Our Digital Ills, and a Possible Commons Cure

These are my notes for a talk prepared for the NZ Fabian Society in Christchurch, 18 October 2018.

The topic is "The state of the digital world, how it got here, and what we can do about it."

Update: as luck would have it Laura Gartner from PlainsFM recorded the talk and made a recording available. Many thanks for doing that!


Relevant background:

  • naturalised NZer from the US (I came to NZ 24 years ago to "live my American Dream")
  • background in Physics and Engineering, worked as a research scientist at an NZ Crown Research Institute, then started a software development and IT services company which was acquired 5 years ago, and
  • I now work for a global tertiary education charitable foundation as the lead software developer and system administrator

Position statements

A few statements to provide an indication of my character and so you can assess whether or not you like the "cut of my jib"...

  • believe the best thing I can do with the relative privilege I've experienced in my life is to use the surplusses it affords me to help pull up others who were less able to avail themselves of its benefits.
  • many people talk about taking the expedient approach, like it's a good thing. Expedience is the enemy of principle.
  • incentives always drive action on a large scale
  • I'm disgusted by the tendency for big business to focus on privatising profit while socialising costs. If they can do so by exploiting the Commons, so much the better
  • I revere our shared resources, our global commons, both analogue (real) and digital
  • believe that being able to manipulate technology allows someone to amplify their ideas exponetially (both bad and good)
  • We're top of the class in kindergarten when we demonstrate that we can share with our classmates... and then we spend the rest of our formal education being told, in increasingly strong terms, that sharing is wrong.
  • Education requires access and innate aptitude and motivation. Education cannot occur without sharing.
  • Most things we do have both positive and negative consequences. On consideration, I think most positive invest I can make with my abilities is to apply that exponential influence of technology to give others the opportunity to reach their educational potentials (because in many parts of the world, it's not currently possible)
  • I'm delighted when people I'm conversing with are familiar with terms like "exponential growth", "network effect", "permissionless innovation" and "artificial scarcity". Or appreciate words like "prefigurative".

The Digital Problem: Control, Centralisation, Corporations

Characterising the problem with the Digital World... most of us are immersed in it - it's so omnipresent, it's easy to take it for granted... but in a digital environment, many elephants can go unnoticed in the same room.

  • In most of our lifetimes, our world has shifted from being almost entirely analogue, i.e. 'real life', to being partly (and for many) mostly digital.
  • The difference between those who understand digital technologies and those who don't is as profound as the historical difference between those who were literate and those who weren't.
  • A feature of our times: never has there been a time when so many had such a complete dependence - personally and professionally - on tools they simply don't understand, and, amazingly, don't have any desire to understand (many think it's beyond their capability, and it's socially prevalent, so it's deemed acceptable).
  • People have accepted "learned helplessness" - I liken it to Stockholm Syndrome - regarding their technological dependence. They have taken a leap of faith into the arms of a few digital mega corporations (the big 5 - Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft), who are bigger than most countries' economies. These corporations have one incentive: maximising shareholder value, which they do by focusing on continual growth, creating and exploiting market monopolies.
  • People go on about IP, and it is poorly understood by most. It's just a blanket term for several completely different forms of government granted monopolies: copyright - the expression of an idea, patents - the idea itself, and trademarks - an identity in a context. Some people talk about registered designs, but they're like patents for aesthetic values.
  • Our education system is like the pharmacuitical system: it's more profitable for the suppliers to create a lifelong dependence rather than offering a solution. Corporations have inserted themselves into the digital education process and given people the idea that it can only be done with their help... and yet, they (and their shareholders) have most to gain from keeping people ignorant, fearful, and dependent rather than knowledgable, resilient, and independent.
  • Our leaders and law makers are trying to control something they simply don't comprehend, and they're doing it incredibly badly.
  • In addition to all the other societal warping that the digital revolution has encouraged - the polarisation, the sound bite/identity politics, the spread of misinformation, the exploitation of individual privacy - consider this possibility: people today share the wrong things. They're being encouraged to share the wrong things.
  • Technology changes at a blistering pace, but human nature and our natural cycles and social mores don't. Think about this: people posting themselves engaging in legal acts today are quite likely incriminating themselves in the courts of tomorrow.
  • Simplicity (from a user's perspective) costs money. The "simpler" software is, the more it costs (generally). But some IT concepts are inherently arcane and seen by many (who haven't developed a valid conceptual model) as complex. Software can be as simple as possible, but no simpler. Many consumer software applications are too simple and as a result become dangerous, giving people a false sense of confidence and/or power, without the knowledge or maturity to use it wisely. This, for example, is why we have computer viruses.
  • There's a common pattern in the development of new software domains: a proprietary software first-mover comes along (e.g. the Big 5), gets capital from speculators, and creates a network-effect centralised service. This captures the market. No one else can crack their unassailable leads or the "Network Effect" (where the value of being part of a network increases as more people join the network) from which they benefit.
  • A new business model has emerged: surveillance capitalism (or a video presentation). Monetising our privacy, or our willingness to (usually unwittingly) compromise our own.
  • The farce of our times: informed consent... the "I ACCEPT" button on the terms and conditions of all corporate digital services in which they absolve themselves of all responsibility, give themselves broad license, and in which you broadly indemnify them, voluntarily waiving your natural rights and privacy.
  • The Internet is a global "copying machine" - anything you see or hear on your computing device is there, as a copy (it's called "caching").

The counterbalance: a strong Digital Commons

So, is there any hope of not being trampled by one or more of these elephants? Oddly enough there is, and it's been around for a long time, but no one recognised it...

  • The Digital Commons has emerged in response to this unprecedented situation. It's the product of a newly described third socioeconomic production model (the original two: firm or "contract" based production and market forces): "Commons-based Peer Production", which the Internet has allowed to scale to a quiet, but global phenomenon.
  • Free Software and Open Source Software - two sides of the same coin, but the former is purely about the method, the latter is a.bout the underlying philosophy: the "4 essential freedoms" and the concepts of "sharing" and "the user is the developer". All Free Software is also Open Source, but not visa versa, so I tend to refer to "FOSS" = Free and Open Source Software - I value both.
  • It is self-organising, totally decentralised.
  • It requires little capital - the barriers to entry are low: literacy, a computing device, and a connection to the internet. "Working code", not money, is the measure of value, and developer passion for solving problems is a major motivator, so money is seldom charged. The community has little money to market itself. Entirely word-of-mouth.
  • The Digital Commons exists because of this freedom movement + the Internet, and the freedom movement and Internet exist and have thrived because of the Commons. Corporate players are the parasites in this environment.
  • It doesn't serve the interests of corporations for the mainstream to know this (so they don't promote it), but the digital world, the Internet, and the World Wide Web are all built on FOSS.
  • The most widely deployed computing platform in the world is neither Microsoft Windows nor Apple's MacOS or iOS. It's the FOSS operating system, Linux, available at no cost, which powers
    • all of the world's top 500 most powerful super computers,
    • 80% of all smartphones (Android is a marketing name for a Linux system) & 60% of tablets,
    • 60% of computers bought by schools in the US (ChromeOS is a branded Linux system),
    • all of Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, etc.,
    • almost all of "The Cloud",
    • much of the infrastructure of the Internet,
    • almost all of the emerging "Internet of Things" like smart appliances,
    • nearly all "smart" (Internet-connected) consumer devices like flat screen TVs, wifi access points, routers that connect your home to the internet,
    • most computers in most cars (from Mercedes & BMW to Toyota & Tesla), but
    • a scant 2% of desktop and laptop computers (still many millions). However, those who do use it are the top brains in IT (development, security, encryption, and system administration) by far.
  • The software building blocks for nearly all of the most widely known IT brands worldwide are almost exclusively made up of FOSS (see Google, Facebook, Amazon, Wikipedia, Apple, Cisco, etc.).
  • The key to the Internet's resilience and ubiquity is this: permissionless participation. You just have to follow a few simple rules, defined as published, vendor-independent standards, and you're part of it. No human gatekeepers.
  • Problems like physical failures (hardware outages) are "routed around". Censorship is just another type of  problem.
  • Designed to support autonminimise single points of failure... (although the "DNS Root Servers" are a potential target!)
  • The World Wide Web (a layer that sits on top of the Internet) was designed naively - assumed that everyone was honest and open like its designers.
    • it wasn't envisaged to expand ot a global network used by everyone - its very architecture gravitates towards centralised power.
    • it wasn't cognisant of privacy issues.
    • its underlying protocols were designed to assume, to some extent, basic ration action and human decency. They were not designed to assume that anyone and everyone could be a hostile actor.
  • FOSS is the infrastructure underlying the internet. It's the digital bridges, curbs, railings, and asphalt of the world's digital infrastructure. But the corporations, like those who make huge profits extracting minerals and oil in the Analogue (Physical) Commons, have in most cases simply created a thin verneer of "added value" over what they've extracted from the Digital Commons. They're dependent on FOSS, but they're the tail wagging the dog, because their profit gives them influence and the ability to steam roller the lawmakers and leaders who are still in the analogue world and fail to comprehend the digital world or its implications.
  • The FOSS world is a great force for commoditisation and decentralisation.
  • The "Ivy Model" for dismantling giant seemingly omnipotent centralised Network-Effect corporate platforms. 
  • Because of its culture of sharing and collaboration, the FOSS world have led the way in decentralised tools that support collaboration: the "Fediverse". Federated systems. Analogy: monocultures are fragile, grim, and oppressive to us in the physical world, while diversity ecosystems are beautify and rich. Our digital world is currently dominated by a small number of monocultures in each niche. The Fediverse is away of replacing their severe fragility with a richer, diverse set of software platforms which integrate and communicate by virtue of implementing shared open standards rather than by depending on imposed conformity of a uniform platform.

Threats to the Commons

Despite going from near complete obscurity to almost completely dominating the total amount of software out there in 20 years, similar to most societies (which is effectively controlled by the "1%"), the Digital Commons is subjugated by a small set of profit-focused corporate interests.

  • Like "green washing" is corporations co-opting the credibility and legitimacy of sustainability movements, the Digital Commons is increasingly threatened by "open washing" or "fauxpen source": corporations touting open source credentials while simultaneously profiting almost exclusively from proprietary (non-FOSS) software.
  • Legislation by law-makers beholden to influential multinational tech corporations
    • strengthening the wrong kinds of "IP" (like making it harder to contest patents and lengthening the period of copyright)
    • making reverse engineering illegal - John Deere tractors, the US' DMCA legislation, TPMs in international agreements like TPPA
  • For a big corporation, it's far cheaper to market themselves as trustworthy and cuddly than it is to actually be that way.
  • More subtle threat: the new generation of open community leaders have matured in a world where FOSS is already ubiquitous. This younger group is often oblivious to the history of the open movement, and the intense pressure closed corporate exerted (as well as quite a lot of unethical behaviour. The terms FUD and EEE were coined in that time, for example) on open groups. As a result, some of this new generation is less committed to "not giving up an inch of open". The advent of open communities using closed tools has served to errode the commitment to open in some communities, Communities need to embrace "prefiguratism" to avoid this.


  • Interesting culture clash: designers vs. developers
  • Apolitical vs. hyperpolitical
  • Technologists, like the scientists, natural philosophers, and librarians from whom they've descended, tend to be open and honest to a fault.
  • Correctness is key: uncomfortable/unvarnished truths over comforting lies.
  • Software (in general, and open source in particular) is created by people with a similar set of personality traits. To use the discredited but well marketed Myers-Briggs personality types, 95% of software developers fall into 3 of the 16 MBP types, which overall represent less than 5% of the population (who are predominantly male). This goes a long way to explaining why many people don't "get" software - it was almost certainly designed by people who look at the world differently from them.


The programmer's credo: "We did it. Not because it was easy... but because we *thought* it would be easy."

That is how many things, both admirable and horrible are built.