Douglas Adams told us that the answer to the question of Life, the Universe and Everything was “42.” The openSUSE team wants you to start thinking that by this fall, you’ll find that you’ll find the answers to your computing problems in its “42” release.
Actually, the number represents the project in the Open Build Service, but it certainly resonates nicely with the “geeko” community that openSUSE has been building over the last decade.
Release manager Stephan “Coolo”” Kulow says the first milestone will be ready “soon.” I’ll be psyched to see it.
The panel discussion among Internet pioneers started innocently enough, with Vint Cerf and David Farber reminiscing about the early days of the Internet and the other titans of personal computing. Engrossing stuff, even if I knew most of it before.
The Smithsonian National Museum of American History and the Internet Society hosted a panel last week called “The Internet Age: Founders to Future” last week. The panel featured Cerf, Farber, Mitchell Baker of Mozilla, and Sebastian Thrum of Udacity.
Resolving the Digital Divide
When the discussion turned to the future, though, things got a little testy. Farber and Cerf were talking about how about the global digital divide is being bridged by the increasing use of mobile phones in the underdeveloped world. This is a common meme among Internet optimists.
If you watch the recording (below, at about 57 minutes), you’ll notice Baker start to fidget in her chair when this came up. If this were a grade school classroom, she’d probably start raising her hand in the air for recognition. Something is missing in this narrative.
“I don’t think technology’s enough,” Mitchell said. “It’s so comfortable to say ‘We have mobile phones, so the digital divide is just going away on its own. The bottom of the pyramid, the two billion people who are starving will magically be able to get phones and access and a data plan – everything is going to open up.’”
Mitchell argued that progress in technology has a “positive direction,” but tech alone will not resolve every human problem. “It will continue to be an act of will of nation-states and individuals to assist in (fixing) not just the digital divide but the starvation divide. Just having a cheap phone is not going to fix that!”
Cerf said that Mitchell had a legitimate point, but noted that poor people have used smartphones as a way of transferring value. Making electronic payments through phones allow people to avoid some of the corruption involved with cash payments. “Don’t blame starvation on the Internet.”
Mitchell said that “Human beings still have to care and make some effort with our policies and our wealth distribution and social stigmas in order to address the divides.“ A rising tide may lift all boats, but you may still have “haves and have-nots.”
Tech as tool for democracy
Farber said the Internet can function as an important tool for making change. “Without technology, the little people are separated. … We provide the vehicle for people to get together.” Thrum had raised a similar point earlier, citing the 2011 Egyptian uprising and the Arab Spring as the prime example of the Net as a democratic tool.
Let me interject here: Egypt represents another common analogy when talking about the connection between the Internet and activism, but fails to note a key fact. While Hosni Mubarak is not president of Egypt anymore, the military was really the power in Egypt at the beginning of the decade, and has returned to power now. Far too many of the youthful revolutionaries of Tahrir Square are either quiet, in jail, or in exile.
Women on Tech Panels For the Win?
Now I don’t want to suggest that Cerf (who helped create TCP/IP), Farber (an originator of academic use of the Net) or Thrum are the bad guys here, but this discussion doesn’t happen without Mitchell Baker. She may not have the “founder of the Internet” credentials of the others, but she may have a better sense of the real social value of the Internet and associated technologies.
It’s easy to view the mass adoption of the Internet and the changes that personal computing have made with a sense of triumphalism. It’s truly been amazing! Just the same, Mitchell had it right — technology by itself just doesn’t cut it. People have to be empowered for the world to change. As I’ve said before, Democracy is not a spectator sport.
Bringing a different set of (non-engineering) life experiences, and being involved in one of the bigger open source projects, Baker forced the founders to think about the role of human beings in building democracy. Putting the whole Internet (not just the sites Mark Zuckerberg approves of) on cheap cell phones is important, but the Internet is just a tool for people to expand and exercise their power.
Been off work at my day job this week, in part to catch up on various writing projects (including updating Notes). Things were going pretty well until this morning, when ITWorld sent me their daily newsletter with the subject line “Trouble in Kubuntu-land.” The newsletter linked to this story by Swapnil Bhartiya. The Ubuntu Community Council (UCC) had apparently decided that one of its members, Jonathan Riddell, had said or done something so unspeakable and untoward toward other Council members that he was asked to “step down” as (a?) leader of the Kubuntu Project. There are two weird things about this pronouncement:
Riddell’s only “leadership position” within Kubuntu is as a member of Kubuntu Council (KC, the organizational equivalent of the Ubuntu Community Council)
The Kubuntu Council (incidentally, elected by the community) was never consulted or notified that its representative was crossing any line in the sand
A fight over transparency
As best as anyone can tell, this fight is rooted in Riddell’s attempt to find out what happens to voluntary contributions made when people download an Ubuntu release from Ubuntu.com. The short answer appears that it mostly goes to support travel by developers to conferences and trade shows. Riddell wonders if Kubuntu and the other official flavors of Ubuntu get any portion of those proceeds.
Tuesday, the Kubuntu Council had a meeting over IRC to discuss the Ubuntu Community Council’s demand. You can find the entire discussion here. Michael Hall from the UCC attended to answer questions about the UCC action. KC members kept asking Hall variations on the same theme: What did Riddell do or say that merited this discipline? Hall’s fairly consistent answer: There are private emails that one or more UCC members received that have not been made public. You should ask them; they must be really bad.
Forgive this personal aside. Almost from the first day I worked with Linux, and especially since Corel Linux (my first distro) died, I used to say that the folks who could put a decent installer and update system on Debian Linux would win the consumer desktop OS wars once and for all. When Mark Shuttleworth and his band of Ubuntu developers succeeded in doing that, I was excited.
I had long committed myself to openSUSE and the KDE desktop (Ubuntu ran GNOME as its default), so I didn’t immediately jump away from that commitment. I did, however, put an early version of Ubuntu on the first laptop I ever owned. I learned a bit about GNOME that way. For everyday use, I stuck with openSUSE. After awhile, I stopped upgrading Ubuntu and moved away from it entirely.
Jump to 2013, and Shuttleworth announces Canonical’s plan to build software for phones and tablets, followed quickly by the (in)famous Ubuntu Edge Indiegogo crowdfunding effort. The vision sounded terrific to me, and I even pledged the campaign to get one of those beauties that were never to be. Some folks (looking at you, Larry Cafiero) warned me that I might be heartbroken, but I pressed on anyway. I even got a contract to write a book about Ubuntu Touch. That project was put on hold a year or so ago, but you can still see the cover on Goodreads!.
I threw myself into the project with glee and perseverance, getting an Ubuntu account, signing up for the Documentation team, downloading the Software Development Kit. I even started a Notes from the Ubuntuverse blog on my author site. That didn’t last long.
In retrospect, you have to wonder if this business is a second round of punishing Kubuntu and its most public face.
In 2013, Benjamin Kerensa withdrew from Ubuntu development to make his primary contributions to Mozilla. Perhaps it was uniquely appropriate then that the Kubuntu Council approved his membership in their community in the other main order of business Tuesday.
The Kubuntu Council urged the UCC to reconsider its sanctions against Riddell. If Ubuntu (and Self Appointed Benevolent Dictator For Life Mark Shuttleworth) doesn’t back off, there’s a real possibility that Kubuntu may leave the *Buntu plantation for greener pastures (like Debian). I’d support that.
Today, Ubuntu phones are available in Europe and China. If the phone is ever released in North America, I may be asked to restart my book project. Depending on what reality presents at that time, I may agree to do that, but unquestionably with much diminished enthusiasm.
In the meantime, I’m throwing myself wholeheartedly back into participation in the openSUSE community, not just as an observer and user.
It’s an important day in the history of the Internet. Despite enormous pressure from the Big Media corporations, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) bowed to the democratic pressure of millions of Internet users. These users demanded strong protections against “slow lanes” for their network connections, and to preserve equal protection for all content traveling across the public Internet.
Speaking of confusing, some of the arguments made today against the plan were … interesting. For months, Republican legislators have been denouncing a plan to change the way Internet domain names are allocated around the world as “Obama’s plan to give away the Internet.” Did you notice how today, some opponents of strong net neutrality rules called this “Obama’s secret plan to control the Internet.”
It’s worth spending some time watching the FCC meeting video. The FCC’s two opponents of strong net neutrality spent much of their debate time defending assorted companies that would be hurt by these rules. They also suggested that the public had not been heard on the matter. It was almost a breathtaking attempt to pretend that the 4 million responses to the original (far less neutral) rule presented last May didn’t exist.
That said, I agree with two things Ajit Pai and Mike O’Rielly said. There should have been more public hearings where ordinary people could speak to the commissioners directly. Like other advocates for net neutrality, I’m pretty confident we would have won that battle too.
I also don’t exactly see why Commission chair Tom Wheeler couldn’t have released the new proposal a few days ago. It’s a new era; people expect transparency. And there’s no doubt few minds would have changed in the process.
Time to Celebrate
I loved this tweet from Anil Dash:
One year ago, every person I know who understands the FCC or internet policy considered net neutrality dead. But the people were heard.
Corporations just don’t lie down when they’ve been defeated. We still have the best Congress money can buy. Courts too. As the founders used to say, “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” So connect with the groups above, and we’ll win more victories!
If you’re a nonfiction writer (or even a fiction writer who addresses real-world topics), you need to keep up with the latest news in your field of expertise. @Robin Goodtells us about Defcomb, a new curation tool that finds material on the web relevant to your oh-so-specific needs. I look forward to trying it.
That’s not what I’m on about today, though. There’s a convergence of coincidences to tell you about.
Consent of the Networked
Sunday, I finished Consent of the Networked, Rebecca MacKinnon’s book from 2012 (and an update for the 2013 paperback edition) about the “worldwide struggle for Internet freedom.” MacKinnon is a former CNN correspondent in China that now manages Global Voices Online. This is a good, if occasionally dated, outline of the various battlegrounds facing human right activists when taking their struggles online.
As is typical of these types of books, it closes out with a manifesto intended to describe the perfect online world. These are usually quite inspiring, but lacking in ways of getting from here to there. While I don’t agree with everything MacKinnon wrote in these pages, she does indeed realize that without a social movement, we won’t ever get her manifesto realized, or anyone else’s vision. Democracy isn’t a spectator sport.
(Something else I’m not on about today, but might be some other time: In a perfect world, the global Internet might be rightfully managed by a global organization that might have a name like the International Telecommunications Union. MacKinnon persuades me that in this world, that’s a really bad idea.)
Monday, I was going to begin working my way through the list to find places for information and the best places to channel my own energies, but then this piece on Medium showed up in my news feed. It’s called “Building an Internet Movement from the Bottom Up” by Tim Karr, one of the leaders of Free Press. Fabulous essay, with a couple of very important reminders:
It’s a fight not playing out between smartphone packing protesters and security forces, but among the Internet governance community — a globe-trotting tribe of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), international agencies, world leaders and corporate CEOs.
For as long as the World Wide Web has existed these groups have debated its control and administration. What rules should govern a network that transcends national boundaries to connect people everywhere?
It’s a discussion — replete with international agency acronyms and jargon (“multistakeholderism” anyone?) — that leaves the rest of us scratching our heads.
The coalition is organized on the belief that the Internet must evolve in the public interest with the full participation of the billions of Internet users who aren’t in the mix at Davos.
It plans to build a global network of grassroots groups that can better organize and amplify the concerns of those people often on the wrong side of the digital divide. The group plans also to convene the first Internet Social Forum later this year.
And hey, there’s going to be another manifesto developed! But not just out of a single mind, this will be (theoretically) the result of a crowdsourced process over the coming months. With a global coalition of organizations that (theoretically) will commit to realizing it.
I hope there’s some way for folks like me to get involved in this process, though. Seems focused (for now) on organizations.
Will follow this process closely. Let’s make it work!
Some random and probably disjointed thoughts on Wednesday’s events in Paris. As a onetime journalist (and a lifelong news junkie) I’m still a little numb.
Satire is a hard business. Just ask Jon Stewart, Bassem Youssef, or any Onion writer. Editorial cartooning is even harder, as it is part of the point to draw a hard and unmistakable line. I won’t pretend that I’ve ever read Charlie Hebdo, in translation or in French. Yet it’s clear that we must stand in solidarity with them, for they were brave and uncompromising.
My hometown newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, had two editorial cartoonists for years after the morning and afternoon papers merged. A year or so ago, they dumped the last full-timer, in favor of two syndicated editorial cartoons a day (usually one just left-of-center and the other just right-of-center). A month ago, they dropped the separate op-ed page and drastically cut the number of letters they published. Oh, and there’s just one syndicated cartoon left. It will probably be on the right side of free expression, but in a relatively bland and inoffensive way.