Last year i left my job at Neo and went on a giant road trip around south america. During that time i forgot to blog. Here are pictures.
This post was originally posted to my blog on December 5, 2003 in preparation for the WSIS summit and then was edited in to a chapter in a book about technology and politics, Reformatting Politics: Information Technology and Global Civil Society
The question of how civil society organizations can appropriate networked technology for social change needs to be addressed on both a technical level and to look at the social and organizational transformations needed to use the technology effectively. The process of creating new patterns and models of use for technology lags long behind the introduction of a technology. After a decade of use the web is starting to come in to it’s own as organizations and forms of use arise which are native to the technology. This process of internalization of the use of the web can have as a profound effect on civil society organizations as email had in the last two decades. Organizations which don’t adapt will continue to exist. Just as there are organizations which don’t use email today. But they will in part be marginalized by new project and organizations which are able to use the technology to be more efficient.
In this memo I explore three more case studies which expand on the ideas in the Surman and Rielly report about how the internet being used for innovative research and observation projects. In part I believe they were skipped because the some of the most interesting projects lack the traditional ‘organization’ trappings of ‘civil society’. They arose and formed as ‘organizations’ out of the network itself rather than being a traditional organization trying to use ICT. The three projects profiled here are by no means the only projects which embody new networked social / organizational forums.
The projects which tend to use network technology most easily are those which arise out of communities who have been online longest. Those are centered around the technical communities. Groups like indymedia, which are visible to and interact with NGO’s and the globalization movements have adapted many of their communications and technology patterns from the free software technical community.
These projects are pushing observation and research via the net in ways which weren’t possible before. Creating a new form of research based on a semi-ubiquitous end to end network.
Mini-Case Studies for Internet Observation and Research
The site is run by a volunteer paralegal and focuses on tracking the SCO Linux lawsuits. For those who don’t know, SCO, a long time unix software company has converted itself in to producing lawsuits. SCO’s legal action is centered around changeling the legality of the GPL (copyleft) license and demanding that large corporate users, developers, and distributers of Linux pay hefty license fees. The cases have been widely followed within the legal and technical community as they explore the legality and strength of the free software and open source movements.
The Groklaw site is a series of articles and investigatory pieces related to this complex interplay between cutting edge technology and law. Each piece of research posted attracts hundreds of comments from technical experts and lawyers who pick apart the information. The end product is not a single report, or anything which can be shown to a foundation, board of directors, or government committee. It is rather an evolving stream of dialog, ongoing collaborative research, and an exploration of the issues which would be impossible in a traditional research context. From a traditional research perspective, the question to ask looking in to groklaw is could people from that community compile articles pulled together to form the discussion to create a report. The raw material is there, but the inclination of the community is not directed toward creating reports. Many journalists, wanting to understand the complex issues use the site to follow the story. In this way the project has an extensive impact beyond it’s getting mentioned directly in the press. The person coordinating the site is unpaid and the project covers costs from online donations.
Groklaw is an effect a network information hub. Controlled by an individual, it is a space for collaboration and synthesis of information about a complex topic. It’s the kind of research project which would have been expensive to conduct in the past. Beyond that, the information produced would have been limited to a small group of people who a hefty sum for the report directly or it’s publication in narrowly distributed journal.
Political State Report – PolState.com
Another research project similar to Groklaw is the Political State Report, www.polstate.com. Started by kos, a well known political blogger from San Francisco, It’s a collaborative attempt at tracking and understanding state (departmental or provincial) politics within the United States. The site is run and maintained by a couple hundred political news junkies. These are people who write about and are interested in their local state politics, most of whom have blogs themselves. Each corespondent applies to get an account to publish news about their state. They identified with their political leanings (Republican, Democrat, Independent, Green, Libertarian), and links to their personal site. The articles focus on upcoming or recently finished electoral races, endorsements, court cases, poll results, and referendums. Attached to each article is a discussion about the merits and political fallout of the news. Unlike groklaw, posting is open to anybody who has gone through the process to give their name, information, and sign up to be a local correspondent. Once they have gone through an initial vetting process they have open access to publish news about their state. If there is abuse, it is caught by the network of correspondents who run the site before many end users notice.
The Political State Report isn’t attempting to be a comprehensive update on the political situation in every state, rather it’s ment to create a space for people quickly get a see the direction and power flows of local politics from a local perspective. The idea is a move away from the vision of the world where the state of everything can be known. Both Groklaw and the Political State Report are models of research in the form of ‘issue tracking’ where the goal is to understand and follow a flow of information and issues rather than to capture the reality in a comprehensive report. It’s an embrace of understanding the world through many specific moments. The project couldn’t exist if an organization tried to confirm or verify the quality of the contributors or their information. It would become stale, out of date, lacking soul. Rather the reliability, the ‘trust’ is build up from the ability to respond to and contest the accuracy of statements. It creates a reliability which comes from anonymous members of the multitude rather than any institutional form of control.
Wikipedia – the open encyclopedia
A large and participatory web based research project is Wikipedia. It is an attempt to construct a free, collaboratively written encyclopedia using a wiki as a technology platform. Wiki, quick in Hawaiian, is a form of content management system where all web pages within the wiki site can be edited by anybody. If you see something you want to change, click on the edit link, and you can edit the page through a web form. Wiki style programs allow publishing web pages in a markup simpler than traditional html. New pages can be created by simple stringing two words together with CapitalLetters. That word then becomes a link to create a new blank page. Most also have support for saving a version of the page after each edit, so if somebody deletes or tries to jam up a page it can easily be fixed. From this very simple technology extensive websites can be built. Wiki’s are widely used within the technical and free software community as well as within indymedia for internal organizing. Although the Cancun WTO and Geneva G8 and WSIS protest mobilization websites used them, wiki’s are almost unknown within civil society organizations, even tech savvy ones.
The wikipedia idea is to transform the traditional notion of an encyclopedia from a closed repository of truth to an open collaborative project based on the contribution of users under a copyleft license. As would be expected, it has more depth than a traditional encyclopedia in some areas, and weaker coverage in others. For example if you looked in a traditional encyclopedia there would not be pages describing in detail hundreds of different programming algorithms. Wikipedia’s coverage of things like 18′s century military and political leaders is weaker than a traditional encyclopedia. The Wikipedia idea is to have something which can eventually replace a traditional encyclopedia for the internet age. The traditional encyclopedia is encumbered by an organizational form and technical format which is unable to address the needs of an ICT saturated world.
The first argument that many people make when thinking of wikipedia is, “How can the information be verified?” (1) Anybody can put in some false facts, or even make up a period of history which never existed. In practice people abhor seeing factual errors. Nothing brings out responses and discussions in online communities like making a factually incorrect statement. People come out of the woodwork to correct errors because they like to demonstrate their knowledge and set the story straight. Given the right forms and incentives a tremendous amount of reliable research can be conducted this way.
The growth of wikipedia has been very interesting to watch. In the last 6 months it’s sustained traffic has shot past that of Britannica.com. Clearly in terms of usage the site has been become widely accepted and used as a reliable source of information. It leads us to question where the reliable information really lies. Within the traditional institutional based framework of knowledge and reputation says there should be no value in an encyclopedia which is written by an open group of self-selected volunteers who have no organizational or professional accountability.
The site is published by a core group of 800 people (2) and has a democratic decision making process similar to open source and free software development projects. The decision making is a based on a informal model of working consensus with a occasional site wide voting on referendums and rarely used power of intervention by the site’s founder. (3) Recently the project incorporated itself in the US as Wikimedia, a registered non-profit which legally owns the computers which host the site and which can receive tax deductible donations and grants from foundations. (4) The content of the site released under a free license, the GNU Documentation License, and therefore effectively not an asset. It is released in an easy to use format ensuring that if the power structures behind wikipedia were to ever become corrupted, anybody could easily start a parallel project. The project is coordinated virtually via mailinglists (5), irc chat (6), instant messenger (7) using the same technology and some similar organizational forms to the indymedia network.
Wikipedia and other large, successful wiki like projects succeed because they have replaced the old concept of a director with that of a community of gardeners. The WikiGardener is a person who tends to the information, keeping links together, adding references, reorganizing pages, and generally making sure the collective project remains useful. Like the indymedia concept of an editorial collective and open publishing, the WikiGardener comes in to clean up after the act of publishing and is not a gatekeeper who solicits or controls what information gets published. The gardeners of wikipedia themselves coordinate their actions to manage and grow the project. (8) The essential skills of being a gardener are different from that of a traditional researcher or project manager. The task is that of fostering a community and space for a free flow of contributions. An idea of the general direction and path for future project development is important, but only so long as it remains vague. Growing collaborative projects requires being flexible about the directions the project takes and the contributions which flow in. It is also critical to create a buzz. If you can’t be excited about a project and impart that enthusiasm to others then a collaborative bottom up research project will never take on a life of it’s own.
Implications of network based organizations
These network based projects approach research from a different perspective than their pre-network counterparts. There are sometimes reports produced by the projects, but the research is not solely about the final product. Research is the process of investigation, of debate, of discovering and creating links. The link is the fundamental concept that underpins the web and it can be a powerful force in transforming organizations. Like email, it is very simple, yet when used correctly it can transform longstanding processes. Traditional institutions loth to provide outside links on their websites. The argument is that these links are an endorsement, that by linking to another website or project we are saying we have looked over this organization and their work. Truth be told, linking does connote a bit of endorcement, but not the deep endorsement which might be implied if you published somebody’s article in your newsletter. It’s saying, there is a link of relevance, something which might be interesting information for you to read. The groups who are able to adapt to the new environment create websites which have space for both incoming and outgoing links throughout the site. They are using the web the way it was meant to be used.
A common example of failure to understand and use the internet is to look at organizations which say they want to encourage participation and discussion by installing a forum system. The problem is that a disconnected and compartmentalized forum system ends up being a ghetto, isolated and neglected. On news sites like indymedia and freerepublic as well as research sites like the political state report and groklaw, the comments and discussion exist attached to everything. It means that the original author is taking a step down off of their pedestal and having a face to face discussion with people after their presentation. The ‘comment widely model’ can be contrasted to the traditional academic conference with the presentation of papers followed by a short question and answer session. (9)
Like with conferences, simply going to the other extreme and eliminating the speakers and direction doesn’t work to foster effective collaboration. Communities, and especially research driven communities need people to act as points of direction. To shape and direct the growth of the conversation. The balance of power and openness, structure and fluidity, are critical to making a functional organization on the internet as much as they are in face to face collaboration.
On Using Blogs
One model to move forward for CSO’s engaged in trying to use the internet effectively is for them to consider giving their staff and members blogs. Blogs not as in a place to chat about family and post pictures of their cats. Rather, research blogs, a place to chronicle their ideas, research, and work. In addition to sending around links, articles, word files, and the like they should be posting them online. It opens up the informal knowledge networks and provides a way for people to stay aware of their community.
Blogs work for a couple of reasons. First they are informal. You can post something, link to something, muse about an issue and get feedback. As a medium if you make it clear it’s a blog, then you aren’t held to the same standards as a press release or a full report. Sure spellchecking and grammar are important, but the standards are much lower than is needed to produce something ‘official’. In short, blogs work because they can be quick. Blogs are link intensive, meaning they build off of the best aspects the web, making them like google candy. A blog entry which is linked to from other blogs, or an article which gets picked up and discussed by bloggers will rank much higher in google and as a result have longer staying power, than one which appears with only the official organizational link and gets lost in the thousands of search results which aren’t on the first page. This will increase the impact of reports and other research beyond narrow publications. Blogs, when done effectively have a personal voice, they make people real, opening up and reducing formal barriers which prevent knowledge sharing and true collaboration.
One of Surman and Rielly’s points when talking about the effect of network based communication is “the emphasis of data collection over analysis – we have created information producing culture and not an information synthesis culture.” (Surman and Rielly 2003) The synthesis culture only comes to be seen when you realized the disparities of power within the internet. Some authors and websites become central focal points because of their selective limiting and organizing of information. It is a strong personal voice which attracts readers by providing synthesis. There may be hundreds of thousands of blogs, but most have a small group of readers personally interested in the person or issue being discussed. Power comes to rest in a relatively limited number of sources who are compiling, organizing, and synthesizing information from across the network. Unlike the traditional repositories of power, the networked power-holders have more limited monopoly like barriers to new players. The balance of hubs and smaller points of connection create a rich environment by which people can see the intellectual space.
On Using Wiki’s
Wiki’s are also a remarkably effective tool when used for research and collaboration. They allow for easily constructed communal space. Like email and blogs their power lies in their informality and simplicity. People can understand the essential concepts very quickly. Wiki’s encourage people to contribute to the project rather than maintaining a distance between information producer and consumer. Effective wiki sites don’t spring out of nowhere, but rather need nurturing which is done by ‘WikiGardeners’.
When initially created it was assumed that Wiki’s would not be useable for political projects. To date there have not been that many politically sensitive projects which have adopted using wiki’s. In some cases, such as the indymedia wiki’s (docs.indymedia.org), it’s been necessary to implement a system where only people with username and password can edit the page. Usernames are widely distributed so as not to limit the essential accessibility of platform.
With a little care taken for security a wiki can be a transformative tool. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the web, always advocated that web pages be as easy to edit and update as they are to read. The concept is not of a static reality but rather a much more collaborative medium. Wiki’s are a powerful step in the direction of making the collaboration real. They share the power to speak with all participants. For many professionalized CSO’s and NGO’s this devolution of power brings with it unwanted democracy.
Democratic Implications of User/Network Driven Projects
The power of the network is directly dependent in the creators’ ability to share control. The more the participants see a site or project as theirs the more they contribute. This diffusion of ownership has consequences. The most striking of which is demands for democracy. No visitor to the Ford Foundation’s or the New York Times website is going to get upset if they redesign their website without consulting their users. Yet nobody would think of transforming an indymedia site, Kuro5hin.org, dmoz.org, or wikipedia without a consultation process.
The decision making structure which arises within network based projects and organizations is mostly emergent rather than created by design. Although alined with many of the radically democratic principles of the globalization movement the decision making forms are distinct. It’s not direct democracy with everybody participating in the decision, nor is it representative democracy where decision makers are elected, nor is it really a one person one vote referendum style democracy. Rather it’s a consultative process based on the principles of ‘rough consensus and running code.’
Like corporations and governments, most NGO’s operate with a top down organizational structure with very little democratic power given to the people at the bottom of the organization hierarchy, to say nothing of those outside the organization. When contrasted with the power model of most projects which have successfully used or grown up around ICT’s it is easy to see why Corporations, Governments, and NGO’s have been unable to adapt to really using this new technology. The US military has recently gone through a series of transformations of it’s command and control structure which has worked on reforming itself based on a network model. During the invasion of Iraq, field units used MSN instant messenger (unencrypted) to communicate in real time and coordinate actions.(10) They often switched on the fly to using non-secure consumer technology because the expensive military communications system failed to accommodate the forms of communication needed or collapsed at critical moments. If one of the largest and most authoritarian institutions in the world can adapt to understanding and using network and collaborative technologies in a warzone then NGO’s and CSO’s should be able to do it as well.
The conception of networked informal democracy has been created by the free and open source software communities. The principle is: “We reject kings, presidents and voting. We believe in rough consensus and running code.” [david clark (MIT)] This principle is derived from what ‘works’ when using networked technology and then goes in to shaping the future development of ICT’s. If you want to understand the future transformations of organizations and modes of production in globalization it is best to look at where the process has already happened. That’s within the technical community, which created the ICT’s in the first place.
Wiki’s, blogs, and other simple ICT’s such as instant messaging, only become effective when you realize that the primary transformation is social and organization not technical. There is nothing difficult or complex about the technology. Just as the printing press took period of more than a hundred years to cause a major reformation in the spread of knowledge and power within the Church, ICT’s of today will very slowly cause changes in the way we think and come to know the world. NGO’s are a very early example of a new kind of institution which has spread widely in the last decade. Their use of ICT’s are limited to the earliest technology, email, which has been around since the 1970′s. The web with graphics has been around since 1994, and we are just now, a decade later beginning to learn how to use it.
(1) Wikipedia, common objections to and critiques of Wikipedia – http://en2.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Why_Wikipedia_is_not_so_great
(2) Wikipedians, the community of people who contribute to the Wikipedia project – http://en2.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia%3AWikipedians
(3) Power structures of the wikipedia project – http://en2.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Power_structure
(4) Wikimedia foundation which ‘owns’ the wikipedia project – http://en2.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikimedia_Foundation
(5) Wikipedia mailinglists – http://en2.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia%3AMailing_lists
(6) Wikipedia irc chat – http://en2.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia%3AIRC_channel
(7) Wikipedia instant messaging – http://en2.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Instant_Messaging_Wikipedians
(8) About the Wikipedia project – http://en2.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia%3AAbout
(9) The same is true of publishing to the internet using PDF’s. The format has advantages, it allows easy publishing online of documents which where designed and intended for dead tree printing. The limitations are also very real. The pdf file, like flash, is simultaneously part of the web and separate. It exists in a box, cut off from the wealth of a richly linked environment. The problem is in part technical, publishing software is configured to easily produce professional looking pdf’s while the html export is substandard at best.
(10) For accounts of communications technology used by the US military during the invasion of Iraq the best sources are the blogs written by the technicians in the field during the war. Unfortunately the url’s are not aviable to me at the this time.
Originally Posted by rabble at December 5, 2003 12:06 PM
The life of a programmer is not so simple as some activity where we just code and it’s a job. We learn and grow, and eventually if we’re lucky we learn to have a love of our code which is distinct and separate from superficial needs. We code and create for the sake of creation.
At Ruby Conf Uruguay 2014 I gave a talk about what it means to be a programmer. I talked about the story of Jonathan Livingston Seagull and his evolution from bird who flew to get around to a bird who flew for the love of flying. And then eventually in to a bird who lived to teach other birds the love of flying.
I feel in some ways the story of Jonathan Livingston Seagull is very much a story about programmers and our efforts to master our craft. It’s a short 10 minute talk.
English: Jonathan Livingston Progammer.
Español: Juan Salvador Programador
Why is Uruguay different?
Over the last few years Uruguay and it’s president Pepe Mujica has gotten a lot of press. The country’s legalized marijuana, gay marriage, abortion while expanding free education for all, laptops for school children, internet free in every home. All this while on track to have over 90% of energy production being renewable and maintaining strong economic growth. The economist magazine invented a new award in 2013, Country of the Year, just so they could give it to Uruguay.
Mujica is somebody who believes in leading by example, he donates almost all of his income to charity, lives and talks like average Uruguayans. As a president he’s not been very ‘presidential’ but he has been very effective. He’s managed to balance interests and pass legislation. He’s about getting stuff done vs talking about it.
So why can’t there be more leaders like Mujica. Well it’s complicated. He’s a reflection of the politics and country which elected him. Many people say Uruguay’s unique, it used to be called the Switzerland of South America. But since the 60’s it’s been pretty average. Muddling along through dictatorships and economic crises like the rest of the region.
To explain why Mujica got elected, how he was able to govern and reshape Uruguay we need a tiny bit of a history lesson. Uruguay exists because the British created in to negotiate an end to a war between Argentina and Brazil. It’s a kind of buffer state, which the British used to get in to South America in the early 1800’s. Around 1900 the country’s leadership decided to switch from a hybrid british / spanish model to try and restructure the state based on a model of French social democracy. Basically the idea of strong unions, strong government, civic participation, high taxes, and universal education.
Uruguayans came to identify themselves as a little country who did things better. This national self image is best embodied by winning the world cup twice in 1930 and 1950. The first half of the 20th century was known as the time of the fat cow. An export driven economy based on cattle and off shore banking funded ‘first world’ levels of wealth. The second half of the 20th century lead to marxist rebellions (partially lead by Mujica), dictatorships, economic crises, and generally the county became much poorer. Finally in 2002 an economic crisis lead to a moment where an insurgent political party, Frente Ampilo was able to take power.
Because of the history with social democracy, Uruguay has a constitution and voting system which is quite open and balanced. This system uses a kind of proportional representation, direct election of presidents, and referendum. It also has some reasonable separation of powers between branches of the government. This is similar to the electoral systems of northern europe. Despite a fair proportional system of voting, Uruguay used to have two political parties, not unlike the democrats and republicans. The colorados (think democrats) had their power based in the cities, and blancos (republicans) had their power base in the country side.
When democracy was restored in 1984, Uruguayan leftists decided to unify under a broad front, Frente Amplio. The Frente worked hard with local organizing, opening offices in every neighborhood, building strong connections with a broad range of institutions. Over the course of 20 years they went from a marginal force to replacing the two traditional parties as the major political force of the country. The marxists guerrillas like Mujica gave up armed struggle and joined Frente Amplio.
During the time before Frente Amplio took power in 2005, they fought over a number of smaller political struggles. They won elections to run the Montevideo city government and they proposed and contested a number of referendums. Uruguay has a system, similar to some states in the US, where with signatures you can write or overturn laws. From 1985 to 2005 Frente used these referendums to prevent privatization and protect the social democratic welfare state.
Mujica was an effective organizer and leader within his faction of Frente Amplio, the MPP, which was formed by the former marxist guerrillas the Tupamaro. The first Frente Amplio president of Uruguay, Tabare Vázquez, a medical doctor was a moderate choice who focused on inclusion and good government rather than radical change. After Tabare’s first term, Mujica organized an insurgent campaign for the nomination and then won the general election.
Mujica’s platform was of continuity with the previous Frente Amplio government, a center left coalition modeled off of PT (the workers party) in brazil instead of the radical populism of Kirchner in Argentina and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.
He took power with a simple majority in both houses of parliament and a majority of the department (provincial / state) governments. What’s more, Uruguayan political parties are actually coalitions where each sub party gets their own seats and has their own power. This means that the way to shift your coalition’s power is by your sub party getting more votes and therefore more seats. This is very different from how it works in the US where fights between mainstream republicans and the tea party is messy, confusing, and full of back room deals.
When Mujica won, his MPP party also became the largest faction within Frente Amplio. He had to work with everybody to get stuff done, but his faction had real power to push things through. The political system in Uruguay creates situations where leaders both have the power to enact Legislation and real incentive to build consensus. The system of three major stable coalitions of political parties with full elections to decide power balances has a huge effect. By Latin American standards, the power of the president and ‘caudillo’ strongmen only have weak control over the system.
This is different from other systems. In many latin american countries, the president can decree things. In the US there’s two parties who have minimal policy differences but who hate each other. In Uruguay you win by winning elections, not by controlling the candidates or electoral tricks. You make policy by building consensus amongst political parties and powerful organizations within the country.
Mujica was able to be effective because he has tremendous credibility with the left. He was an armed revolutionary who spend 14 years in military prison for his efforts. He never renounced his revolutionary tactics or ideology. Then he reached out the centrist parts of Frente Amplio and opposition parties and negotiated reforms. He refused to engage in the blame game and worked hard not to alienate the traditional parties. This is the opposite of what’s happened across the river in Argentina, where all politics has become us vs them.
Mujica also embraced the idea that the personal is political. That politicians should live like and reflect the people they represent. His house is like the vast majority of uruguayans. He’s got the same stuff, as most uruguayans. He eats, drinks, sleeps, drives like his people. Most uruguayans live in small houses with bad heating. If they have a car, it’s old and clunky. Uruguayans make value choices which focus on family, on vacation, on quality of life and not material wealth.
So how do you get a Mujica in your country?
Well start 100 years ago, create a culture of social democratic inclusion. Build an electoral and constitutional system which is fair and decides power struggles in public instead of back room deals. Create a culture of resolving problems with consensus. Build a strong bottom up institutional structure for social and political movements. Make sure there are strong checks on the power of individuals gaining too much political or economic power.
Develop a political culture which allows politicians to be full people. Allow politicians to have a past and not be perfect. Just imagine how in the US Obama was criticized because he’d had dinner with people who’d been marxist urban guerrillas in the 1970’s. Mujica had BEEN one of those guerrillas.
Mujica’s unique. But other countries can fight to have politicians who are true reflections of their society. Elected leaders who do not think they are better than everybody else. Who lead by following the will of their people. The structure and institutions of Uruguayan society are what allowed Mujica to come to power. We don’t see more Mujica’s in the world of politics because most countries don’t have democracies which work as well as Uruguay’s.
I gave a talk at LATAM Startups Conference 2014 in Santiago, Chile on September 26th 2014. I wanted to ask startup founders and angel investors to think about the social impact of our startups.
I gave a talk this past weekend at TEDxUTN 2014. I talked about the ideas we put in to technology, the values and how communications technology tend to have something like an ideology. I’ve been obsessed with this idea for a while. When we write code we put values in to it and shape how it gets used. I hope to go through and edit the text and convert it in to a blog post.
It’s not new that technologists think that their inventions will shape society for the better. We’re starting to realize that our technical decisions have a huge effect on others. This is particularly true when we see geeks try and react to the control of surveillance. We’ve got some values, how do we built technology systems which reflect and support those values.
Each time we build things, it’s a series of tradeoffs. There is no single way to do it. We’re making decisions which are simultaneously technical and political. What will this system do and how will it work? Does ZeroTier require configuration or not, does it support robust encryption or believe in transparency. Some of these decisions will be critical to it’s adoption and others will just shape the way it works and who uses it.
After a break i’ve decided i want to have my blog back, so i’m going to revive it. I started blogging back in 2000, 14 years ago. The concept of blogging has gone in and out of style in over the years, but it seems to me it’s actually a good place to have a long term place to put your own writing.
In the debate about programming languages, libraries, and platforms we focus too much on the technical details. What matters more, is the human community of people who create, maintain, and use the technologies. Every programming language we’d consider is Turing complete, and there is no shortage of tooling or frameworks for any important language. You can build pretty much any web app in any language and it would work.
Culture matters. The difference between technologies and languages are their cultures. It defines the way the community structures itself, what it values, the origin myths, the way it collaborates, shares, and creates. With this talk I tried to tell the story of Ruby’s Culture. I also tried to inspire programmers to be active participants, to be creators – not consumers of their tools.
Last October I had the privilege of co-organizing the first Ruby Conf in Uruguay. My personal goal was to bridge worlds. There’s a great small hacker community in the region, but the larger community of programmers wasn’t paying attention. We could watch videos of other people’s conferences, but we were missing the hallway conversations. We wanted to have a great programmers conference where we could show off what we’d been doing, be inspired by others, and change the way software development is thought about in Rio de la Plata (Uruguay and Argentina). We hoped to have 75 people come, we had over 250 show up!
As the date approached, we needed a keynote. We thought, Blaine Cook, he does a good talk, but he wanted to talk about federated social networks and web standards, it wasn’t quite right. Then Tim Bray said he could join us, he gives a great talk, too, but he’s working on Android these days. The other speakers who have the right energy all wanted to talk about deeply technical topics. Santiago Pastorino just joined Rails Core, and would be great but he wanted to do a very technical talk on meta programming. Eventually we decided that perhaps I should do the talk I wanted to hear. It was my first time giving a full length keynote talk. Focusing on technical subjects is an easier more constrained problem. Inspiring and telling a story is harder.
The technology we create is not isolated and mechanical. It’s a reflection of the values, constraints, and aspirations of it’s creators. Free and Open Source technology is even more a community endeavor. We need to understand the history and culture of our creations. For once i’d like to acknowledge that the culture of technology is as important as it’s implementation. Broken implementations are easier to fix than broken cultures.
In the last year, we’ve seen the node.js community move from a small technological core, to a full and robust environment. They build libraries, technology, but they managed the process through community organizing and collective values. It’s about rough consensus, running code, and a shared aesthetic.
When you choose a technology, these values, the community and it’s culture are as important as performance and type system. The robustness of libraries are a reflection of the community’s work. Pick a healthy vibrant community where you feel comfortable.