Inauguration Pie

How can I put four years into a pie? I’m thinking of Inauguration Day 2017 through to today, Inauguration Day 2021. In truth things started back in 2015, when Donald Trump announced his run for the United States’ presidency, and I don’t know how long things will continue past the moment when President-Elect Joe Biden becomes President Joe Biden.

For the United States, it’s been a hell of a time. For the world, it’d been even worse. Every generation thinks that they lived through more than anyone else, that they had it worse. I had a Boomer tell me that the existential stress of COVID is nothing compared to the Vietnam War. I’m sure when we are living through a global water crisis, I’ll tell the kids that we had it bad too. Everyday I listen to the radio and read Twitter, aware that the current state of endless wars – wars against terrorism and drugs, organized crime and famine, climate change and racism – is global, and not limited to just what’s happening to and around me. That makes it feel worse and bigger and I wonder if earlier generations can really grasp how big that is.

The last four years brought me in closer working relationships with people in India and Nigeria. I would call these people my friends in that if they were in town I would want to see them and show them around. Most of them I would offer a space in my small apartment, in case they needed somewhere to sleep and wanted to save the money. We chat, though we only have the internet as opposed to elevator rides in tall office buildings and slow walks down to the shops during lunch breaks.

From these relationships I have learned very little about life in India or Nigeria, and I only visited India separately from any of my colleagues there. (I went for a wedding. My visa to Nigeria was denied on account of a medical issue.) But, I follow these people on social media and see what they share, the same political and social utterances that could be the same here or virtually any other place, as long as we replace the right keywords. Exchange the name of one leader, conservative party, or government unit for another. When I first saw the #EndSARS hashtag show up, I thought the images were from Black Lives Matter protests. Stop police brutality.

And that was only in the last few months.

I’ve had three jobs since Trump first announced his candidacy in three very different places. In the first I felt like I wasn’t able to talk about the sexism and discrimination I was dealing with in the office, and how much more so my views on an organizational partnership with a government whose policies I strongly disagreed with. In the second I was able to talk about these things, but there was nothing to do about them.

I’ve been in love and had my heart broken three times in three very different ways that all came down to someone valuing someone else more than they valued me. Can I bake heartbreak into a pie? Is it even fair to distract from the political world with my own loss?

What about COVID-19? There’s bitterness and anger and tears and pain – emotional and physical. There is desperation and desolation and loneliness. Covid has colored everything during the past year. It is a burden our new political leaders will take on. Biden and Harris, all of the new people in Congress, and everyone else who has taken on an elected position now must content with Covid with new levels of responsibility. Not only do their decisions affect the people they come into contact with, they now affect everyone their policies touch and perhaps even more than that.

The government hired people to build walls. Our government approved it and people willingly took on the job of building those walls. Families were separated. Children were placed in inhumane conditions; children were tortured. Remember when the guards at border detention facilities were raping children? Remember when children had guards? Women were forcefully operated upon and had their bodies permanently changed without their permission, against their desires. People were executed by the state.

There were so many things I’ve lost track of them all. I remember bits and pieces as I write this, coming back to me like singing a song I haven’t thought about in years. With each line, I remember another one. Being worried about coming home from Cuba, when the visitation rules were changed in the middle of my trip. Climate change, again and again. Pollution and microplastics and watching the country being broken into pieces and sold off in the name of economy and progress. People losing their access to healthcare, through clinics closing down and loss of insurance.

What do you bake into a pie that tastes like sedition? What are the flavors of loss and racism and hate? How to you balance the sourness with subtle hints of hope, which feels to tender and fragile? Do we pair equal parts of the palatable with the unpalatable, in the name of our neatly divided senate?

I have hope, of course I have hope, and I have always had hope, but now it feels thinner than ever, like a ganache or a caramel after your hand slips and you pour too much cream in. A custard or compote or curd that that refuses to thicken no matter how long you cook it. I see that things could be better, but better does not mean good and better does not mean enough.

So I will put my hope into this pie. I put my pain and anger into the dough. I will put my tears and helplessness and bitterness into the filling. I will cover it sweetness and the delicate hope I’ve spun out of sugar. Soon I will bake it and share it with the three other people I see because the most important thing about surviving these past years, these past months and weeks and days, is that we did it together. We will commiserate on what we’ve overcome, and we will share our hope and the sweetness of the moment, as the spun sugar dissolves on our tongues. There is so much we have left to do, so much we must do. We will be angry in the future, we may be angry later today, but until then, we have pie.

1028 Words on Free Software

The promise of free software is a near-future utopia, built on democratized technology. This future is just and it is beautiful, full of opportunity and fulfillment for everyone everywhere. We can create the things we dream about when we let our minds wander into the places they want to. We can be with the people we want and need to be, when we want and need to.

This is currently possible with the technology we have today, but it’s availability is limited by the reality of the world we live in – the injustice, the inequity, the inequality. Technology runs the world, but it does not serve the interests of most of us. In order to create a better world, our technology must be transparent, accountable, trustworthy. It must be just. It must be free.

The job of the free software movement is to demonstrate that this world is possible by living its values now: justice, equity, equality. We build them into our technology, and we build technology that make it possible for these values to exist in the world.

At the Free Software Foundation, we liked to say that we used all free software because it was important to show that we could. You can do anything with free software, so we did everything with it. We demonstrated the importance of unions for tech workers and non-profit workers by having one. We organized collectively and protected our rights for the sake of ourselves and one another. We had non-negotiable salaries, based on responsibility level and position. That didn’t mean we worked in an office free from the systemic problems that plague workplaces everywhere, but we were able to think about them differently.

Things were this way because of Richard Stallman – but I view his influence on these things as negative rather than positive. He was a cause that forced these outcomes, rather than being supportive of the desires and needs of others. Rather than indulge in gossip or stories, I would like to jump to the idea that he was supposed to have been deplatformed in October 2019. In resigning from his position as president of the FSF, he certainly lost some of his ability to reach audiences. However, Richard still gives talks. The FSF continues to use his image and rhetoric in their own messaging and materials. They gave him time to speak at their annual conference in 2020. He maintains leadership in the GNU project and otherwise within the FSF sphere. The people who empowered him for so many years are still in charge.

Richard, and the continued respect and space he is given, is not the only problem. It represents a bigger problem. Sexism and racism (among others) run rampant in the community. This happens because of bad actors and, more significantly, by the complacency of organizations, projects, and individuals afraid of losing contributors, respect, or funding. In a sector that has so much money and so many resources, women are still being paid less than men; we deny people opportunities to learn and grow in the name of immediate results; people who aren’t men, who aren’t white, are abused and harassed; people are mentally and emotionally taken advantage of, and we are coerced into burn out and giving up our lives for these companies and projects and we are paid for tolerating all of this by being told we’re doing a good job or making a difference.

But we’re not making a difference. We’re perpetuating the worst of the status quo that we should be fighting against. We must not continue. We cannot. We need to live our ideals as they are, and take the natural next steps in their evolution. We cannot have a world of just technology when we live in a world of exclusion; we cannot have free software if we continue to allow, tolerate, and laud the worst of us. I’ve been in and around free software for seventeen years. Nearly every part of it I’ve participated in has members and leadership that benefit from allowing and encouraging the continuation of maleficence and systemic oppression.

We must purge ourselves of these things – of sexism, racism, injustice, and the people who continue and enable it. There is no space to argue over whether a comment was transphobic – if it hurt a trans person then it is transphobic and it is unacceptable. Racism is a global problem and we must be anti-racist or we are complicit. Sexism is present and all men benefit from it, even if they don’t want to. These are free software issues. These are things that plague software, and these are things software reinforces within our societies.

If a technology is exclusionary, it does not work. If a community is exclusionary, it must be fixed or thrown away. There is no middle ground here. There is no compromise. Without doing this, without taking the hard, painful steps to actually live the promise of user freedom and everything it requires and entails, our work is pointless and free software will fail.

I don’t think it’s too late for there to be a radical change – the radical change – that allows us to create the utopia we want to see in the world. We must do that by acknowledging that just technology leads to a just society, and that a just society allows us to make just technology. We must do that by living within the principles that guide this future now.

I don’t know what will happen if things don’t change soon. I recently saw someone comment that change doesn’t happens unless one person is willing to sacrifice everything to make that change, to lead and inspire others to play small parts. This is unreasonable to ask of or expect from someone. I’ve been burning myself out to meet other people’s expectations for seventeen years, and I can’t keep doing it. Of course I am not alone, and I am not the only one working on and occupied by these problems. More people must step up, not just for my sake, but for the sake of all of us, the work free software needs to do, and the future I dream about.

Why should you work on free software (or other technology issues)?

Twice this week I was asked how it can be okay to work on free software when there are issues like climate change and racial injustice. I have a few answers for that.

You can work on injustice while working on free software.

A world in which all technology is just cannot exist under capitalism. It cannot exist under racism or sexism or ableism. It cannot exist in a world that does not exist if we are ravaged by the effects of climate change. At the same time, free software is part of the story of each of these. The modern technology state fuels capitalism, and capitalism fuels it. It cannot exist without transparency at all levels of the creation process. Proprietary software and algorithms reinforce racial and gender injustice. Technology is very guilty of its contributions to the climate crisis. By working on making technology more just, by making it more free, we are working to address these issues. Software makes the world work, and oppressive software creates an oppressive world.

You can work on free software while working on injustice.

Let’s say you do want to devote your time to working on climate justice full time. Activism doesn’t have to only happen in the streets or in legislative buildings. Being a body in a protest is activism, and so is running servers for your community’s federated social network, providing wiki support, developing custom software, and otherwise bringing your free software skills into new environments. As long as your work is being accomplished under an ethos of free software, with free software, and under free software licenses, you’re working on free software issues while saving the world in other ways too!

Not everyone needs to work on everything all the time.

When your house in on fire, you need to put out the fire. However, maybe you can’t help put out the first. Maybe You don’t have the skills or knowledge or physical ability. Maybe your house is on fire, but there’s also an earthquake and a meteor and a airborn toxic event all coming at once. When that happens, we have to split up our efforts and that’s okay.

Transparency

Technology must be transparent in order to be knowable. Technology must be knowable in order for us to be able to consent to it in good faith. Good faith informed consent is necessary to preserving our (digital) autonomy.

Let’s now look at this in reverse, considering first why informed consent is necessary to our digital autonomy.

Let’s take the concept of our digital autonomy as being one of the highest goods. It is necessary to preserve and respect the value of each individual, and the collectives we choose to form. It is a right to which we are entitled by our very nature, and a prerequisite for building the lives we want, that fulfill us. This is something that we have generally agreed on as important or even sacred. Our autonomy, in whatever form it takes, in whatever part of our life it governs, is necessary and must be protected.

One of the things we must do in order to accomplish this is to build a practice and culture of consent. Giving consent — saying yes — is not enough. This consent must come from a place of understand to that which one is consenting. “Informed consent is consenting to the unknowable.”(1)

Looking at sexual consent as a parallel, even when we have a partner who discloses their sexual history and activities, we cannot know whether they are being truthful and complete. Let’s even say they are and that we can trust this, there is a limit to how much even they know about their body, health, and experience. They might not know the extent of their other partners’ experience. They might be carrying HPV without symptoms; we rarely test for herpes.

Arguably, we have more potential to definitely know what is occurring when it comes to technological consent. Technology can be broken apart. We can share and examine code, schematics, and design documentation. Certainly, lots of information is being hidden from us — a lot of code is proprietary, technical documentation unavailable, and the skills to process these things is treated as special, arcane, and even magical. Tracing the resource pipelines for the minerals and metals essential to building circuit boards is not possible for the average person. Knowing the labor practices of each step of this process, and understanding what those imply for individuals, societies, and the environments they exist in seems improbable at best.

Even though true informed consent might not be possible, it is an ideal towards which we must strive. We must work with what we have, and we must be provided as much as possible.

A periodic conversation that arises in the consideration of technology rights is whether companies should build backdoors into technology for the purpose of government exploitation. A backdoor is a hidden vulnerability in a piece of technology that, when used, would afford someone else access to your device or work or cloud storage or whatever. As long as the source code that powers computing technology is proprietary and opaque, we cannot truly know whether backdoors exist and how secure we are in our digital spaces and even our own computers, phones, and other mobile devices.

We must commit wholly to transparency and openness in order to create the possibility of as-informed-as-possible consent in order to protect our digital autonomy. We cannot exist in a vacuum and practical autonomy relies on networks of truth in order to provide the opportunity for the ideal of informed consent. These networks of truth are created through the open availability and sharing of information, relating to how and why technology works the way it does.

(1) Heintzman, Kit. 2020.

Digital Self

When we talk about the digital self, we are talking about the self as it exists within digital spaces. This holds differently for different people, as some of us prefer to live within an pseudonymous or anonymous identity online, divested from our physical selves, while others consider the digital a more holistic identity that extends from the physical.

Your digital self is gestalt, in that it exists across whatever mediums, web sites, and services you use. These bits are pieces together to form a whole picture of what it means to be you, or some aspect of  you. This may be carefully curated, or it may be an emergent property of who you are.

The way your physical self has rights, so too does your digital self. Or, perhaps, it would be more accurate to say that your rights extend to your digital self. I do not personally consider that there is a separation between these selves when it comes to rights, as both are aspects of you and you have rights. I am explicitly not going to list what these rights are, because I have my own ideas about them and yours may differ. Instead, I will briefly talk about consent.

I think it is essential that we genuinely consent to how others interact with us to maintain the sanctity of our selves. Consent is necessary to the protection and expression of our rights, as it ensures we are able to rely on our rights and creates a space where we are able to express our rights in comfort and safety. We may classically think of consent as it relates to sex and sexual consent: only we have the right to determine what happens to our bodies; no one else has the right to that determination. We are able to give sexual consent, and we are able to revoke it. Sexual consent, in order to be in good faith, must be requested and given from a place of openness and transparency. For this, we discuss with our partners the things about ourselves that may impact their decision to consent: we are sober; we are not ill; we are using (or not) protection as we agree is appropriate; we are making this decision because it is a thing we desire, rather than a thing we feel we ought to do or are being forced to do; as well as other topics.

These things also all hold true for technology and the digital spaces in which we reside. Our digital autonomy is not the only thing at stake when we look at digital consent. The ways we interact in digital spaces impact our whole selves, and exploitation of our consent too impacts our whole selves. Private information appearing online can have material consequences — it can directly lead to safety issues, like stalking or threats, and it can lead to a loss of psychic safety and have a chilling effect. These are in addition to the threats posed to digital safety and well being. Consent must be actively sought, what one is consenting to is transparent, and the potential consequences must be known and understood.

In order to protect and empower the digital self, to treat everyone justly and with respect, we must hold the digital self be as sacrosanct as other aspects of the self and treat it accordingly.

Endorsements

Transparency is essential to trusting a technology. Through transparency we can understand what we’re using and build trust. When we know what is actually going on, what processes are occurring and how it is made, we are able to decide whether interacting with it is something we actually want, and we’re able to trust it and use it with confidence.

This transparency could mean many things, though it most frequently refers to the technology itself: the code or, in the case of hardware, the designs. We could also apply it to the overall architecture of a system. We could think about the decision making, practices, and policies of whomever is designing and/or making the technology. These are all valuable in some of the same ways, including that they allow us to make a conscious choice about what we are supporting.

When we choose to use a piece of technology, we are supporting those who produce it. This could be because we are directly paying for it, however our support is not limited to direct financial contributions. In some cases this is because of things hidden within a technology: tracking mechanisms or backdoors that could allow companies or governments access to what we’re doing. When creating different types of files on a computer, these files can contain metadata that says what software was used to make it. This is an implicit endorsement, and you can also explicitly endorse a technology by talking about that or how you use it. In this, you have a right (not just a duty) to be aware of what you’re supporting. This includes, for example, organizational practices and whether a given company relies on abusive labor policies, indentured servitude, or slave labor.
Endorsements inspire others to choose a piece of technology. Most of my technology is something I investigate purely for functionality, and the pieces I investigate are based on what people I know use. The people I trust in these cases are more inclined than most to do this kind of research, to perform technical interrogations, and to be aware of what producers of technology are up to.

This is how technology spreads and becomes common or the standard choice. In one sense, we all have the responsibility (one I am shirking) to investigate our technologies before we choose them. However, we must acknowledge that not everyone has the resources for this – the time, the skills, the knowledge, and therein endorsements become even more important to recognize.

Those producing a technology have the responsibility of making all of these angles something one could investigate. Understanding cannot only be the realm of experts. It should not require an extensive background in research and investigative journalism to find out whether a company punishes employees who try to unionize or pay non-living wages. Instead, these must be easy activities to carry out. It should be standard for a company (or other technology producer) to be open and share with people using their technology what makes them function. It should be considered shameful and shady to not do so. Not only does this empower those making choices about what technologies to use, but it empowers others down the line, who rely on those choices. It also respects the people involved in the processes of making these technologies. By acknowledging their role in bringing our tools to life, we are respecting their labor. By holding companies accountable for their practices and policies, we are respecting their lives.

COVID and Reflections on Jessica Flanigan

One  of the points Flanigan makes in her piece “Seat Belt Mandates and Paternalism” is that we’re conditioned to use seat belts from a very early age. It’s a thing we internalize and build into our understanding of the world. People feel bad when they don’t wear a seat belt.(1) They’re unsettled. They feel unsafe. They feel like they’re doing something wrong.

Masks have started to fit into this model as well. Not wearing a mask feels wrong. An acquaintance shared a story of crying after realizing they had left the house without a mask. For some people, mask wearing has been deeply internalized.

We have regular COVID tests at NYU. Every other week I spit into a tube and then am told whether I am safe or sick. This allows me to hang out with my friends more confident than I would feel otherwise. This allows me to be closer to people than I would be otherwise. It also means that if I got sick, I would know, even if I was asymptomatic. If this happened, I would need to tell my friends. I would trace the places I’ve been, the people I’ve seen, and admit to them that I got sick. I would feel shame because something I did put me in that position.

There were (are?) calls to market mask wearing and COVID protection with the same techniques we use around sex: wear protection, get tested, think before you act, ask consent before touching, be honest and open with the people around you about your risk factors.

This is effective, at least among a swath of the population, but COVID has effectively become another STD. It’s a socially transmitted disease that we have tabooified into creating shame in people who have it.

The problem with this is, of course, that COVID isn’t treatable in the same way syphilis and chlamydia are. Still, I would ask whether people don’t report, or get tested, or even wear masks, because of shame? In some communities, wearing a mask is a sign that you’re sick. It’s stigmatizing.(2)

I think talking about COVID the way we talk about sex is not the right approach because, in my experience, the ways I learned about sex were everything from factually wrong to deeply harmful. If what we’re doing doesn’t work, what does?

(1) Yes, I know not everyone.

(2) Many men who don’t wear masks cite it as feeling emasculating, rather than stigmatizing.

Free Software Activities – September 2020

I haven’t done one of these in a while, so let’s see how it goes.

Debian

The Community Team has been busy. We’re planning a sprint to work on a bigger writing project and have some tough discussions that need to happen.
I personally have only worked on one incident, but we’ve had a few others come in.
I’m attempting to step down from the Outreach team, which is more work than I thought it would be. I had a very complicated relationship with the Outreach team. When no one else was there to take on making sure we did GSoC and Outreachy, I stepped up. It wasn’t really what I wanted to be doing, but it’s important. I’m glad to have more time to focus on other things that feel more aligned with what I’m trying to work on right now.

GNOME

In addition to, you know, work, I joined the Code of Conduct Committee. Always a good time! Rosanna and I presented at GNOME Onboard Africa Virtual about the GNOME CoC. It was super fun!

Digital Autonomy

Karen and I did an interview on FLOSS Weekly with Doc Searls and Dan Lynch. Super fun! I’ve been doing some more writing, which I still hope to publish soon, and a lot of organization on it. I’m also in the process of investigating some funding, as there are a few things we’d like to do that come with price tags. Separately, I started working on a video to explain the Principles. I’m excited!

Misc

I started a call that meets every other week where we talk about Code of Conduct stuff. Good peeps. Into it.

“Actions, Inactions, and Consequences: Doctrine of Doing and Allowing” W. Quinn

There are a lot of interesting and valid things to say about the philosophy and actual arguments of the “Actions, Inactions, and Consequences: Doctrine of Doing and Allowing” by Warren Quinn. Unfortunately for me, none of them are things I feel particularly inspired by. I’m much more attracted to the many things implied in this paper. Among them are the role of social responsibility in making moral decisions.

At various points in the text, Quinn makes brief comments about how we have roles that we need to fulfill for the sake of society. These roles carry with them responsibilities that may supersede our regular moral responsibilities. Examples Quinn makes include being a private life guard (and being responsible for the life of one particular person) and being a trolley driver (and your responsibility is to make sure the train doesn’t kill anyone). This is part of what has led to me brushing Quinn off as another classist. Still, I am interested in the question of whether social responsibilities are more important than moral ones or whether there are times when this might occur.

One of the things I maintain is that we cannot be the best versions of ourselves because we are not living in societies that value our best selves. We survive capitalism. We negotiate climate change. We make decisions to trade the ideal for the functional. For me, this frequently means I click through terms of service, agree to surveillance, and partake in the use and proliferation of oppressive technology. I also buy an iced coffee that comes in a single use plastic cup; I shop at the store with questionable labor practices; I use Facebook.  But also, I don’t give money to panhandlers. I see suffering and I let it pass. I do not get involved or take action in many situations because I have a pass to not. These things make society work as it is, and it makes me work within society.

This is a self-perpetuating, mutually-abusive, co-dependent relationship. I must tell myself stories about how it is okay that I am preferring the status quo, that I am buying into the system, because I need to do it to survive within it and that people are relying on the system as it stands to survive, because that is how they know to survive.

Among other things, I am worried about the psychic damage this causes us. When we view ourselves as social actors rather than moral actors, we tell ourselves it is okay to take non-moral actions (or in-actions); however, we carry within ourselves intuitions and feelings about what is right, just, and moral. We ignore these in order to act in our social roles. From the perspective of the individual, we’re hurting ourselves and suffering for the sake of benefiting and perpetuating an caustic society. From the perspective of society, we are perpetuating something that is not just less than ideal, but actually not good because it is based on allowing suffering.[1]

[1] This is for the sake of this text. I don’t know if I actually feel that this is correct.

My goal was to make this only 500 words, so I am going to stop here.

NYU VPN

I needed to setup a VPN in order to access my readings for class. The instructions for Linux are located: https://nyu.service-now.com/sp?id=kb_article_view&sysparm_article=KB0014932

After you download the VPN client of your choice (they recommend Cisco AnyConnect), connect to: vpn.nyu.edu.

It will ask for two passwords: your NYU username and password and a multi-factor authentication (MFA) code from Duo. Use the Duo. See below for stuff on Duo.

Hit connect and viola, you can connect to the VPN.

Duo Authentication Setup

Go to: https://start.nyu.edu and follow the instructions for MFA. They’ll tell you that a smart phone is the most secure method of setting up. I am skeptical.

Install the Duo Authentication App on your phone, enter your phone number into the NYU web page (off of ) and it will send a thing to your phone to connect it.

Commentary

Okay, I have to complain at least a little bit about this. I had to guess what the VPN address was because the instructions are for NYU Shanghai. I also had to install the VPN client using the terminal. These sorts of things make it harder for people to use Linux. Boo.