Nobody cares about independent digital infrastructure

Published on 2024-01-21

CW: reference to self help literature (god why am I doing this again)

When I talk with people who do activism and we're doing the usual exchange of personal values, I'll often say something to the effect of "I'm interested in independent digital infrastructure." This is, I think, a very pragmatic way of saying that I advocate for free software. What makes the "independent digital infrastructure" characterization more "pragmatic" is the fact that it focuses less on the ethics of free software and more on the value it adds to a community.

Independent digital infrastructure:

  • Decreases your reliance on what I'd be tempted to call the "digital state," or the cluster of institutions that control most of our lives online
  • Increases community engagement and involvement in the systems we interact with on a regular basis
  • Provides resilience
  • Is generally better for secure communication and operations, even if that security is in obscurity

The thing is, nobody gives a shit.

I've tried encouraging others to care about these things many times over the course of my life, and I've always gotten the sense that people feel like I'm making a scene when I do. Which is strange; lefty folks tend to be very responsive to bleeding hearts like myself. But nonetheless, it always feels like my concerns are left unheard. Even more strangely, the right cares so much about this sort of thing that I almost feel like I'm giving people red flags when I bring it up.

I've been trying to understand why for many years, because these things do really matter to me. I think I might have finally figured it out.

On an individual level, we as technologist-activists have this sort of double-edged sword of learned helplessness. On one hand, a lot of powerful people gain and retain a lot of power by teaching people that they are essentially powerless in the face of technology. They're taught that they will never understand coding, or the command line, or what it means for something to be a file and why that's important, because that's the realm of the technology specialist. Thus, we design software for people who have literally no idea how anything about these machines they interact with all the time work, reinforcing this assumption.

On the other hand, we the technology specialists are really bad at helping people figure this stuff out! A big part of it is the fact that computers today genuinely are extremely complex devices with so many layers of abstraction that, more often than not, we also don't understand how this stuff works under the hood. As a result, lots of us (such as myself) turn to this older way of computing, with fewer abstractions, working closer to the metal. We use Gemini. We install Linux. We join the permacomputing channel on IRC (one day I will overcome social anxiety I swear...). This is probably the kind of computing we on the technology left should be pushing, but it's also a fundamentally different kind of computing than the vast majority of people understand. They have less of a framework to understand it with each year the app-centric model of iOS increases its grip on modern computing culture.

This problem does have a pretty straightforward and immediate solution, though: we the technology left need to take it upon ourselves to act as consultants and administrators for those who need it the most.

But then we run into the larger, social problem: why should those whom we feel "need it the most" care? As I said earlier, it seems like they often don't, and while I'm trying to become a better technology educator, I'm not confident I could make a strong enough case. Certainly not without breaking out my cork board, tacks and string.

The left faces many crises today. More than I can count. We have so many crises to which we ought to be dedicating our emotional bandwidth that it feels silly to care about something like using Jitsi over Zoom, or XMPP over Instagram DMs.

I used to be into leadership philosophy when I was younger. Lots of what they had to say was kind of tautological, but one of those tautologies that really stuck with me was this idea of fire fighting. One thing that comes up a lot is this thing called the Eisenhower Decision Matrix:

                    Urgent       Not urgent
              |               |              |
Important     |  Emergencies  |   Planning   |
              |               |              |
              |               |              |
Not important | Interruptions | Time-wasters |

It's a four quadrant matrix. The top, we label "urgent" and "not urgent", and down the side, we label "important" and "not important." The idea is that all activities fall into one of these four categories:

  • Quadrant 1 is for things that are important and urgent, i.e. fires that need to be put out. Global cataclysmic events that all our politicians are ignoring, for example
  • Quadrant 2 is for things that are important, but not urgent. In general, things that we ought to be doing, like building a strong foundation for our communities, but often don't get to, because of how we're spending our time in the other three quadrants.
  • Quadrant 3 is for things that need to be dealt with but should probably get delegated
  • Quadrant 4 is for things that don't really matter and should be avoided.

I've written about this a bit before, but I'm starting to worry we're losing our communities because of our over-investment in quadrant 1 activities:

What the left has to learn from cults

"Independent digital infrastructure" is squarely a quadrant 2 activity. Self help gurus and leadership philosophers would argue that we should be refocusing a lot of our energy towards quadrant 2 activities, because they are what helps to ensure that fewer things fall into quadrant 1 (say, for example, Discord decides one day that all servers with over 100 people need to pay 59.99$ a month or face immediate deletion).

The thing is, while this might fly in many organizations, the kinds of emergencies we deal with on the left aren't purely organizational. We're not trying to push through to the next quarter; we're trying to make sure our countries aren't actively contributing to the death of an immeasurable number of people. That's what "independent digital infrastructure" has to compete with.

In the face of this, I don't think that things like independent digital infrastructure should necessarily matter less. If we don't focus on building sustainable communities today, then there might not be anyone to stand up for the things we care about tomorrow. But that does lend a lot of credence to the people who don't care. I get it. For the better or the worse, Zoom works, and it's what we're using now.

I think that more than anything, what that means for us is that we need to make sure that when we're pushing for things like independent digital infrastructure, we're not adding any undue burden on the already extremely burdened people who are working to fight those crises. We should make sure transitioning to healthier, more sustainable models of virtual communities is as seamless as possible.

That's not easy to do, but I'm not sure if there's really anything else that can be done. It's extremely obvious to me that these things matter, but if it's not obvious to others, then I can't expect them to wake up one day and change their minds. For the better or the worse, that's our job.

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