should be allowed to have fun and be kind of elitist about building a bike, knowing Hume, and having a favorite designer in any given season of Project Runway. But, none of those things should be scary. The mentality that a project being hard is a good thing is not just mean, but detrimental and dangerous.

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figurehead

Brendan Eich, inventor of Java script and new CEO of Mozilla, donated to Prop 8. Mozillans have asked him to step down. He made a statement about the the public response to his new position.

Mozilla claims that Firefox has 450 million users. To give you an idea about the (arguably) open source software market from an end user perspective, that’s about half the number of people who use Android. Ubuntu claims as much as 20 million users. Wikipedia has 21 million users. I’d go as far to say that Firefox is kind of a big deal, and possibly one of the most common pieces of free software in the world from the end-user perspective.

The new CEO of a 450 million user free software projected donated money to ban gay marriage. He now represents my community to the world.

Freedom

(This post explains why I donated to the FSF. Really.)

“Your entire life here is from MH and MM, isn’t it?”

One of my housemates asked me this over coffee. Well, she’s was drinking coffee. I had tea. I could not deny what she said. MH and MM, and the IRC channel they started, have led me to the life I have now. They suggested I visit. They suggested I move here. MM suggested an internship for the Free Software Foundation when I was trying to figure out how I to stay after the summer ended.

My internships (I also had one at OLPC), led me to an RA position at Berkman. The friends I made interning at the FSF helped me get the job I have now, by giving me both an understanding of free software, and general free as in freedom issues, and some pretty kick-ass references.

When I first got to the FSF, I wasn’t entirely convinced. I got the importance of free software (have access to your tools, own your tools, understand your tools, etc, etc, etc), but I thought a lot of the arguments I had been hearing where too ephemeral. I was going through a brief spat of rejecting the idea that “moral underpinnings” were what you needed for an argument–I thought needed practical points to even be worthwhile. (That phase ended pretty quickly.) I also didn’t buy that negative campaigning stuff, and I didn’t see what the Foundation had actually been doing.

In the fall of 2010, the FSF was in the financial red. Two people were laid off during my time there. Everyone else quickly became overworked. A significant portion of my internship shifted to helping with mailings, membership databases, and writing blog posts.

I started getting e-mails from people who read my blog posts. None of them declared undying fan-love, which was a bit of a downer (I thought my brief stint with semi-celebrity blogging was supposed to lead to fame, fortune, and cute nerds trying to sleep with me). Instead, I got thoughtful responses thanking me for bringing attention to issues or projects, or just explaining things in ways that were easy to understand. Not only did I feel good about myself, but I got that the FSF was actually reaching people.

Being in the community allowed me the luxury of thinking everyone thought the way I did. Everyone knew freedom was important, but just used Apple or Windows products because they were easy–they consistently worked without any effort. Once I left the FSF, understanding (though not entirely believing in) the arguments they had and used, I began to see the privilege I had had to work with people who got it.

Freedom is like health insurance. We want it to be there. What we have we think is good. But then, when pressed, we can see it isn’t actually good. Ferrett told me that you don’t know the quality of your health insurance until you have cancer. Similarly, you don’t know the quality of your freedom until it’s tested.

The freedom of software is tested when DRM content you purchased is removed with no recourse offered to you. When a single switch being flipped on or off restricts your operating system. When you’re using a piece of software and want it do something differently, but can’t change it because you don’t have access to it. Freedom in software is about agency, which is something we generally don’t have.

Software is something that is such an integral part of life, realizing you have no control over it is pretty scary.

Or comforting. Some people just don’t care about freedom. Caring about it is hard and depressing. Using what you’re given, what is functional, is easy.

Freedom, in general is important. There are a lot of great groups trying to help with freedom. The American Civil Liberties Union, the National Lawyers Guild, Amnesty, Occupy Together, City Live–just to name a few.

However, in my financial support of freedom, I decided to become a member of the FSF during their membership drive.

[FSF Associate Member]

I have a button and everything. (Which you could click on to donate, should you so desire. Today is the last day of their membership drive, but one could join, or donate, at any time.)

Mostly I decided to give them money because of peer pressure. When you see the majority of the employees socially, it’s hard not to feel the expectation that, now you have a job, you’ll join. But I also support what they do and want to help them do more because they can do more. I like that they’ve been adding their voice against proposals like ACTA, PIPA, and SOPA. I like that they’ve restarted the GNU Education Project. I like that they take digital/electronic rights issues (like DRM), draw on the relationship of these issues to software we don’t realize we’re using and become involved. They need to be in a position to hire more compliance officers, to help people (student people, adult people, people involved with computers, and people not involved with computers) understand not just the insane role software has in our lives, but what it means to have no control over this software. They need financial help to be in a position to help change the way we interact with the things we own.