Categories
web3

Web3: Panacea or Poisoned Chalice

Yesterday I transferred $50 CAD worth of the cryptocurrency Ethereum from one wallet to another. It cost me $18 CAD in “gas fees,” aka network expense, a 36% charge for a simple transaction.

Meanwhile, in the various social spheres I’m embedding myself as I research the #web3 phenomenon, everyone says cryptocurrencies are the future. It will replace traditional centralized banking and fiat money. It will replace Web 2.0. It will allow “us” to take power back from big banks and corporate interests.

This year I’m taking a deep dive into Web3 to make sense of what it is, how it works, what it promises, and whether those promises will come to fruition. So far I feel like I’m watching a thriller screaming “don’t open the door!” at my TV.

The Panacea

“Web3” (specifically with no space between the “web” and the “3”) has become an umbrella term for a future for the web in which everything from finance to storage is decentralized through the blockchain. This is notably different from “Web 3.0,” an umbrella term for the Spatial web, the Semantic web, the Metaverse, and the Decentralized web, with or without the blockchain. This means if someone says “web3,” there’s a high chance they’re talking about the blockchain, NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens), DeFi (Decentralized Finance), and DAOs (Decentralized Autonomous Organizations) rather than the decentralized, semantic, and spatial web or the Metaverse (see “The Lawnmower Man,” “Ready, Player One,” and “A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor”).

Talk to the web3 crowd and they’ll tell you web3 is about “taking the web back” from centralized authorities like Facebook and Google, and “taking power away” from centralized financial authorities like banks and governments. As an example, artists are encouraged to mint NFTs (unique unreproducable tokens on the blockchain) for their work and sell those NFTs for cryptocurrency to fund their work rather than go through traditional channels where a middleman takes part of the profit. These NFTs are then traded on an open market and can over time generate enormous value, some of which can trickle back to the original creator (when minting an NFT you can configure it to send a percentage of every future trade back to the original creator).

Web3 is in a very real way presented as a panacea, an antidote and solution to all the harms and injustices brought upon us by existing financial, corporate, and social systems, in particular the banking system and the predatory surveillance capitalists of the Web 2.0 era.

This idea is a gravity well: Step close enough and the pull is nigh impossible to resist. The promise of independence, decentralization, autonomy, anonymity, and financial freedom is everything we’ve been promised from the modern world and all things the modern world has failed to deliver.

Where the cryptosphere used to be populated with finance bros and equally white and male techno utopians, the web3 conversation now has a significant cohort of women, environmentalists, and historically excluded and oppressed communities. These more diverse contributors have bought into the idea of the panacea and build upon it grand visions of a possible more equitable future for us all. In recent weeks I’ve observed conversations blooming on TikTok and Discord channels about how NFTs can be used to promote indigenous art, whether environmental NGOs can be run using DAOs, and whether online sex workers can decouple their income streams from expensive middlemen platforms and the moralistic qualms of traditional payment portals.

The mythos around Web3 is rapidly evolving from the techno utopian dream of untraceable and untaxable money to a promise of fairness, equity, and ownership in a post-centralized world.

These conversations, these dreams and visions of the future, are hopeful and important. From where I’m standing, and what I’ve seen of the current and near-future tech stack they are built on, they are also woefully premature.

The Poisoned Chalice

To me the blockchain has always seemed like a technological solution looking for a problem. I’m not the only one. I’ve linked to a series of critical articles at the bottom of this one for further reading. My introduction to the blockchain happened many many years ago when Bitcoin was first introduced. An acquaintance whose job consisted of managing giant servers in the deep core of a university had used the downtime on the servers as his own personal mining rig and was now complaining he had all this money that he couldn’t spend because nobody was honouring it. “In the future,” he said, “everyone will use Bitcoin. That way the government can’t get their greedy hands on our money.” The fact he was working for a state-funded university and relied on state-funded healthcare to get treatment for several chronic health conditions seemed irrelevant.

In the years that followed, conversations around first Bitcoin, then the Blockchain and how these technologies would solve everything from finances to shipping to healthcare to education flourished, yet I saw little in the ways of actual innovation or application. With the exception of more and more cryptocurrencies being minted, and more and more investors pouring their money into startups building businesses around these cryptocurrencies.

Flash forward to today, and I don’t see much change. This concerns me. Here are three of many reasons why:

Where are the proofs-of-concept?

The biggest red flag I see with web3 now is where web3 conversations are taking place: On Twitter, on Discord channels, on Telegram, on TikTok, on Medium and Substack. What do all these have in common? They are all good old centralized web2 platforms. And I see very little work being done to build web3 alternatives to these platforms.

One of the major marketing messages from the web3 community is that web3 will take power away from the centralized behemoths and place that power in our hands through decentralization. Yet the web3 community has yet to adopt a web3 solution to publishing articles and enabling community chats.

When I bring this up, the answer is usually “it’s still early days.” Here’s the thing: I was there in the early days of web 2.0. You know what those early days were like? The entire damn community was hard at work building the tools we wanted to use to change the world. That’s how Drupal and Joomla! and WordPress and a myriad of other CMSes were built: The community was walking the walk. And the community leaders were right at the front of the pack. Many of them still are.

From web3 community leaders I hear mainly three things: Buy tokens, get everyone else to buy tokens, and hold on to those tokens. By doing this, you are supporting the system and helping bring in the new era of decentralization. And where are they saying this? On centralized web 2.0 platforms.

Meanwhile venture capitalists and investment companies are pouring billions into the web3 space, mainly supporting so-called “DeFi” decentralized finance solutions. Many of these projects focus on building infrastructure around trading in cryptocurrencies and NFTs and are effectively machines for generating the most real-world money out of the crypto sphere as possible. The problem of course is cryptocurrencies are a negative-sum game. A crypto coin (or NFT, or DAO, or anything else on the blockchain) is only worth as much as what the next person buying it from you is willing to spend. They are not tied to anything tangible, and if everyone cashes out, there isn’t enough money in the world to actually pay everyone.

In short, while web3 says it’s all about taking power away from the centralized authorities and giving it back to the people, all the money being invested into web3 right now is going towards the same toxic capitalist tendencies that ruined web 2.0.

Big Money isn’t at web3’s gates. Big Money is on the inside, building the gates and selling tickets to watch the build process for profit.

Barriers to entry and real-world cost

I think part of the reason for this is the barrier to entry for Web3 and the blockchain is very high. These technologies add an enormous level of complexity to a system that is very simple. Building a basic smart contract involves a deep understanding of not only programming but also blockchain protocols and interface layers, and there are few tools available to simplify the process. Go search “web3” on TikTok and you’ll find a myriad of videos showing artists how to download a script from GitHub to mint 10,000 NFTs from a stack of 10 layers of art, and a myriad of videos talking about how smart contracts and DAOs will change how the world works. But dig deeper and you’ll discover very few examples of any of this actually being done. Because not only are these things difficult to build, difficult to use, and difficult to get other people to use, but they are expensive.

Yes, expensive. As I said in the opening to this article. Yesterday it cost me $18 to transfer $50 worth of ETH between wallets. To start selling NFTs on OpenSea, the system wanted to charge me $218 in network fees. That’s a lot of money to pay for two basic transactions. The reason it’s so expensive is the Ethereum network is “congested” meaning there are a lot of people making changes to the blockchain at the same time. And the more people use the blockchain, the more expensive things will get.

Now consider the millions of struggling artists out there being told all they have to do to earn money from their art is to mint NFTs. Some of them are now pouring significant money into the system, paying for gas fees at increasing rates. And while some of them will be lucky and make money from their NFTs, many more will never make a profit. Instead they’ll have spent significant time and hard cash burning energy on a graphics card somewhere to do a complex math operation to put an entry on a blockchain.

There are real financial, environmental, and human costs to the blockchain, and I have yet to see any meaningful proofs that web3 can resolve any of these problems.

For web3 to meet its own promise, the community must invest in building the future they want to live in, not by minting and buying NFTs and forming DAOs, but by actually building the tools they need to make web3 equitable and accessible.

Solving real-world problems with the Blockchain?

There used to be a food truck festival in Vancouver where I live. When you went to the festival, you bought Food Truck Bucks you could use at the festival. Only Food Truck Bucks were legal tender at the festival, and Food Truck Bucks were a one-way transaction. You couldn’t trade Food Truck Bucks back to regular money. Pretty much everyone who went to that festival still had some Food Truck Bucks left when they went home.

That’s what cryptocurrencies are: Food Truck Bucks. Except in some cases, if you’re lucky, you can trade them back for real money. And in some cases, if you’re lucky, a Food Truck Buck is worth more when you trade it back than it was when you first bought it.

Before the modern financial system, that’s how the world used to work. People, businesses, towns, and fiefdoms issued their own currencies or IOUs that could be traded for goods. It was a great way of keeping value contained within an area, and keeping power contained to the people who controlled the currency.

With the advent of cryptocurrencies, anyone can now once again mint their own legal tender and try to convince others that the new coin has value. And they’ll tell you this has absolutely nothing at all whatsoever cross my heart and hope to die pinkie swear anything to do with evading taxes. At all.

Sure.

Here’s the thing: Cryptocurrencies, in their current state, do not solve any problem we can’t solve without cryptocurrencies. And based on who holds the majority stake in the big cryptocurrencies today, it’s pretty clear any illusion of these new coins being “us” taking power back from Big Money is just that: An illusion. Big Money holds a majority stake in all coins.

So if not money, what real-world problems does the blockchain solve?

Decentralization of data? Not really. There are plenty of other models being worked on or already existing that solve decentralization without the blockchain. In fact, the internet is decentralized already. The reason the web is centralized is largely because of people wanting ever more streamlined web solutions that worked ever faster and capitalism being an endless collapse towards monopoly.

OK, how about artists making more money from their work without going through a middle-man? Again, that can be solved without the blockchain. In fact, the people making money off the current NFT craze in the art space are not the artists themselves but the investors who trade those NFTs among themselves. Big Money making more money of our work. The only real change is where it’s happening.

What about DAOs then? That’s something totally new, right? Sure, if the DAOs actually use smart contracts to do something meaningful, and we trust the programming to not have errors. In most current real-world examples though, DAOs are just shareholder companies wearing crypto jackets.

Oh, I know: How about combining DAOs and NFTs to streamline supply chain management? Sure, that’s possible. It would mean trusting computers to make decisions we currently have humans doing because those decisions often have to account for unforeseen issues like a giant boat getting stuck in a canal or a giant volcano exploding or a global pandemic causing everyone to stay home. Which would be extremely risky. But it is possible, at some point. It wouldn’t be done on the same blockchain that handles financial transactions and trading of art NFTs though.

I got it! The Decentralized Web! That’s where web3 gets its name anyway, right? Here’s the ting: The estimated size of the web right now is somewhere between 60 and 80 zetabytes. Thats 60-80 million million gigabytes. The blockchain can’t track that. Nothing can track that. And a single blockchain would never be able to manage even a fraction of that. So there would have to be a myriad of blockchains connected together in some sort of blockchain tree, with a central blockchain controlling all the other blockchains to make sure consensus was upheld across all the blockchains. And whomever had the power to control that central blockchain would effectively hold centralized control over the web.

So no, I have yet to see an example of how web3 solves a real-world problem. What I see instead are enterprising investors making big bank on the hopes and dreams of a generation badly burned by the web 2.0 shenanigans of those very same enterprising investors.

Hope is a catalyst

Does all this mean I think Web3 is bunk? That we should abandon the whole thing and keep building web 2.0 instead? No. Not at all. I think the ideas emerging from the diverse crowd now embracing the promise of web3 give us reason to hope. I think as soon as we stop pouring our money into the bottomless pits built by of VC capital and start actually building a web3 focused on sustainability, equity, inclusion, and decentralized power, we can build the next version of the web. To get there, we need to build the tools and the platforms and the communities necessary to get us into that future. That means less minting NFTs that will end up being traded between Elon and Jeff, more building decentralized alternatives to Discord and TikTok. Less focus on DeFi, more focus on how to handle the very real problem of online disinformation, hate speech, and violent and inhumane content when what goes on the blockchain can never be removed. Less focus on building energy-burning mining rigs, more focus on building cryptocurrencies whose value is tied to meaningful real-world impacts like carbon sequestration (read “The Ministry for the Future” for more on that).

I have hope web3 can be a panacea for the ails brought on us by web 2.0. And I have faith there are people in the community able to get us there, if we all stop drinking from the poisoned chalice of capitalist greed.

A Critical Reading List

Cross-posted to LinkedIn. Header photo by Adrian Infernus on Unsplash.

Categories
Open Source

A Fatal Flaw in the Bazaar’s Foundations

A fatal flaw in open source ideology went from an intentionally overlooked rift to a massive unignorable chasm this week. It stems from the book “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” by Eric S. Raymond, oft cited and (I’m starting to wonder) not as often read.

[This article is an addendum to “Open Source Considered Harmful.”]

In the chapter “On Management and the Maginot Line” Raymond discusses the difference between “traditional management” and the free flowing volunteer contributions of open source, and how the latter solves common problems in a better way than the former.

On the question whether “traditional development management is a necessary compensation for poorly motivated programmers who would not otherwise turn out good work,” he says the following:

This answer usually travels with a claim that the open-source community can only be relied on only to do work that is `sexy’ or technically sweet; anything else will be left undone (or done only poorly) unless it’s churned out by money-motivated cubicle peons with managers cracking whips over them.

If the conventional, closed-source, heavily-managed style of software development is really defended only by a sort of Maginot Line of problems conducive to boredom, then it’s going to remain viable in each individual application area for only so long as nobody finds those problems really interesting and nobody else finds any way to route around them. Because the moment there is open-source competition for a `boring’ piece of software, customers are going to know that it was finally tackled by someone who chose that problem to solve because of a fascination with the problem itself—which, in software as in other kinds of creative work, is a far more effective motivator than money alone.

This underlying assumption, that open source developers naturally gravitate not only to “sexy” challenges, but also to difficult “boring” problems has been a foundational component of open source ideology since its inception. When I first read Cathedral a decade ago, this assumption stood out to me as pure fantasy. My lived experience was exactly the opposite: Open source developers (myself included) gravitated easily towards new and shiny and exiting things, but were quite reluctant to take on boring maintenance and security issues. And because every contributor to an open source project is (ostensibly) a volunteer, nobody has the power to delegate work and tell them what to do. In fact, this lack of management is the very thing Raymond says solves the problem… somehow. Meanwhile, in the real world corporations (hosting providers in particular) resorted to paying their employees to do the “boring” but critical work to ensure the project didn’t collapse due to poor maintenance.

Contrary to Raymond’s assertion some 20 years ago, the hard problems of open source very much depend on conventional management structures and paid contributors. And a significant portion of this work is carried by the very corporations Raymond and his open source ideologues wanted to take power away from. At no time has this been made more clear than yesterday when tech CEOs and open source leaders convened at the White House to discuss how to secure open source.

Per GitHub:

First, there must be a collective industry and community effort to secure the software supply chain. Second, we need to better support open source maintainers to make it easier for them to secure their projects.

Per Google:

there’s no official resource allocation and few formal requirements or standards for maintaining the security of that critical code. In fact, most of the work to maintain and enhance the security of open source, including fixing known vulnerabilities, is done on an ad hoc, volunteer basis.

For too long, the software community has taken comfort in the assumption that open source software is generally secure due to its transparency and the assumption that “many eyes” were watching to detect and resolve problems. But in fact, while some projects do have many eyes on them, others have few or none at all.

Per OpenSSF (Open Source Security Foundation):

Following the recent log4j crisis, the time has never been more pressing for public and private collaboration to ensure that open source software components and the software supply chains they flow through demonstrate the highest cybersecurity integrity.

In the Cathedral and the Bazaar, Raymond envisioned a future where open source contributors would naturally gravitate towards hard problems and solve them out of personal interest and pride. This falls closely in line with other privileged and elitist stances laid out in his book including “open source has been successful partly because its culture only accepts the most talented 5% or so of the programming population” and in the ideology established by Richard Stallman in the GNU Manifesto.

In both cases, these ideas – the very foundational blocks on which open source ideology is built – are divorced from the reality we all live in where people need money to pay for things like food and clothes and a roof over their head and where most people are willing to do things they enjoy for free (like developing new shiny stuff), but less so when the work is drudging maintenance or security engineering required by corporations and organizations earning billions of dollars off their free labor.

As I said in my previous article on this topic, it is time we rebuild open source ideology to be based on equity, inclusion, and sustainability.

Header photo by Chris Lynch on Unsplash.

Categories
Open Source

Open Source Considered Harmful

“Meritocratic hubris is the tendency of winners to inhale too deeply of their success, to forget the luck and good fortune that helped them on their way.” – Michael Sandel

Those who profit from open source have inhaled too deeply of their own success and forgotten the millions of volunteers who helped them on their way. Now we all run the risk of losing ourselves to an unfinished and deeply privileged ideology that saw the world not as it is or even how it could be, but as it would be were we all Richard Stallman. It is time to rethink the foundations of open source.


In December 2021, a serious vulnerability was discovered in a Java logging library called Log4j. It put a significant portion of the online infrastructure we rely on for the functioning of modern society at risk. Government agencies reached out to the developers to get it fixed, only to discover Log4j, like most open source software, is developed and maintained by unpaid contributors.

In response, the White House did the only thing they could do: Reach out to large software companies to find someone they could hold accountable for fixing the problem.

Per White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan: open-source software is widely used but is maintained by volunteers, making it “a key national security concern.” 

In other words, the White House considers open source potentially harmful. Let that sink in.

Then on January 9, 2022, a developer deliberately corrupted two major open source JavaScript libraries called “colors” and “faker,” affecting thousands of applications.

These corruptions were a political move by a developer to draw attention to the fact most open source developers volunteer their time and skill to build and maintain software others earn billions of dollars from. Per Wired.com: “A massive number of websites, software, and apps rely on open-source developers to create essential tools and components — all for free. It’s the same issue that results in unpaid developers working tirelessly to fix the security issues in their open-source software,

Saying the quiet parts out loud

I’ve worked in open source for 15 years. I believe in open source, and I believe the online world we live in today would never have been built without open source. I also believe the open source ideology has become harmful, to individuals and to the community, and we – the open source community – need to rethink some of our core ideals and values and accept some hard truths.

Let me say the quiet parts out loud:

  • Most of the online services we rely on for everything from social media to banking to healthcare depend on software written by unpaid volunteers, and when something goes wrong with that software, the responsibility of fixing those issues fall on those same unpaid volunteers.
  • The world runs on open source, but with a few exceptions there are no meaningful governance structures in place to ensure oversight or accountability within the open source community.
  • Open source software is a multi-billion dollar industry, yet the vast majority of open source developers and contributors never get paid a cent for their work. Meanwhile, corporations built on top of open source software have billion dollar valuations.
  • Nobody speaks for open source, so when businesses, organizations, governments and world leaders need to talk to someone about open source, they have no choice but to turn to venture capitalists and large corporations whose financial success hinges on being able to steer open source projects in directions that are profitable to them for advice.
  • Most open source projects are governed and controlled by a so-called “Benevolent Dictator For Life” or BDFL – typically a relatively young, relatively white man who either started the project or took control over the project early on – whose power is absolute and unchallenged.
  • In many open source projects, that BDFL runs a corporate entity, built on the open source software, that for the average user is indistinguishable from the open source project itself (often going as far as sharing its name) that siphons enormous wealth from the project without distributing that wealth back to the volunteer contributors. In open source speak: They build cathedrals to look like the bazaar, in the middle of the bazaar, and reserve the exclusive right to advertise their cathedral as the bazaar.

Harm to contributors

In my years working in open source I’ve seen the real harms of this culture on contributors. Doing unpaid work while others profit off that work is harmful. Being told this is the way it’s supposed to work, that if you just work hard enough somehow you’ll end up being paid, is harmful. Shifting the responsibility of finding funding for mission critical infrastructure work to the individual contributor while large corporations lean on them to immediately fix issues and move the project in directions beneficial to them is harmful. Believing this culture of exploiting unpaid labor is healthy is harmful.

Power in open source projects is distributed based on a meritocratic “decisions are made by those who show up” model meaning if you have something important to say, or a vested interest in the project, you need to invest significant time and effort into the project to be heard. This gives corporate interests and people in positions of privilege power, while the majority of contributors are left to fend for themselves. Why? Because for the vast majority of contributors, this means volunteering their time so other people can make money off their work.

Most people – in particular women, people belonging historically excluded and oppressed groups, and people with disabilities – do not have the privilege of time and money to volunteer “enough” to be recognized in these meritocratic systems. As a result, decisions in these projects are made by an unrepresentative group of people who typically fall in the categories young, white, male, North American, abled, and in lockstep with the ideologies of the BDFL.

When questions are asked to the leaders of open source projects about why wealth is so unevenly distributed – why some corporations can earn millions of dollars on the work of unpaid contributors while the contributors themselves are chided for suggesting they deserve to be paid for their work – the answer is always the same: “Open source is volunteer contribution. If you want to get paid, go work in proprietary software.”

If you’re looking for a textbook example of gaslighting, there it is.

Not paying open source contributors for their work is a political decision based on the ideology established in the GNU Manifesto from 1985 from which the popular GNU GPL license originates. In it, Richard Stallman puts forth a utopian fever dream in which open source software wins the battle for software supremacy, corporations who rely on open source pay a form of tax to the open source community, and contributors magically get paid because of course people who do good work get paid. Think I’m being hyperbolic or unfair in my description? Read for yourself:

In the long run, making programs free is a step toward the postscarcity world, where nobody will have to work very hard just to make a living. People will be free to devote themselves to activities that are fun, such as programming, after spending the necessary ten hours a week on required tasks such as legislation, family counseling, robot repair and asteroid prospecting. There will be no need to be able to make a living from programming.” – GNU Manifesto by Richard Stallman

37 years later and corporations make ever-increasing profits on the unpaid labor of volunteer open source contributors. Open source won the battle of software supremacy, on the backs of millions of unpaid workers.

Here’s the thing:

There is no good reason why open source contributors can’t get paid by the project for their work.

There is no good reason open source projects can’t set up foundations that collect money from investors and those who rely on the software and pay it to contributors based on need. There are models for this already in organizations like the OpenJS Foundation and the newly founded PHP Foundation. The reason this is not happening, in my opinion, is setting up such structures would shift the center of power from the BDFLs and their teams to the community itself. Which should be the goal of any open source project, but would financially impact the people currently in power. Which is why BDFLs and their supporters vehemently oppose any attempt at introducing meaningful governance into open source projects.

As a result, open source projects rarely if ever have any coherent policies, guidelines, or tools for accountability beyond protecting the open source nature of the project. Which is why when an open source project is approached by government because of its effects on society, instead of sending representatives from the open source project to talk to government, unelected and unappointed corporations with a financial interest in the project speak on the project’s behalf.

Harm to the community

“Part of the issue, of course, is the overreliance by for-profit businesses on open source, free software developed and maintained by a small, overstretched team of volunteers.” – Wired.com

Open source won the war for software supremacy. Now comes the hard part: Taking responsibility for our work by creating a healthy sustainable ecosystem where the people who build the infrastructure of the web can live meaningful lives while doing meaningful work.

The lack of proper governance, funding, and oversight in open source is causing real harm to individual contributors, to the open source community, and to the wider internet community relying on our work. We are acting as if these are still little hobby projects we’re hacking away at in our parents basements. In reality, they are mission-critical, often at government levels, and what got us here is no longer sufficient to get us anywhere but chaos.

Here’s what’s happening in the real world: Governments and large corporations are waking up to the reality our online infrastructure is built on software maintained by unpaid volunteers without any meaningful governance or accountability. To protect themselves, governments and corporations are doing the only thing they can do: Work together to solve the problem. What do you think that solution will be? I know what it definitely will not be: More volunteer contribution.

More likely, government will ask the big corporations to either lean very hard on the open source projects to fix their issues, or more likely inject their own staff into the projects to take over. And while the open source community keeps saying this is an impossibility, it really is not. Open source has largely been taken over by corporations already, both from the inside and from the outside. Just follow the money. And when push comes to shove and governments start getting involved, shareholders and investors will quickly pivot from “let these kids do their magic” to “let’s take control over this mess to protect our profits!”

If we don’t do the hard work of creating proper open source governance, open source policy, and functional funding of open source contributors, the dream of open source will die in our hands and we won’t even notice.

It is time we rebuild open source ideology to be based on equity, inclusion, and sustainability. We built the modern world. Now we need to take care of it and of ourselves.

Header photo by Julius Drost on Unsplash.

Categories
Internet

Facebook: Single Point of Failure

Facebook isn’t a social media platform, it’s infrastructure. We’ve built monolithic platforms on a web designed for plurality and distribution. Now these platforms have become single points of failure. 

“Are you able to send messages through WhatsApp?”

My wife was calling me from upstairs. She’d been messaging with other parents at our son’s preschool about plans for a Trunk & Treat during Halloween when the service suddenly went offline.

The internet has a magical ability of allowing people around the world to experience the same thing at the same time. Unfortunately the most noticeable of these experiences is when a major service goes down, as was the case Monday October 4, 2021. As if a switch had been turned off, Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp users all over the world were suddenly unable to access the services. All they got were apps stuck in update limbo and websites returning nothing.

Whenever there’s a problem with Facebook, arguably the most controversial and also most heavily used platforms on the web, a fair bit of schadenfreude floods other social networks. “Oh no, how are the anti-vaxxers going to do their research now?” quickly became a repeated refrain on TikTok. The #DeleteFacebook hashtag, already building up steam after an explosive 60 Minutes interview with whistleblower Frances Haugen about the social media platform’s relative inaction on harmful content and its effects on democracy, got an added fuel injection. Virtuous declarations of how long ago influencers had abandoned Facebook and how anyone still on it were “part of the problem” abounded. Meanwhile the same influencers were complaining about lost revenue due to Instagram being down. (Instagram btw is part of Facebook.)

Judging by the chatter on social media you’d think Facebook is a media platform mainly used to share boomer jokes, figure out what your highschool friends are doing 20 years after graduation, and spread misinformation. And in the best of all possible worlds, that’s what it would be (sans the misinformation). But this is not that world, and that’s not an accurate description of what Facebook and its kin are. In this very real world, Facebook and Instagram and WhatsApp operate as critical infrastructure for everything from interpersonal communication through online business to financial transactions and government services.

In many countries in Africa, Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp operate as essential infrastructure. In 2019, WhatsApp was responsible for nearly half of all internet use in Zimbabwe. South Africans can renew their car license and perform other government services through WhatsApp. And when you go looking you find the same trend in countries and regions throughout Asia, Europe, South-, Centra-, and North America, and Oceania. For millions of people around the world, the services Facebook provides are their primary tool for communicating with family and friends, consuming news and information, performing business transactions, interacting with local and federal government, even sending and receiving money. Caspar Hübinger writes more about this.

So when Facebook (and Insta, and WhatsApp) goes down, for 5 hours, without any meaningful information about what’s happening or when it will be back up again, it’s not the anti-vaxxers and boomers who are paying the price – it’s the millions of people whose lives and livelihoods depend on the platform and its kin.

Like I said: Facebook is infrastructure, and has become a single point of failure for the proper functioning of the web. So it’s more than a little bit ironic, in an Alanis Morissette way, that Facebook would go down due to a single point of failure in their own system: A configuration change to their DNS system.

The core premise of the web was to allow everyone to host their own files and services, and interconnect them through a common platform. This was specifically to get away from the problem of centralized services and single points of failure. Some 30+ years later and we’ve become dependent on monolithic and monopolistic platforms like Facebook who gobble up or destroy their competitors and try to be everything to everyone. We’re back to the same problem of single points of failure, only now those single points are global entities used by millions of people. And when these services go down, they cause immediate harm to their users.

And here’s the kicker: The success of Facebook is in no small part due to how we, the people who build the web, promoted and used and drove our families and friends and clients and communities to use Facebook. We invested ourselves in the idea of Facebook integration early on. We onboarded people to the platform. We built their communities and business pages and advertising integration. We replaced native comments with Facebook comments to generate more engagement on their company pages. We built giant community groups on Facebook. We added Facebook tracking pixels to our sites and streamlined our tools so our blog posts got automatically cross-posted to our Facebook pages. 

We helped make Facebook a single point of failure. And we are the only ones who can fix it.

So, the next time you feel compelled to shout #DeleteFacebook from the rooftops and declare yourself morally superior to the commoners who still languish on the platform you abandoned a decade ago for ethical reasons, remember that for millions of people we have yet to build viable alternatives.

The next time you think to yourself it’s only a matter of time before some government entity steps in and breaks up Facebook to reduce their power, remember that politicians trying to figure out how to keep terrorism, CSAM, and other harmful content off the web think Facebook is the web, and that things that are not Facebook – like your website – must be regulated as if they were Facebook. 

And the next time you set up a WordPress site, or a Gatsby site, or a Wix site, or any other site for your client, notice how easy it is to add Facebook integration to ensure your client gets to benefit from that sweet poison known as surveillance capitalism.

Facebook is infrastructure. Infrastructure change is a generational project. If we don’t provide viable low-friction user-centric alternatives to Facebook’s myriad of services soon, the web will become Facebook. That’s not hyperbole – it just hasn’t happened to you. Yet.

Header photo by Brian Yap.

Categories
Uncategorized

The CSS in JavaScript survey: Understanding why we use the tools we use

Sort version: I’m running a CSS-in-JavaScript survey to understand why different solutions are used, and I’d love for you to fill out the survey and share it with the world.

Here’s the survey link: https://forms.office.com/r/WhVWT0D27F

Front-end web development has experienced a dramatic evolution over the past several years, in large part driven by the JavaScriptification of everything via front-end frameworks like React and Vue. Part of this evolution has been the introduction of CSS-in-JS tools to abstract CSS into JavaScript or a JavaScript-friendly layer.

I’m embarking on a project to get a better understanding of not just which CSS-in-JS tools people are using, but also why they are using specific tools. Are people following real or perceived industry standards? Are there legacy issues at play? Or are there other reasons?

To get started on what will likely become a huge research project, I’ve created a CSS-in-JavaScript survey, and I invite you to share your insight with me. The anonymous survey will take about 5 minutes to fill out and has an option at the end to take part in a round of in-depth one-on-one interviews with me to explore the subject further.

Once the survey period is over, I will analyze and further anonymize the data before publishing the results on my personal blog at mor10.com. The data and analysis may also become part of a future conference talk on the same subject.

Full disclosure: This is survey is a personal project run by me. It is not related to or endorsed by my employer, my wife, or anyone else.

Categories
My Opinion

Blogging is dead. Long live ephemerality.

Text in images is the least accessible, most ephemeral way to put important information into the world. It exists, for a brief moment, only for those who happen to see it, and then it’s lost, forever. Informational entropy at its most extreme. This is how we lose our history in real-time.

A tweet caught my eye earlier this week. It featured a series of images of white text on a black background originally posted on Instagram. In these images, the author, a woman from Istanbul, Turkey, describes how a hashtag and social movement created to draw attention to the murder of women in her country has been co-opted by people who don’t know the meaning of the #ChallengeAccepted hashtag. (You can read more about this story in reports from KQED and The Guardian.)

This tweet, and the originating Instagram post, and resulting Facebook posts of the same images of text, exemplifies a trend I’ve observed over the past several years: Blogging has moved from text in blogs to images of text on social media.

I think it’s time to say out loud what many of us have been discussing in private for years: Blogging as we knew it is dead. We, the people who built and promoted blogging tools, failed at convincing people that owning their blog and controlling their content is important. We failed at providing the publishers of the world with the tools they needed. And, most crucially, we failed at keeping pace with the changing behaviors and attitudes of our users. People don’t want a permanent web log; they want an ephemeral lifestream – there, and then gone again. And they want absolute control over the appearance and curation of that stream.

An image of an image of text

At the height of the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests, my social media feeds (in particular Instagram) overflowed with excellent information about the issues of racial inequality and inequity, hidden biases and how to overcome them, white privilege, nationalism, supremacy, how to be an ally, how to support BIPoC, etc. Almost all this information, crucial to the forward momentum of the civil rights struggle of our time, was shared as meticulously designed and entirely inaccessible images of text. 

What do I mean by “entirely inaccessible?” The web is built to transmit text from author to reader, and web browsers and tools are designed to parse that text in a way the reader can access: displayed on a screen; read out loud; printed on a braille display; or something else. For information to be accessible, it needs to be provided as plain text. An image of plain text contains no accessible information unless that information is appended in an alternative text attribute.

Worse still, Instagram in particular has no functional way of sharing a post with others outside the ephemeral Instagram Stories feature. As a result, much of this already inaccessible information is reshared as photos of the original post in stories, effectively a copy of an inaccessible image. In some cases, when the post is evocative enough, people will reshare it across other social media, by taking screenshots and posting them on Facebook or Twitter. And then people take screenshots of these posts and re-share them. A copy of a copy of a copy.

This resharing of online content is nothing new. Artists Mark Samsonovich explored the informational entropy associated with resharing (at that time called “regramming”) of content over social media back in 2014. What’s different now is what type of content is being shared. We have moved from sharing text posts with images or videos attached to sharing images of text.

What the user wants 

According to my students, I am “an old.” And they are right. I started blogging when blogging was a new thing. I spent 15 years of my life building and promoting blogging tools and telling anyone who would listen about the importance of owning your content and creating a permanent record of your shared ideas online. I surrounded myself with likeminded people, and for a good while, we ruled the world. Then last year a series of events forced me to take a critical look at my understanding of the evolving landscape. What I found all around me were the walls of an indie-web adjacent echo chamber. It had become my comfort zone, and everything I believed was echoed right back at me. But outside, the world had moved on, and I had somehow not noticed, or at least not accepted what I was seeing.

A pivotal moment came when I discussed social media sharing with some younger relatives. I told them about how I publish content online and they looked at me in incredulity. “Why would you bother posting something on your blog?” they asked. “Nobody is going to see that!” I tried to explain that yes, people do see it and they shrugged. “Sure, when you post tutorials and stuff, people see it. But that’s not blogging. That’s … publishing. When I post stuff, it’s for my friends, for my followers. And it’s not forever. It’s for right now. If they see it, great. If not, their loss.”

In that moment I realized what I value – the permanence of my published information – is the opposite of what they value – the impermanent ephemerality of sharing moments from their lives.

“And seriously Morten,” one of them said, “the blogging tools are really not good.” I tried not to take this too personally and asked them to continue. “I can post text and images and other stuff, but I can’t control how it looks. When I post something on Insta or Snap, I want what I see on my screen to be what people see on their screen.” They went on to show me examples of posts and gave me a walk-through of the tools they used to make their posts just right. 

I was floored. When I post to Instagram, it’s mainly either photos straight off my phone or straight off my camera. When they post to “Insta”, it’s often a design process involving two or three different apps. A photo may pass through a Snap filter and other editing tools before landing on the Instagram feed. And before it does, other photos may be culled to ensure the “wall” (the grid of photos you see when you go to the user profile) is curated and looks just right. There are even tools for previewing what your wall will look like once you’ve posted a new photo!

And when it comes to images of text and Instagram stories, the process is essentially a mobile version of a full design sprint with iterations, advanced tools, typography experiments, filters, the works.

What these users want is true WYSIWYG – What You See Is What You Get – which is what we’ve always wanted on the web but never got because the web can never fully be WYSIWYG.

Photos of text on social media give the new generation of web creators what Flash gave my generation: Absolute control, well beyond what the web platform can offer.

What is lost is the future

Some of my friends have become successful influencers today, the same way some of my friends became successful bloggers 10 years ago. They post content online, they get sponsorship deals, they make serious money. And just like 10 years ago, I know many more who pour hours of their day into reaching that influencer status. To me, today’s influencers are yesterday’s successful bloggers. Same deal, new wrapping. And to be quite honest with you, for all the talk of influencers posting bad content and being bad … influencers, the bloggers of my time were no better. As with the bloggers of my generation, I take issue with the commercialization and marketing aspects of modern-day influencers. But I also understand why they do it and why it’s so effective. Getting a peek into the curated life of someone you look up to will always be appealing, and I gladly spend time out of my day looking at what people post on all social media channels for this exact reason.

What saddens me is how we lost the battle of publishing to the commercial platforms, in large part because we trapped ourselves in an echo chamber: the anachronism that is the blogosphere.

It saddens me because the shiny surface and WYSIWYG-ness of the walled commercial gardens people use today is built on a graveyard of dead information. These platforms are not built for sharing, they are built for user retention and engagement. Link in bio is not a moderation tool to avoid link spam, it’s a slow knife to kill the open web. And text in images is the least accessible, most ephemeral way to put important information into the world. It exists, for a brief moment, only for those who happen to see it, and then it’s lost, forever. Informational entropy at its most extreme. This is how we lose our history in real-time.

We failed because while booting up space on a shared server, setting up WordPress, publishing an article, and meticulously sharing it out to the world was revolutionary 15 years ago, today it is an onerous task reserved for people who live in the past (at least according to my aforementioned younger relatives). To them, time is better spent designing a nice looking image with some text and putting it in their Insta Story, or on Snap, shared only with the people they choose, for a day or two, before being lost to our memories and the occasional copy of a copy of a copy.

Cross-posted to LinkedIn.

Categories
My Opinion

100 Days

I began a journaling project on March 13, 2020 as the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic started hitting us full-force. It was for me, to put down my thoughts at the end of each day, and for our son Leo, so he has a day-by-day account of events as they unfolded when he gets curious about everything that happened in 2020 or writes a school paper about this period a decade from now. Here’s my entry from Sunday June 21st, at the 100 day mark, submitted for the record.

The worst part is the uncertainty. In March I told one of my co-workers it felt like we were all trapped on a train heading for a cliff knowing at some point the tracks would drop away and we’d drop with it, but not knowing when that would happen. At 100 days, that analogy doesn’t cut it. I struggle to find a relatable comparison to fully encapsulate the anxiety, the exhaustion, the tedium, the frustration, the endlessly dragged out slow burn eating its way through the fabric of everything.

You broke your leg two weeks before the lockdown. 9 weeks of first a cast, then a brace, and somehow that was just one small part of the madness of the past 100 days.

A playground play structure covered in orange plastic netting.

As the lockdown descended on British Columbia in March, I went on my every-other-day evening runs through the neighbourhood. Each day the number of people on the streets would drop while the number of parked cars grew and grew. Driveways overflowed, then streetside parking. It struck me how many cars belonged to each household. Then people started washing them. Nothing better to do. Slowly my runs turned into a car show of sorts.

Two weeks in and I was all by myself in the world. 6 kilometers of usually buzzing neighborhurhoods, main arterial roads, busy playgrounds and parks now devoid of people. Play structures surrounded by yellow warning tape and covered in orange plastic nets, roads without cars, sidewalks without people. At one point I stopped on Kingsway, took my earbuds out, and heard only two crows harking at each other a block away. The constant background hiss of traffic was gone, leaving only nature as the bed track for my voyage through the world.

Empty store shelves surrounded by empty cardboard boxes once holding Purex tissues.

We were scared. Everyone was scared. The virus occupied our minds every minute of every day. The stores were stripped bare of first hand sanitizer, then rubbing alcohol and aloe vera gel, then cold medications and bleach. Stores at the mall started closing. The province closed the restaurants, then the community centres and gyms. Then the oil price tanked and suddenly gas in Burnaby was going at $0.92/l – lower than I’d ever seen it in my 17 years in Canada. The parking lot at the mall became a sprawling emptiness populated by discarded surgical masks and rubber gloves slowly migrating toward drains.

Businesses closed. People lost their jobs. A lot of people lost their jobs. Our friends lost their jobs. I talked to my co-workers about job survivor guilt. What at first felt like a slow-moving train was starting to feel like an avalanche driving us towards a tsunami.

Your preschool closed and you didn’t understand why. We tried to explain but it made no sense to a 3-year-old. You asked to hang out with your friends and we said no. You thought you’d done something wrong and we told you “no, it’s because of COVID-19.” You asked when you’d be allowed to play with your friends again and we said we didn’t know. Eventually you started talking about all the things you’d do once COVID-19 was over. “We’re going to have a big party with all my friends,” you said. “We will visit bestemor and bestefar in Norway,” you said. “Can we have a party with all my friends this weekend?” you asked and we again explained that no, we can’t, because of COVID-19. Yesterday you looked me square in the face and said “I’m so angry at COVID-19. I don’t think COVID-19 will ever end.” I hope I hid the pain well.

Hand puppet pig with cloth mask.

100 days later and you’re back in preschool, at reduced capacity, with fewer kids, less freedom to roam, and a lot of outdoor time. Hand sanitizer is back on the shelves and available right at the counter, in new varieties and strengths and fragrances and consistencies and brands. The mall has re-opened, at reduced capacity. There are direction signs for walking, lines outside every store, plexiglass shields on every counter, plastic coverings over the chairs at the food court. People are back on the streets at night, and I am once again back to leaving the sidewalk to get around unyielding pedestrians, only now I go on the outside of the parked cars to keep proper social distancing. We wear masks when we go to crowded places, though most of the people around us have stopped wearing masks. There is hand sanitizer in the car, at our front door, and in our bags.

Table and chairs in front of a Starbucks restaurant tightly wrapped in thermal plastic.

100 days later the world has also changed in another way. In May, in response to yet another violent and unlawful police killing of yet another black man, people first in the US and then all over the world braved the pandemic risk and flooded the streets to make one thing clear: Black Lives Matter. In the midst of a pandemic lockdown, maybe even because of the pandemic lockdown, people let the pent-up frustration of racial injustice manifest itself in public action. What started as scattered protests turned into a world-wide movement. More than a month later, the protests are still happening and the world is finally listening. When you look back on this time I hope it is described not only as an unprecedented pandemic, but also a transformative moment for racial justice in the USA and around the world. For the first time in my lifetime it feels like we as a society are moving in the right direction on this issue. Incrementally, slowly, painfully, but we are moving. As bestefar’s aunt said, life comes in lumps; long durations of flat normality interrupted by sudden lumps of everything happening at once. That’s certainly what it feels like. Everything happening, all at once.

100 days later, COVID-19 is very much part of our life, still infecting millions of people, still making some sick, still killing some. They say to form a habit you need to do something for around 21 days straight. 100 days of looking at ever-climbing numbers of infected, sick, and dying and what was at the beginning a claxon pointed directly at our faces reminding us of our own mortality has become the new normal.

A discarded cloth mask lying in the street next to a curb.

On March 13, when I started writing this, the global death toll was 4,718 and everyone was in fear for their life. Today, the global death toll is 470,000, and every day more people are putting away their masks, going back to work, dining out, and demanding restrictions be lifted.

The pandemic is not over. By many estimates, we are still in the first wave, and we will have to ride it for months if not years and hope it doesn’t engulf us. 100 days of COVID-19 has exposed deep fractures in our societal fabric, and how we deal with these fractures over the next 100 days will determine not only what the immediate future looks like for us, but what your future will look like decades from now. When I grew up people talked about my generation as the first in a long time that would not be better off than the last. I fear your generation will look at this analysis as a cruel joke. Unless we, the adults living through this right now, make all the right decisions, the world you grow up in will be nothing like what it should or could be. The virus amplifies every mistake made, and the uncertainty makes it hard to recognize mistakes even after they happen.

Billboards across Greater Vancouver now show various nondescript art pieces in place of advertisements.

Some say the best we can do when faced with uncertainty is to embrace it. I strive every day to embody this philosophy: Change the things I can, let the things I can’t change play themselves out without allowing them to frustrate me. That’s not easy knowing the things I can’t change are the things that will most directly impact your future.

One evening in August 2017 I went for a run. The sun was still up, the sky was bright and blue and without a single cloud. The next morning I could hardly breathe. We had left the window open and our house was filled with smoke. A forest fire hundreds of kilometers away had dumped its cloud directly on us. For two weeks the brown sky trapped the heat of the sun making the air unbreathable and our house an insufficient refuge. “Imagine if that fire was here,” I said to your mom and we rested assured that would never happen. A year later a forest fire, the biggest in the US to that date, surrounded our head office, displacing many of my co-workers and putting things in limbo for months. The fragility of everything screamed in our faces: Even when you think everything is fine, things can happen!

An angry orange sun forces its rays through a thick cloud of smoke over a suburban street.

That’s what it feels like now. We are in a vast, all-encompassing forest fire. Some places, like BC and Norway and Denmark and Taiwan where our family is, have been relatively unscathed, dealing mostly with smoke and the occasional spot fires. In other places, the fire burned through towns leaving immense destruction and death tolls so high they are impossible to process. In yet other places, the fire is slowly creeping through the landscape and seems impossible to stop, either for practical, political, or societal reasons. And even though right now, where we sit, the sky is clear, I don’t think this fire is over. I’m not even sure it has fully begun.

That’s the uncertainty, and that’s why it’s the worst part: We know the fire is still burning, we know it could be burning under our feet right now, and we don’t know how or when it will end. Yet somehow we must embrace this uncertainty and move forward, together.

An empty parking lot BBQ with friends in the rain.

In many ways I am glad you’re not old enough right now to fully understand what is happening; to see how the uncertainty is wearing on your mamma and me and everyone around us; to see our modern society desperately try to stop a fire we don’t fully understand, to see people refuse to accept reality and cling to conspiracy theories to explain the unexplainable while putting everyone else at risk. And I hope by the time you read this this will all be a strange memory of a year when things were somehow different. Though I fear it will instead be the moment that defines your generation.

100 days and we are still here, in our house playing with your toys, going on walks in the forest, talking to our family in Norway over the internet, doing everything to make this new normal as normal as possible to give you the best chance at being able to build a future you will find meaningful. That’s the thing about trains and waves and avalanches and forest fires: they eventually end. And when they do we pick up our lives and what was destroyed, put things back together again, and build the future together.

We are together, today, and the day after this day, and we will be together for the next 100 days, and the hundred days after that. And when all of this is over, we will have that party, with all your friends, and we will do the things and go to the places that suddenly became impossible. COVID-19 will end, or we will find a way to live with it. That is my promise to you. We will get through this, together.

Categories
Internet My Opinion

The Internet is an Essential Service

“You can consult canada.ca/coronavirus to get the best updated information about the spread of the virus.”

– Justin Trudeau, April 3rd, 2020

A daily mantra rings out from government officials around the world: The call to visit official websites to get the latest information on the COVID-19 pandemic and to access essential services. Yet to many constituents accessing the internet is not an option because internet access is still considered a luxury available only to those who can afford it. This has to change.

Over the past two months, everything from education to work to ordering and delivery of essential goods to basic communication has moved online. COVID-19 has made one thing very clear: Internet access is a necessary condition for the ongoing functioning of our society, and every person should have access to fast, reliable, and unfiltered internet at a price they can afford.

The internet is an essential service. It is time we take political action to ensure every person has access to it.

The privilege of access

Late last year, a video surfaced on social media showing a 10-year-old boy doing his homework on a display tablet in an electronics shop. The description read “Humanity at its best…?? This child doesn’t have internet access at home, so a store in the shopping mall allows him to use their tablet to do homework.”  

For many, this was their first introduction to what’s been labeled the “Homework Gap,” a sub-segment of the Digital Divide. Millions of students around the world do not have access to the internet and are therefore not able to access the full educational resources made available to them.

Flash forward a few months to today, and that electronics shop is closed, as is the school, the library, the coffee shop, and any other place that 10-year-old boy relied on to access essential online services. And he is joined by millions of others, young and old, in cities and in rural areas, all over the world, at home, without the ability to access the websites their elected representatives so urgently point them to.

Inequity is the norm

Almost half the world’s population has no access to the internet. At all. Those most affected are, as seems to be the case for most things, women, the poor, and the disenfranchised. Why? Because internet access is considered a luxury, and its availability is contingent on large media companies deeming your particular region of the world worthy of investment, and your ability to pay often excessive fees to get access to it. Somehow, in our relentless pursuit of faster connections and devices giving access to vital (and entertaining) online services, we have glossed over this inequity. COVID-19 took a steel brush to that veneer, forcing upon us the reality of how vital a fast, stable, and unfiltered internet connection has become to our lives. We have gone from tweeting about how nice that store was for letting that kid do his homework on a display device to realizing our home internet is our lifeline to information, income, connection, and entertainment. The internet has become essential to our lives, yet we treat it as a privilege afforded those fortunate enough to live where a connection can be established and wealthy enough to pay the excessive fees for access.

A public good

Late last year, a boy in an electronics store caught the attention of the internet and people started talking about providing proper equipment and connections to students. When COVID-19 hit and school children were sent home and told to attend classes online, school districts booted up ad-hoc solutions like parking digitally equipped buses at community sites to provide access for students. That’s a dollar-store band-aid on a gaping 20-year-old wound.

The digital divide causes hardship to millions of people by depriving them of essential access to the internet. COVID-19 did not create this problem – it merely made it impossible to ignore. Banks, government services, education, shopping, news and information, much of what we consider necessary conditions for functioning in modern society had already migrated online prior to COVID-19. Today the internet has become the only means of access to many of these services. It can no longer be considered a luxury, and its availability can no longer be contingent on the whims and profits of large media corporations. That’s why the World Wide Web Foundation is working to label the open web a public good, and that’s why you and me and everyone else need to demand political action to make the internet available to all.

Let’s not beat around the bush any longer:

The internet is an essential service. As such, any limitation of access to a person or group based on their physical location, income level, or any other reason is effectively an act of discrimination.

To the elected representatives of the world I say this: Declare the internet an essential service. Guarantee equitable access to fast, reliable, and unfiltered internet for all. Put plans in place today to connect the world in a way that promotes human flourishing over corporate profits.

To the media corporations who have grown fat and complacent on profits from connecting people to the things they need I say this: You’ve had your fare share and more. You succeeded in making the internet an essential service. Now you must act like it: Do your civic duty and share that wealth with the world by building solutions that put human connection above shareholder profits.

We have awoken into a new and unfamiliar world where we all feel a bit more vulnerable. It is in times like these we find solace in solidarity with other people and with ourselves. Let’s do this small thing together to better the world for everyone

Header photo by dullhunk. CC BY 2.0

Cross-posted on LinkedIn and dev.to

Categories
Ethics Open Source

Value Neutrality and the Ethics of Open Source

2019 was the year of the “ethical source” licenses – or ‘open source with a moral clause’ licenses. It was also the year many in the open source movement labeled any attempt at adding moral clauses to open source licenses not only made them not open source licenses, but were a dangerous attack on the core principles of open source.

The Ethical Source movement, exemplified by the Hippocratic License, the Anti 996 license etc, has created a deep rift in the open source community; between those who aim to protect the core values of open source ideology as defined by the Four Freedoms, and those who believe granting open source creators the capability to impose moral clauses on the use of their software is essential to ensure software is not used for evil. 

The rift has opened because adding moral clauses to a license is effectively limiting the use of whatever the license is applied to, which stands against the core idea of open source as absolute freedom for the end-user.

The Tenuous Position of Value Neutrality

From my perspective this rift exposes what I’ve long felt is a central flaw in both open source licensing and open source ideology: The Four Freedoms concern themselves only with software freedom – as in the freedom of the software itself – but are in reality imposing value neutrality on whatever is licensed under them: The Four Freedoms protect the freedom of the software itself, and do not concern themselves with what the software does or how it is used. As an ideological platform, they are too narrowly scoped to hold the weight of our societal responsibilities as the designers and builders of modern reality.

Let me explain:

If evil people use open source software to do evil things, there is nothing the creator can do about it. Because doing something about it would be limiting the freedom of the software which goes against open source ideology.  And in the view of many open source ideologues, it would be morally wrong for a creator to do anything about it because limiting the use, modification, and distribution of software is in itself morally wrong. 

This ideological view stems from the original GNU Manifesto:

“‘Control over the use of one’s ideas’ really constitutes control over other people’s lives; and it is usually used to make their lives more difficult.”

“When there is a deliberate choice to restrict, the harmful consequences are deliberate destruction.”

The GNU Manifesto

These quotes capture two central ideas of the GNU Manifesto, one I think most of us agree with, another I think most of us take issue with:

The first idea is that creating something and releasing it into the world changes the lives of ourselves and of others. That is what we design and build software, and that is why being a creator means taking on a moral responsibility for how we change the world.

The second idea is that imposing any restrictions on anything is inherently harmful. This is neither true nor how the world works. Though restrictions can be harmful, they are mostly introduced to prevent harm. The restriction on how loud your headphones can be or the permitted level of toxins in food-safe plastics are in place to prevent harm, and removing the restrictions could in itself be harmful.

I think it is in the tension between these two ideas – creation as a moral act and restriction as a moral wrong – we find both the current dilemma of open source and morality and a potential path forward.

The weight of responsibility

When I publish anything under an open source license, be that GPL or MIT or any other license ratified by the Open Source Initiative (OSI), it takes on a life of its own. It can be used and modified and distributed by anyone for any reason, with or without my involvement, but I cannot restrict it. That’s the whole point of open source ideology.

The problem is this effectively abdicates me of responsibility for my own creations: By releasing software with an open source license I relinquish control over who uses my software or what it is used for. Thus I cannot be held responsible for the software or its consequences. And if I can’t be held responsible there is no incentive for me to make sure my software, when used or modified or distributed by others, doesn’t cause harm or can be used to cause harm.

This is what I mean when I say open source licenses imply value neutrality. And it is here I think the Ethical Licensing movement found its root.

From this perspective one can argue closed source (proprietary) licenses hold the moral high ground over open source licenses because closed source licenses imply responsibility: If a company knowingly releases software that can be used for harm, they can be held liable because they are the only moral actor capable of modifying and distributing the software.

Moral clauses to the rescue?

The big question then is if adding moral clauses to open source licenses can help solve this problem. As much as I hate to say it, I think the answer is no, for two reasons:

First, like the Hippocratic Oath in medicine, breaking a moral clause in an open source license does not have any consequences. Doctors swear to uphold the code of ethics defined by the Hippocratic Oath, but if they cause harm their actions are judged through the legal framework of medical malpractice. A “do no harm” clause in an open source license carries moral weight, but without enforceable consequences and mechanisms to appeal a judgement of harm being caused, it has no teeth. 

Second, applying moral clauses to a license does not solve the problem of value neutrality because it is a problem of ideology, and the license is merely a manifestation of that ideology. 

If we want to go down the path of the Hippocratic Oath, we need a Code of Ethics for Open Source and a framework for enforcement and adjudication of breach of those ethics. That’s a huge undertaking, and not one I see bearing fruit any time soon.

Toward a New Ethos of Open Source

If we want to take on the issue of ethics in open source on a shorter timeline, we need to take a hard look at the ethos, the core ideals, of open source ideology and ask some tough questions about where the ideology comes from and whether that picture of the world meshes with our lived reality. Open source aims to grant everyone the capability to use, modify, and distribute software. That does not mean open source ideology cannot also embrace the moral and societal responsibilities of the creator, the user, and even the creation itself. To get there we need to broaden our ideological platform, consider what “freedom” means in our current context, and work together to figure out how the Four Freedoms can become part of the larger spectrum of rights and freedoms afforded to us.

Cross-posted to LinkedIn and DEV.to.

Categories
News

2010 – 2019: Decade in Review

As the decade comes to a close, I thought it would be interesting to look back on the past 10 years. So, rather than posting my regular year in review, here’s an abbreviated trip through the past 10 years of my life, both personal and professional.

2010

In the control room at the IBC, February 2010

The decade started for me in an almost poetic way with the end of one life and the beginning of another. I’d been working in live TV production from 2004, but my last job as the one-man production crew for one of those talk-radio-on-TV shows had abruptly been terminated as the result of a corporate takeover of the radio station in November 2009. Left on my TV plate was One Last Job: The 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games.

For three weeks, while the city reveled in endless parties, mild weather, and the discovery that the rest of the world care more about cross country skiing than hockey, I sat in a production studio in the International Broadcasting Center (now Vancouver Convention Center) doing graphics for sliding sports and biathlon. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and the last time I found myself behind the graphics desk in a TV studio. Some of the most important lessons in life involve figuring out that something is not for you.

Nick Brazzi and Morten on set at lynda.com in Ventura, California.

In September, the work that would come to define the decade for me began. I found myself in Ventura, California recording a course called “WordPress Essential Training” for lynda.com. It was an experiment to see if video training was a better fit than writing books, and at the time everyone figured it would be a one-off thing. That all changed a month after the course went live when it climbed to the top of the most viewed list and the content manager called me asking if I’d like to make some more courses.

2011

The suede soles of old and new dancing shoes.

One of the defining elements of the 2010s for me was dancing. Angela and I went to a ballroom dancing class on a whim some years earlier, and by 2011 it had pretty much become our “thing.” As I settled into my new career as a self-employed web developer and sometimes (quite often actually) lynda.com instructor, dancing was a thing that filled much of our lives. We danced two or three nights a week, and rapidly expanded our repertoire. Our dance instructor Elaine said to me at one point “If you’re always learning new things, you’ll always be a student, never a dancer,” and we took that to heart by bringing dance outside the studio and into any space where music was playing. Toward the end of the year I successfully danced my first pair of shoes to destruction and had to buy a new pair, which to me was a major milestone.

2012

While our business grew and my course production with Lynda.com really started to ramp up, Angela and I realized we could no longer stay in our small apartment. We needed to invest in either a small house and a separate office or a larger house with room for an office. We’d been hunting for a house for 4 years but kept getting squeezed out of the red-hot market by builders willing to buy anything, tear it down, and build a crappy duplex on top of it.

The horror show of a kitchen that met us when the old owners moved out. It looks unrecognizable today.

We’d all but given up when chance had us crashing a private showing of a house in our area. Two days later and we were suddenly homeowners! The house needed extensive renovations and much of the latter half of 2012 was spent first going through the various stages of “we’ve made a HUGE mistake” followed by “all these contractors are trying to scam us” followed by “hey, at least we got one that isn’t half bad” to “OMG they opened up all the walls and we have no plumbing or electricity” all the way to “Can you believe this is the same house we bought?!?”

2013

The first recording setup in my home office. This didn’t work and we ended up installing a proper soundproof booth in the next room.

Between 2012 and the first half of 2013 I found myself flying back and forth between Vancouver, Canada and Caprinteria, California pretty much on a monthly basis to produce courses for lynda.com. At one point a Starbucks barista at LAX called me over as I walked past on my way out of the terminal. “Morten! I have your drink for you!” I had no idea what she was talking about. Turns out I was so regular in my flying – always flying on a Sunday morning, always the third week of the month, etc – that she had taken down my regular order and decided to make one on the assumption I’d arrive as usual. A big tip was in order, followed by a conversation with my content manager.

Little beknown to me my content manager also had some thoughts, and one day I found myself discussing salary and benefits for a new job as a Staff Author at Lynda.com. And just like that the experiment from 2010 had turned into a full-time job!

2014

A large bonfire the night before my brother’s wedding.

To find proof the world has become more multicultural and borders and distances mean less and less, look no further than my extended family. I, a Norwegian, live in Canada with my Tawianese wife. In 2014 we traveled to Romania to attend the wedding of my youngest brother and his wife. If anyone had told us this would be our future when we grew up on Nesodden, nobody would have believed us. How much things change.

The wedding comprised three ceremonies: A Viking ceremony (pictured), a secular ceremony, and an orthodox ceremony in a very small church with beautiful singing, cake, wine, and a lot of laughter as Romanian priests tried to pronounce Norwegian names.

2015

A Wisakedjak diving off a branch.

My father’s aunt always said “life comes in lumps.” 2015 was for me yet another example of this being the truth.

The year started with the passing of my paternal grandmother and a sudden trip to Denmark and Norway for her funeral. It was a somber but wonderful time of reacquaintances with family and friends and the celebration of a long and eventful life.

In April I was woken at 6am by my phone ringing non-stop. It was friends from the east coast telling me LinkedIn had bought Lynda.com, so now I suddenly worked for one of the largest social media companies in the world.

In May, Angela and I embarked on a trip criss-crossing the United States to attend and speak at conferences in Boston, New York City, Carpinteria, and Miami. By the end of the month-long trek I had acquired what my doctor described as “stress-induced shingles.” All I’ll say is the Norwegian word for this disease, helvetesild or “hell’s fire” is an accurate description.

My official enrollment as a LinkedIn employee happened on the 30th of August, and life went on as normal.

2016

Baby Leo, in his incubator, wearing protective goggles because of the UV light.

I don’t think anything changes a person as much as having a child. In 2016 our son Leo arrived, 6 weeks prematurely, and the first three weeks of his life were spent at the hospital neonatal intensive care unit. Angela and I had been on an extended trip to Vienna, Austria for a conference just weeks earlier and after an extremely stressful day involving two different car accidents caused by first a careless driver and then a careless bicyclist, her water broke. The next week was spent at the hospital before Leo arrived screaming out in objection to the lack of “fast music” in the birthing suite on a sunny Saturday morning. We were lucky: The Canadian health care system is impeccable when it comes to treating mothers and babies, and our every need in this difficult time was met and exceeded. We lived in a cocoon as our son gathered strength and checked more and more of the boxes for early release, and after 3 weeks, still 3 weeks before his due date, we suddenly had him in our car and were driving home.

To say it was the most intense time of our lives is a gross understatement. But everything worked the way it should and moments ago I played penguin with Leo while we waited for Angela to rush him through the rain, into the car, and off to preschool which he loves.

2017

A set prop from the recording of JavaScript Essential Training.

“How do you feel about taking on JavaScript Essential Training?” This was the challenge handed to me by my former content manager, now boss’ boss Shira at the beginning of 2017. What followed was three months of intensive research on how JavaScript is taught and how to do it better. It was the most complex and intense course I had done to date, and we had an absolute blast putting it together. On my plan for 2020 is a complete reworking of the course to bring it up to current standards, and I am very excited.

Workshop room at WebCamp Zagreb.

2017 was also the first time I was approached by an international conference to come speak. Which is how I found myself in a cave in Zagreb, Croatia, in October as part of the speaker tour / dinner for WebCamp Zagreb. It was an amazing conference for an amazing community, and I hope I’ll be able to return at some point in the future.

2018

Graffiti on a wall in Freiburg, Germany.

Back in 2015 the same Shira had asked me to define what success looked like and what I strived for professionally. I stated two main goals: Get published in a recognized online magazine like Smashing Magazine or A List Apart, and eventually speak at their respective conferences Smashing Conf and An Event Apart.

I got two articles published in Smashing Magazine in 2016 and 2017, and in 2018 Vitaly Friedman invited me to come speak at Smashing Conf Freiburg. This was the first time I got to bring my tech and design ethics talk to the main stage at a web conference and I am eternally grateful to Vitaly and his team for taking a chance on me. Side note: If you find yourself in Germany, I recommend visiting Freiburg. What an amazing town!

2019

Morten on the set of Technology and Design Ethics.

Back in 2011, right after the recording of my 2nd course for Lynda.com, I told my then content manager Cynthia Scott that I eventually wanted to do a full-on philosophy course. “I’ll somehow camouflage it as a tech course, but it will really just be philosophy” I said, and she nodded and with a knowing smile responded “I’m sure you’ll make that happen.” And it did.

This summer my two content managers Simon St. Laurent and Stephanie Evans granted me the extraordinary opportunity to develop what would become “Technology and Design Ethics.” The course is the culmination and condensation of my academic work from two decades ago, my 17 years in the web industry, and my 10 years as an instructor with Lynda.com/LinkedIn Learning. If I may say so myself it both the best and most important work I have done, and I am eternally grateful to everyone who helped me along the way and made this course possible.

The future

People always ask me what’s next, and I can go on in great detail about what I think my murky crystal ball is showing for the web community. As for myself, I am far less certain. So far, my 2020 calendar tells me I have major plans for courses at LinkedIn Learning, and I am speaking about design and tech ethics at An Event Apart in Washington D.C. and in Orlando. I’m hoping to get some more conferences booked, and I am working on three new talks to make that happen.

Personally, I’ve committed myself to spending more time playing guitar, honing my craft at table tennis, and Angela and I have high hopes of getting Leo settled in a sleeping routine which makes it possible for us to go back to dancing 2 days a week. Without lofty goals, you have nothing to strive for.

The past decade has been a trip, with huge changes, huger obstacles, and tremendous personal and professional successes. Looking back on it all, I realize how important it is to celebrate and document your achievements and I’m committing myself to doing a better job at it so my 2029 decade in review is a little less complicated to research.

That was a small peek into my chaotic life, and if you’ve read this far, I thank you for indulging me in this introspective exploration. I also encourage you to do your own review, in private or in public, and find highlights worth looking back on. Remember the good things and let them drive you forward as we start writing 2020 everywhere.

Hope is a catalyst.

Categories
Open Source

Walking Away and the Ethos of Open Source

Every time we contribute to an open source project, in any way, we are answering an important question:

Why don’t I walk away and start a new fork?

I’ve been working in and with and around open source software for the better part of 15 years, and over that time I’ve seen the rise of amazing ideas, powerful communities, valuable ecosystems, and massively profitable companies. Which is great. Open source is eating the world by giving everyone a chance to contribute and use software and technologies without being beholden to expensive proprietary licenses. I’ve also seen a slow and systemic erosion of the principle of walking away. Which is not great. Actually, it very bad.

Some time ago I posted what I called the “Open Source Serenity Prayer” on Twitter.

 My intention was to remind open source contributors of what I believe is the core ethos of open source: the ability to walk away and make something new. Yet when I posted this text, a chorus of concerned friends and acquaintances chimed in with the same refrain: “Walking away? If I walk away, I lose everything.”

This is a problem. This keeps me up at night.

Asking for clarification on people’s concerns, I heard variations over the same theme:

  • My job depends on the success of this particular version of a project.
  • My skills are tied to this particular version of a project, I can’t succeed anywhere else.
  • A project is too big / too dominant for a fork to be successful.
  • A project is no longer a tool; it has become infrastructure.

In other words, some open source projects have turned into monocultures – the exact opposite of what open source was meant to create.

This is why walking away matters, maybe now more than ever before.

The Ethos of Open Source

At the core of open source ideology and practice lies the powerful concept of “forking;” taking what already exists (a “branch”) and making a new copy (a “fork”) from which new branches can grow. Very much like cultivating a garden. This is the proverbial “standing on the shoulders of giants” made real: You take something that works, often the work of countless other contributors like you, and build something from it. It may be a slight variation on the same theme, or something entirely new and different. Then someone else can take this new thing you built, fork it again, and build something new and different from it.

Forking and branching gives open source communities the freedom to explore a plurality of ideas without starting from scratch, and individual contributors the capability of choosing every day to do work they find meaningful and valuable without any expectation or obligation of future commitment or their work being wasted: If you create something which you find valuable, and the project you want to contribute to does not want to include your work, you can create a fork and build your own vision of the future. All the while, the maintainers of the original project and anyone else can copy or build from your new work to make further works, with or without your involvement. Everything is connected to everything else, and everything builds on and learns from everything else.

Contribution to open source and the open commons is in a very real way the giving away of your work without direct remuneration or reward. Your work may be funded by someone, and you may get status, or praise, or even power from your contributions, but these are secondary. Once contributed to the commons, the work becomes the property of everyone, from which new forks can be made.

Thus, every time we contribute to an open source project, in any way, we are saying to ourselves “I believe in this fork, I believe in the future it builds, and I am going to give away my time and work to it today to move it forward.” We are also saying “today I choose to stay with this fork, to not walk away and start a new one.”

The important things here are agency and capability: The choice of continuing to contribute to a particular fork, or to walk away and create a new one, must be a real choice. When a project becomes so powerful, or dominant, or such a monoculture that the choice of walking away becomes unfeasible, or a significant risk, or even impossible, the effective capability of forking the project is lost. And with it we lose what makes open source valuable to begin with.

Walking away

Open source ideology started as a revolutionary counterculture fighting monopolies, monocultures, and corporate control. Choosing open source was an active walking away from the default models of expensive and restrictive proprietary licenses. Inherent to the open source ideology is the freedom of agency, autonomy of contribution, and the capability of walking away and starting a new fork when the work is no longer meaningful to you, or you have a new vision of the future, or you disagree with where the project is headed. This, the capability and willingness to walk away and start new forks and new projects and new versions and futures, is what made open source so successful. If we don’t embrace this, if we don’t actively cultivate the plurality of ideas which brought us here, we’ll fall victim corporatization, monopolization, and the creation of monocultures. Which is what I’m seeing everywhere I look.

When an open source leader says their project is “not a grain, it is the soil” and implies a single fork should become the infrastructure for everything, it may be time to find the strength to walk away and start a new fork to keep our open source garden from succumbing to monoculture.

Cross-posted to LinkedIn.

Note: This article was inspired by Cory Doctorow’s book “Walkway” in which he explores a future where citizens literally walk away from “Default” society to live and work in a new society founded on open source ideals and values. I think this book should become essential reading for open source ideology and open source contributors (it’s also a very good and entertaining book, so there’s that.)

Categories
Ethics

ASPIRE: An Acronym for Better Web Practice

Sometimes interesting things happen on Twitter. Last week Scott Jehl proposed ASPIRE as an acronym for the practices we should follow as web designers and developers. From the resulting blog post:

Great websites should aspire to be:

  • Accessible to folks with varying cognitive and physical abilities and disabilities
  • Secure and reliable for storing, manipulating, and transferring information
  • Performant on average devices and in constrained or unreliable network conditions
  • Inclusive to diverse audiences and produced by diverse teams to create better experiences
  • Responsive in adapting the user interface contextually to any screen
  • Ethical in how users’ preferences and data are handled

I’m interested in the last one: E for Ethical.

What constitutes “ethical” web practice?

While we have pretty well established standards and practices for the first five; AccessibleSecurePerformantInclusiveResponsive; we have yet to establish what “Ethical web design and development” means, what it looks like and how it is practiced.

Part of the problem is the term “ethics” is often equated with statements like “do no harm” or practices to avoid legal issues. In reality, ethics refers to the principles and practices we agree upon as a society to judge the goodness and rightness of acts. The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics describes it like this:

“ethics refers to well-founded standards of right and wrong that prescribe what humans ought to do, usually in terms of rights, obligations, benefits to society, fairness, or specific virtues.”

In short, ethics is about practice, how we conduct ourselves and how we judge our actions.

Ethics cannot be summed up as “do no harm” because that leaves the door open to moral relativism: what is harm, to whom is this harm being done, who decides this is harmful, etc.

So what then is ethical practice in relation to web work? Here’s my rough draft to start a conversation about a definition:

Ethical web design and development practice: Work focused on human flourishing through ethical practice and methodology and centered on the rights, capabilities, and agency of the end-user.

What is “ethical practice?” Design and development practice rooted in ethical principles.

What are “ethical principles?” Principles derived from well-established moral philosophies including Consequentialism (specifically Utilitarianism), Duty EthicsVirtue Ethics, and Capability Approach. I wrote a huge article for Smashing Magazine about how to use these in web design, and also done some talks on the topic:

Bottom line, ethical practice is about the doing and being of the practitioner, whether they see their users as ends or means to an end, whether they put “ought” before “can”, and prioritize the agency of those they act upon. It’s about how we judge the goodness and rightness of our work.

I’m really excited about this conversation, and I hope we can get together as a community and figure out what ASPIRE means to us, and how we want to define Ethical web design so we can come together around shared principles and practices and carve meaningful paths into the future for other people and for ourselves.

Cross-posted to LinkedIn.

Cover photo by ?ukasz ?ada, Unsplash