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Tag: open source

Cyberpunk Librarian: Podcast & Research Paper

Cyberpunk Librarian is a podcast with the tagline “High tech, low budget”. You can listen on the official website, on YouTube, or via iTunes, where it is classified as “Software How-To”. The podcast’s creator is Daniel Messer, a technologist who works for the Maricopa County Library District in Phoenix, Arizona. He describes himself as an internet fiend:

“While some people log in, do their online stuff, and then log off, I pretty much stay online twenty-four hours a day. Sure, I sleep just like everyone else, the biggest difference is that I’m sleeping next to a tablet computer, smart phone, and occasionally a laptop computer — all of which are jacked into the Internet.”

Both at work and recreationally, Messer is a fan of open-source software. As he writes, “open source is accountable to, and partially owned by, a community, which makes it very similar to a library.”

Daniel Messer, the cyberpunk librarian himself.

Daniel Messer, the cyberpunk librarian himself.

Messer used to blog at the website Not All Bits, but in January, 2012 he moved to a self-hosted instance of WordPress (linked above). He can also be followed on Twitter, and has written three books:

The other thing that comes up when you Google “cyberpunk librarian” is a research paper called “Enter the cyberpunk librarian: Future directions in Cyberspace” by Jonathan Willson. You can’t easily access the full text online, but according to ERIC:

“This article describes the properties and culture of the electronic frontier, discusses the social impact of cyberspace, examines the role of libraries and librarians in the future. Argues that librarians can help shape a vision of cyberspace that benefits society by providing fair and equitable distribution of information resources.”

ResearchGate has another, slightly different description.

Cyberpunk librarian photo by Cindi on Flickr.

Perhaps another sort of cyberpunk librarian… Photo by Cindi.

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Software Meets Capitalism: Interview with Steve Klabnik

Old woman working at a loom. Photo by silas8six.

Old woman working at a loom. Photo by silas8six.

I interviewed Steve Klabnik via email. If you’re part of the open-source world, you might recognize his name. Otherwise I’ll let him introduce himself. We discussed economics, technological unemployment, and software.

Exolymph: The initial reason I reached out is that you’re a technologist who tweets about labor exploitation and other class issues. I’m currently fascinated by how tech and society influence each other, and I’m particularly interested in the power jockeying within open-source communities. You seem uniquely situated to comment on these issues.

Originally I planned to launch right into questions in this email, but then I start opening your blog posts in new tabs, and now I need a little more time still. But! Here’s a softball one for starters: How would you introduce yourself to an oddball group of futurists (which is my readership)?

Steve Klabnik: It’s funny that you describe this one as a softball, because it should be, yet I think it’s actually really tough. I find it really difficult to sum up a person in a few words; there’s just so much you miss out on. Identity is a precarious and complex topic.

I generally see myself as someone who’s fundamentally interdisciplinary. I’m more about the in-betweens than I am about any specific thing. The discipline that I’m most trained in is software; it’s something I’ve done for virtually my entire life, and I have a degree in it. But software by itself is not that interesting to me. It’s the stuff that you can do with software, the impact that it has on our world, questions of ethics, of social interaction. This draws a connection to my second favorite thing: philosophy. I’m an amateur here, unfortunately. I almost got a higher degree in this stuff, but life has a way of happening. More specifically, I’m deeply enthralled with the family of philosophy that is colloquially referred to as “continental” philosophy, though I’m not sure I find that distinction useful. My favorites in this realm are Spinoza, Nietzsche, Marx, and Deleuze. I find that their philosophical ideas can have deep implications for software, its place in the world, and society at large.

Since we live under capitalism, “who are you” is often conflated with “what do you do for work”. As far as that goes, I work for Mozilla, the company that makes Firefox. More specifically, I write documentation for Rust, a programming language that we and a broader community have developed. I literally wrote the book on it 🙂 Mozilla has a strong open-source ethic, and that’s one of the reasons I’ve ended up working there; I do a lot of open-source work. On GitHub, a place where open-source developers share their code, this metric says that I’m the twenty-ninth most active contributor, with 4,362 contributions in the last 365 days. Before Rust, I was heavily involved with the Ruby on Rails community, and the broader Ruby community at large. I still maintain a few packages in Ruby.

Exolymph: To be fair, I described it as a softball question precisely because of the capitalist shortcut you mentioned, although I’m not sure I would have articulated it like that. Darn predictable social conditioning.

What appeals to you about open source? What frustrates you about open source?

Steve Klabnik: I love the idea of working towards a commons. I’d prefer to write software that helps as many people as possible.

What frustrates me is how many people can’t be paid to do this kind of work. I’ve been lucky to been able to feed myself while working on open source. Very, very lucky. But for most, it’s doing your job without pay. If we truly want a commons, we have to figure out how to fund it.

Exolymph: I’ve been reading a bunch of your blog posts. I’m curious about how you feel about working in an industry — and perhaps doing work personally — that obviates older jobs that people used to count on.

Steve Klabnik: It is something that I think about a lot. This is something that’s a fundamental aspect of capitalism, and has always haunted it: see the Luddites, for example. This problem is very complex, but here’s one aspect of it: workers don’t get to capture the benefits of increased productivity, at least not directly. Let’s dig into an example to make this more clear.

Let’s say that I’m a textile worker, like the Luddite. Let’s make up some numbers to make the math easy: I can make one yard of fabric per hour with my loom. But here’s the catch: I’m paid by the hour, not by the amount of fabric I make. This is because I don’t own the loom; I just work here. So, over the course of a ten hour day, I make ten yards of fabric, and am paid a dollar for this work.

Next week, when I come to work, a new Loom++ has been installed in my workstation. I do the same amount of work, but can produce two yards of fabric now. At the end of my ten hour day, I’ve made twenty yards of fabric: a 2x increase! But I’m still only being paid my dollar. In other words, the owner of the factory gets twice as much fabric for the same price, but I haven’t seen any gain here.

(Sidebar: There’s some complexity in this that does matter, but this is an interview, not a book 🙂 So for example, yes, the capitalist had to pay for the Loom++ in the first place. This is a concept Marx calls “fixed versus variable capital”, and this is a long enough answer already, so I’ll just leave it at that.)

Now, the idea here is that the other factories will also install Loom++s as well, and at least one of the people who’s selling the cloth will decide that 1.75x as much profit is better, so they’ll undercut the others, and eventually, the price of cloth will fall in half, to match the new productivity level. Now, as a worker, I have access to cheaper cloth. But until that happens, I’m not seeing a benefit, yet the capitalist is collecting theirs. Until they invest in a Loom2DX, with double the productivity of the Loom++, and the cycle starts anew.

Yet we, as workers, haven’t actually seen the benefits work out the way they should. There’s nothing that guarantees that it will, other than the religion of economists. And the working class has seen their wages stagnate, while productivity soars, especially recently. Here is a study that gets cited a lot, in articles like this one.

“From 1973 to 2013, hourly compensation of a typical (production/nonsupervisory) worker rose just 9 percent while productivity increased 74 percent. This breakdown of pay growth has been especially evident in the last decade, affecting both college- and non-college-educated workers as well as blue- and white-collar workers. This means that workers have been producing far more than they receive in their paychecks and benefit packages from their employers.”

We haven’t been really getting our side of the deal.

Anyway.

So, this is a futurist blog, yet I’ve just been talking about looms. Why? Well, two reasons: First, technologists are the R&D department that takes the loom, looks at it, and makes the Loom++. It’s important to understand this, and to know in our heart of hearts that under capitalism, yes, our role is to automate people out of jobs. Understanding a problem is the first step towards solving it. But second, it’s to emphasize that this isn’t something that’s specific to computing or anything. It’s the fundamental role of technology. We like to focus on the immediate benefit (“We have Loom++es now!!!”) and skip over the societal effects (“Some people are going to make piles of money from this and others may lose their jobs”). Technologists need to start taking the societal effects more seriously. After all, we’re workers too.

I’m at a technology conference in Europe right now, and on the way here, I watched a movie, The Intern. The idea of the movie is basically, “Anne Hathaway runs Etsy (called About the Fit in the movie), and starts an internship program for senior citizens. Robert De Niro signs up because he’s bored with retirement, and surprise! Culture clash.” It was an okay movie. But one small bit of backstory of De Niro’s character really struck me. It’s revealed that before he retired, he used to work in literally the same building as About the Fit is in now. He worked for a phone book company. It’s pretty obvious why he had to retire. The movie is basically a tale of what we’re talking about here.

Exolymph: I’m also curious about what you’d propose to help society through the Computing Revolution (if you will) and its effect on “gainful employment” opportunities.

Steve Klabnik: Okay, so, I’m not saying that we need to keep phone books around so that De Niro can keep his job. I’m also not saying that we need to smash the looms. What I am saying is that in a society which is built around the idea that you have to work to live, and that also rapidly makes people’s jobs obsolete, is a society in which a lot of people are going to be in a lot of pain. We could be taking those productivity benefits and using them to invest back in people. It might be leisure time, it might be re-training; it could be a number of things. But it’s not something that’s going to go away. It’s a question that we as society have to deal with.

I don’t think the pursuit of profits over people is the answer.


Go follow Steve on Twitter and check out his website.

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Indifference To Libre Software

Battle of Copyright! Illustration by Christopher Dombres.

Illustration by Christopher Dombres.

I want to quote some passages from an astute but idealistic essay that security developer Matthew Garrett wrote in 2014 about libre software. (If you’re not familiar with that term, go read this long explanation on GNU’s website. Then dive into Richard Stallman’s bonkers absolutist computer habits.) Garrett’s blog post is called “My free software will respect users or it will be bullshit”. He proposes that…

“the freedoms guaranteed by free software are largely academic unless you fall into one of two categories — someone who is sufficiently skilled in the arts of software development to examine and modify software to meet their own needs, or someone who is sufficiently privileged [read: has enough money or social capital] to be able to encourage developers to modify the software to meet their needs.”

He goes on to say:

“Concentrating on philosophical freedoms without considering whether these freedoms provide meaningful benefits to most users risks these freedoms being perceived as abstract ideals, divorced from the real world — nice to have, but fundamentally not important.”

My reaction to this was basically, “Well, yeah. That’s not a risk; that’s a reality. Zero normal people care about libre sofware.” Unless you want to study, change, or redistribute the source code, why even think about the license? The closest you’re going to get to a regular ol’ person who cares about libre software is someone like me, a tech commentator with an inferiority complex because she doesn’t know how to code. And I’m lukewarm on it. Sure, I’m glad that libre software exists, but I don’t think the movement’s priorities are moral imperatives.

By nature, libre software is a niche concern. The majority is never going to care. People vote with their eyeballs and their wallets, and by those measures they’ve overwhelmingly elected proprietary products like Facebook and Apple’s sprawling empire. That’s fine! An influential minority of hackers and their ilk will continue to love and make libre software. We’ll be okay.

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Open-Source Squabbling

Nadia Eghbal wrote an interesting overview of the history of software development — the nuts and bolts of how the future is being iterated — with a focus on open-source programming. In the 1980s:

“Sequoia Capital funded Oracle to make database software. IBM hired Microsoft to write MS-DOS, an operating system for their PC.

Suddenly, the idea of free software seemed insane. Software was a commodity; if you could make millions of dollars charging for it, why wouldn’t you?

Writing free software became a political act of defiance, and a strong counterculture rose around it. If you wrote open source, you weren’t like Oracle or Microsoft. People who wrote free software believed in its potential as a platform, not a product.”

Now open-source software is a significant part of the status quo — every single computer-based company uses it, and the startup ecosystem would flounder without it — but the idealistic pull of OSS remains strong. People join because they want a communal project as much as they simply want to build something. However, trying to generate consensus is incredibly frustrating and the effort is often fruitless. Eventually, project maintainers must make and enforce decisions.

Currently there’s a big hubbub among contributors to the programming language Ruby about whether to adopt a code of conduct. It seems silly to me — the human race invented rules for a reason — but people are very distressed. The worry is that controversial developers will be attacked unfairly, that they’ll fall prey to petty “SJW” vendettas. On the other hand, proponents of codes of conduct point out that articulating anti-abuse norms is powerful.

Ideologically, I tend to side with codes of conduct, but I also believe in self-determination. If the majority of the Ruby community doesn’t want one, and open-source initiatives are specifically meant to be defined by participants… what’s the fair solution? Should a project maintainer decide one way or the other, as I indicated above?

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