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Towards a Theology of Open Source Software, Part 2

You can find The First Part of this series here.

Ok, so last post I could feel myself slipping a little bit into an argument that I desperately want to make but has already been made at length by several people, and it's an argument that you should delete your social media accounts right now. I think I will probably make that argument in the future, but any treatment I would make of it would be in direct conversation with the man who wrote THE required reading on the subject, Jaron Lanier and his book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. Jaron was there in Silicon Valley at the start, was a pioneer in the field of internet technology and virtual reality, and is probably a polymath renaissance genius man. He is the single most interesting/strange person I've ever interacted with, and you should go read his book right now. It's a surprisingly sympathetic treatment of the issue from a man almost allergic to angry diatribe, and it's probably the most important 120 page book you'll read all year.

Jaron uses an acronym to describe the problem with social media as executed right now, called BUMMER, “Behavior of Users Modified, Made into an Empire for Rent”, and I bring it up simply to carve out that subject as something I'm not talking about right now. BUMMER is a company making a huge behavior modification machine, then allowing other people (sometimes any old person) to use that machine in exchange for money. Facebook selling ads on a service they deliberately made as addictive as possible is BUMMER, Apple making it really easy to use an iPhone with your Mac (and a pain in the tuckus to use an Android phone with your Mac) is not BUMMER. They're definitely trying to modify your behavior, but you can be reasonably sure that the people modifying your behavior are Apple Inc, and it's easy to understand why they might want to. It's a pain, it's annoying, it's not a threat to global society the way BUMMER is. If you don't believe me that BUMMER is a threat to global society, read the man's book.

So what are we talking about?

We're talking about the digital tools that you use in your day to day life. Talking to the ministers who are paid by a church for their work (what a lot of people will call “full time vocational ministers”), I'm talking about the computer you write your sermons on and research your sunday school lessons on. I'm talking about the email service you use to be available to others and send out church bulletins. I'm talking about the office software you use to keep everyone on the same page, the cloud storage you use to back up your documents, the video editing software you use to make the video bumpers that are all the rage these days.

So what's at stake? What's so bad about these people?

I don't know if “these people”, the people at these technology companies, are bad people. You and I are Christian Believers, presumably, we know that “sin is a croucher” waiting to devour all people, so certainly uncareful or uncaring people create a large opportunity for evil outcomes. I don't know that the stakes include things like world domination, global poverty, or the capacity to change the world. What I do know is that tech companies behave in monopolistic ways, and their business model requires an attempt to enslave you to their product. We've become comfortable with that kind of enslavement, and maybe the stakes are relatively low, involving sums of money that don't really break your bank and don't make a huge difference to your church's budget.

These are rationalizations and justifications for ignoring a kind of enslavement that we feel is necessary for life in this modern world and ultimately has little impact on our life. It's like an enslavement to caffeine. It costs money, but it's ultimately benign.

And look, another thing I'm not going to do is spend this time telling you that this kind of entanglement is the most pressing problem in your life right now. I'm not telling you to delete your Windows Installation right now, even if you should delete your social media accounts right now (Last time, I promise!). I just want to open the realm of possibility for you and be the quiet but firm voice of empowerment that says “That annoying thing they do, they do on purpose, and no, you're not stuck with it. You may have to learn something new, but you can absolutely learn this new thing. I promise.”


Here's some rapid fire case studies to help you maybe see what I'm talking about.

  1. Your Mac comes with “Messages” preinstalled, but the only messages provider it supports out of the box is iMessage. It can integrate SMS text messages, but only if you own an iPhone. Many many many other pieces of free and proprietary software will integrate literally hundreds of different text message providers into one application, and Apple has some of the best software engineers in the world. They absolutely could integrate SMS, iMessage, Facebook Messenger, Telegram, Whatsapp etc etc all in to a piece of software on your computer. They chose not to, because they don't want you to use other messaging providers. They want you, and crucially all the people you talk to to use iMessage. Wonder why?
  2. Interoperability is a common thing tech companies don't do, because they want to keep you from using other people's products. Want to import Photoshop assets into your Final Cut Pro project? Have fun importing it manually. Creative Cloud would be happy to do it automatically for you, if you just switched to Premier.... Look for this, and you'll see it everywhere.
  3. Windows updates, and forced software updates in general, are a common pain point for Everyone and Their Grandmas. Your computer ran great when you bought it, and it ran a version of windows that you knew how to use and enjoyed using, and then they updated it! After bugging you with notifications to let them update it! And then it ran worse, and also you don't know how to use it anymore! Thank you, I hate it. These invariably include important security updates, for sure, but they could have unbundled security updates from user interface updates. They just chose not to. Why would they do that?
  4. My least favorite is Induced User Inadequacy. Why do you think you feel like the world of open source software, of linux operating systems and self hosted cloud services is just too complicated for you? Computers are, in reality, complicated machines with many moving parts. Tech companies work very hard to obscure that fact from you, keep you from ever having to learn how to work on it? Why would they do that? They might do it because there's a lot of money in selling a computer that requires no training to use, but they definitely also do it because an untrained user is much easier to market to. It's disempowerment, not empowerment. “You couldn't possibly use something else. And why would you want to? Staying is easy, leaving is hard.”

I don't go in for that kind of thing. I think it's kind of evil, the way a lot of companies act in a market economy is a normalized, banal kind of evil. The “free” in Free and Open Source is usually interpreted as meaning “Free as in Beer”, when the most important thing that it means is “Free as in Speech”. It's about freedom. For people who's lives are given in service to the Breaker of Chains, the One Who, With a Mighty Right Hand, Brought the Isrealites Out of Egypt and brought our people out of bondage to Sin, we should have a special and close relationship to freedom. The rub is that Software Freedom, like most kinds of freedom, will require something of an investment of time and attention from the user. I know you can do it. Question is, if you believe you can?

Part Three will begin the practicalities, starting with simple and easy FOSS substitutions you can make, and why you might make them. Your homework is to pay attention to the computers in your life and see if you can identify something you'd like to change that you're not allowed to change. Ask why that is.

This post is part of #100DaysToOffload, a challenge to blog a hundred days in a year hosted by Kev Quirk. This is post #9.

#Technology #Tech #FOSS #FLOSS #OpenSource #ChristianMinistry #Theology #Humanity #Gospel