All posts by mollydb

About mollydb

The most interesting thing about me is that I play bassoon in a band. I like bikes, blueberries, free and open source technology, and wish I could fingerpick.

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.

“All Animals Are Equal,” Peter Singer

I recently read “Disability Visibility,” which opens with a piece by Harriet McBryde Johnson about debating Peter Singer. When I got my first reading for my first class and saw it was Peter Singer, I was dismayed because of his (heinous) stances in disability. I assumed “All Animals Are Equal” was one of Singer’s pieces about animal rights. While I agree with many of the principles Singer discusses around animal rights, I feel as though his work on this front is significantly diminished by his work around disability. To put it simply, I can’t take Peter Singer seriously.

Because of this I had a lot of trouble reading “All Animals Are Equal” and taking it in good faith. I judged everything from his arguments to his writing harshly. While I don’t disagree with his basic point (all animals have rights) I disagree with how he made the point and the argument supporting it.

One of the things I was told to ask when reading any philosophy paper is “What is the argument?” or “What are they trying to convince you of?” In this case, you could frame the answer as: Animals have {some of) the same rights people do. I think it would be more accurate though to frame it as “All animals (including humans) have (some of) the same rights” or even “Humans are as equally worthy of consideration as animals are.”

I think when we usually talk about animal rights, we do it from a perspective of wanting to elevate animals to human status. From one perspective, I don’t like this approach because I feel as though it turns the framing of rights as something you deserve or earn, privileges you get for being “good enough.” The point about rights is that they are inherent — you get them because they are.

The valuable thing I got out of “All Animals Are Equal” is that “rights” are not universal. When we talk about things like abortion, for example, we talk about the right to have an abortion. Singer asks whether people who cannot get pregnant have the right to an abortion? What he doesn’t dig into is that the “right to an abortion” is really just an extension of bodily autonomy — turning one facet of bodily autonomy into the legal right to have a medical procedure.  I think this is worth thinking about more — turning high level human rights into the mundane rights, and acknowledging that not everyone can or needs them.

Updates

We are currently working on a second draft of the Declaration of Digital Autonomy. We’re also working on some next steps, which I hadn’t really thought about existing before. Videos from GUADEC and HOPE are now online. We’ll be speaking at DebConf on August 29th.

I’ll be starting school soon, so I expect a lot of the content of what I’ll be writing (as well as the style) to shift a bit to reflect what I’m studying and how I’m expected to write for my program.