Free as in … ? My LibrePlanet 2016 talk

Below is the talk I gave at LibrePlanet 2016. The tl;dr version:

  • Learning how political philosophy has evolved since the 1670s shows that the FSF’s four freedoms are good, but not sufficient.
  • In particular, the “capability approach” pioneered by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum is applicable to software, and shows us how to think about improving the capability of people.
  • There are a bunch of ways that free software, as a movement, could refocus on liberating people, not code.

I did not talk about it in the talk (given the audience), but I think this approach is broadly applicable to every software developer who wants to make the world a better place (including usability-inclined developers, open web/standards folks, etc.), not just FSF members.

I was not able to use my speaker notes during the talk itself, so these may not match terribly well with what I actually said on Saturday – hopefully they’re a bit more coherent. Video will be posted here when I have it. [Update: video here.]

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Most of you will recognize this phrase as borrowed from the Wikimedia Foundation. Think on it for a few seconds, and how it differs from the Four Freedoms.

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I’d like to talk today about code freedom, and what it can learn from modern political philosophy.

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Last time I was at Libre Planet, I was talking with someone in a hallway, and I mentioned that Libre Office had crashed several times while I was on the plane, losing some data and making me redo some slides. He insisted that it was better to have code freedom, even when things crashed in a program that I could not fix without reading C++ comments in German. I pointed out, somewhat successfully, that software that was actually reliable freed me to work on my actual slides.

We were both talking about “freedom” but we clearly had different meanings for the word. This was obviously unsatisfying for both of us – out common language/vocabulary failed us.

This is sadly not a rare thing: probably many of us have had the same conversation with parents, friends, co-workers, etc.

So today I wanted to dig into “freedom” – what does it mean and what frameworks do we hang around it.

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So why do we need to talk about Freedom and what it means? Ultimately, freedom is confusing. When card-carrying FSF members use it, we mean a very specific thing – the four freedoms. When lots of other people use it, they mean… well, other things. We’ll get into it in more detail soon, but suffice to say that many people find Apple and Google freeing. And if that’s how they feel, then we’ve got a very big communication gap.

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I’m not a political philosopher anymore; to the extent I ever was one, it ended when I graduated from my polisci program and… immediately went to work at Ximian, here in Boston.

My goal here today is to show you that when political philosophers talk about freedom, they also have some of the same challenges we do, stemming from some of the same historical reasons. They’ve also gotten, in recent years, to some decent solutions – and we’ll discuss how those might apply to us.

Apologies if any of you are actually political philosophers: in trying to cram this into 30 minutes, we’re going to take some very, very serious shortcuts!

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Let’s start with a very brief introduction to political philosophy.

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Philosophers of all stripes tend to end up arguing about what is “good”; political philosophers, in particular, tend to argue about what is “just”. It turns out that this is a very slippery concept that has evolved over time. I’ll use it somewhat interchangeably with “freedom” in this talk, which is not accurate, but will do for our purposes.

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Ultimately, what makes a philosopher a political philosopher is that once they’ve figured out what justice might be, they then argue about what human systems are the best ways to get us to justice.

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In some sense, this is very much an engineering problem: given the state of the world we’ve got, what does a better world look like, and how do we get there? Unlike our engineering problems, of course, it deals with the messy aspects of human nature: we have no compilers, no test-driven-development, etc.

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So before Richard Stallman, who were the modern political philosophers?

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Your basic “intro to political philosophy” class can have a few starting points. You can do Plato, or you can do Hobbes (the philosopher, not the tiger), but today we’ll start with John Locke. He worked in the late 1600s.

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Locke is perhaps most famous in the US for having been gloriously plagiarized by Thomas Jefferson’s “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness”. Before that, though, he argued that to understand what justice is, you have to look at what people are missing when they don’t have government. Borrowing from earlier British philosophers (mostly Hobbes), he said (in essence) that when people have no government, everyone steals from – and kills – everyone else. So what is justice? Well, it’s not stealing and killing!

This is not just a source for Jefferson to steal from; it is perhaps the first articulation of the idea that every human being (at least, every white man) is entitled to certain inalienable rights – what are often called the natural rights.

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This introduces the idea that individual freedom (to live, to have health, etc.) is a key part of justice.

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Locke was forward-thinking enough that he was exiled to the Netherlands at one point. But he was also a creature of his time, and concluded that monarchy could be part of a just system of government, as long as the people “consented” by, well, not immigrating.

This is in some sense pretty backwards, since in 1600s Europe, emigration isn’t exactly easy. But it is also pretty forward looking – his most immediate British predecessor, Hobbes, basically argued that Kings were great. So Locke is one of the first to argue that what the people want (another aspect of what we now think of as individual freedom) is important.

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It is important to point out that Locke’s approach is what we’d now call a negative approach to rights: the system (the state, in this case) is obligated to protect you, but it isn’t obliged to give you anything.

Coming from the late 1600s, this is not a crazy perspective – most governments don’t even do these things. For Locke to say “the King should not take your stuff” is pretty radical; to have said “and it should also give you health care” would have also made him the inventor of science fiction. And the landed aristocracy are typically fans!

(Also, apologies to my typographically-sensitive friends; kerning of italicized fonts in Libre Office is poor and I got lazy around here about manually fixing it.)

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But this is where Locke starts to fall down to modern ears: if you’re not one of the landed aristocracy; if you’ve got no stuff for the King to take, Locke isn’t doing much for you. And it turns out there are a whole lot of people in 1600s England without much stuff to take.
So let’s fast forward 150+ years.

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You all know who Marx is; probably many of you have even been called Marxists at one point or another!

Marx is complicated, and his historical legacy even more so. Let’s put most of that aside for today, and focus on one particular idea we’ve inherited from Marx.

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For our purposes, out of all of Marx, we can focus on the key insight that people other than the propertied class can have needs.(This is not really his insight; but he popularizes it.) I

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Having recognized that humans have needs, Marx then goes on to propose that, in a just society, the individual might not be the only one who has a responsibility to provide those needs – the state, at least when we reach a “higher phase” of economic and moral development, should also provide.

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This sounds pretty great on paper, but it is important to grok that Marx argues that his perfect system will happen only when we’ve reached such a high level of economic development that no one will need to work, so everyone will work only on what they love. In other words, he ignores the scarcity we face in the real world. He also ignores inequality – since the revolution will have washed away all starting differences. Obviously, taken to this extreme, this has led to a lot of bad outcomes in the world – which is what gives “marxism” its bad name.

But it is also important to realize that this is better than Locke (who isn’t particularly concerned with inequality), and in practice the idea (properly moderated!) has led to the modern social welfare state. So it is a useful tool in the modern philosophical toolkit.

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Fast forward again, another 100 years. Our scene moves down the street, to Harvard. Perhaps the two most important works of political philosophy of the 20th century are written and published within four years of each other, further up Mass Avenue from MIT.

John Rawls publishes his Theory of Justice in 1971; Robert Nozick follows up with his Anarchy, the State, and Utopia in 1974.

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Rawls and Nozick, and their most famous books, differ radically in what they think of as justice, and what systems they think lead to the greatest justice. (Nozick is the libertarian’s libertarian; Rawls more of a welfare-state type.) Their systems, and the differences between them, are out of our scope today (though both are fascinating!).

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However, both agree, in their ways, that any theory of a just world must grapple with the core fact that modern societies have a variety of different people, with different skills, interests, backgrounds, etc. (This shouldn’t be surprising, given that both were writing in the aftermath of the 60s, which had made so clear to many that our societies were pretty deeply unjust to a lot of people.)

This marks the beginning of the modern age of political philosophy: Locke didn’t care much about differences between people; Marx assumed it away. Nozick and Rawls can be said, effectively, to mark the point when political philosophy starts taking difference seriously.

But that was 40 years ago – what has happened since then?

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So that brings us to the 1990s, and also to 2016. (If you haven’t already figured it out, political philosophy tends to move pretty slowly.)

The new-ish hotness in political philosophy is something called capability theory. The first work is put forward by Amartya Sen, an Indian economist working with (among others) the United Nations on how to focus their development work. Martha Nussbaum then picked up the ball, putting in a great deal of work to systematize it.

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When Sen starts working on what became capability theory, he’s a development economist trying to help understand how to help improve the lives of his fellow Indian citizens. And he’s worried that a huge focus on GDP is not leading to very good outcomes. He turns to political theory, and it doesn’t help him: it is focused on very abstract systems. John Locke saying “life, liberty, property” and “sometimes monarchs are OK” doesn’t help him target the UN’s investment dollars.

So his question becomes: how do I create a theory of What is Just that actually helps guide decisions in the real world? Capability theory, in other words, is ultimately pragmatic.

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To put it another way, you can think of the capability approach as an attempt to figure out what effective freedom is: how do we take freedom out of textbooks and into something that really empowers people?

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One of the key flaws for Sen of existing theories was that they talked about giving people at worst, negative rights (protecting their rights to retain property they didn’t have) and at best, giving them resources (giving them things or training they couldn’t take advantage of). He found this unconvincing, because in his experience India’s constitution gave all citizens those formal rights, but often denied them those rights in practice, through poverty, gender discrimination, caste discrimination, etc.

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And so from this observation we have the name of the approach: it focuses on what, pragmatically, people need to be capable of acting freely.

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Some examples may be helpful here to explain what Sen and Nussbaum are getting at.

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For example, if all men and women have the same formal access to education, but women get fewer job callbacks after college than men with identical resumes, or men refuse to care for children and aging parents, then it seems unlikely that we can really claim to have a just society.

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Somalia, circa 1995-2000, was, on the face of it, a libertarian paradise: it gave you a lot of freedom to start businesses! No minimum wage, no EPA.

But it turns out you need more than “freedom from government interference” to run a business: you have to have a lot of other infrastructure as well. (Remember, here, Locke’s “negative” rights: government not stopping you, v. government supporting you.)

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These examples suggest that answering political philosopher question #1 (“what is justice?”) requires more than just measuring access to resources. What you want to know to understand whether a system is just, you have to measure whether all people have the opportunity to get to the important goals.

In other words, do they have the capability to act?

This is the core insight that the capabilities approach is grounded in: it is helpful, but not enough, to say “someone has the natural rights” (Locke) or “some time in the future everyone will have the same opportunity” (Marx).

(Is any of this starting to ring a bell?)

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Capability approach is, again, very pragmatic, and comes from a background of trying to allocate scarce development resources in the real world, rather than a philosopher’s cozy university office. So if you’re trying to answer the political philosopher’s question (“what system”), you need to pick and choose a few capabilities to focus on, and figure out what system will support those capabilities.

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Again, an example might be helpful here to show how picking the right things to focus on can be important when you’re aiming to build a system that supports human capability.

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If you focus on only one dimension, you’re going to get things confused. When Sen was beginning his work, the development community tended to focus exclusively on GDP. Comparing the Phillippines and South Africa by this number would have told you to focus your efforts on the Philippines.

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But  one of the most basic requirements to effective freedom – to supporting people’s capability to act – is being alive! When we look at it through that lens, we pretty quickly see that South Africa is worth more energy. It’s critical to look through that broader lens to figure out whether your work is actually building human freedom.

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This is, perhaps, the most contentious area of capability theory – it’s where writing is being done across a variety of disciplines, including economics, political philosophy, sociology, and development. This writing has split into two main areas: the pragmatists, who just want to figure out useful tools that help them improve the world, and the theorists, who want to ground the theory in philosophy (sometimes as far back as Aristotle).

This is a great place to raise Martha Nussbaum again: she’s done the most to bring theoretical rigor to the capability approach. (Some people call Sen’s work the “capability approach”, to show that it is just a way of thinking about the problem; and Nussbaum’s work “capability theory”, to show that it is a more rigorous approach.)

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I have bad news: there is no one way of doing this. Some approaches can include:

  • Local nuance: What is valued and important in one culture may not be in another; or different obstacles may exist in different places and times. Nussbaum’s work particularly focuses on this, interviewing people both to find criteria that are particularly relevant to them, but also to attempt to identify global values.
  • Democracy: Some of Sen’s early research showed that democracies were better at getting people food than non-democracies of similar levels of economic development, leading to avoidance of famines. So “what people prioritize based on their votes” is a legitimate way to understand the right capabilities to focus on.
  • Data: you’ll almost never see a table like the one I just showed you in most political philosophy! The capability approach embraces the use of data to supplement our intuitions and research.
  • Old-fashioned philosophizing: it can be perfectly appropriate to sit down, as Richard did, and noodle over our problems. I tend to think that this is particularly important when we’re identifying future capabilities – which is of course our focus here.

Each of these can be seen as overlapping ways of identifying the best issues to identify – all of them will be useful and valid in different domains.

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Shared theme of that last slide? Thinking primarily about people. Things are always a means to an end in the capability approach – you might still want to measure them as an important stepping stone to helping people (like GDP!) but they’re never why you do something.

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There is no one right way to pick which capabilities to focus on, which drives lots of philosophers mad. We’ll get into this in more detail soon – when I talk about applying this to software.

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Probably the bottom line: if you want to know how to get to a more just system, you want to ask about the capabilitiesof the humans who are participating in that system. Freedom is likely to be one of the top things people want – but it’s a means, not the end.

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So now we’ve come to the end of the philosophy lecture. What does this mean for those of us who care about software?

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So, again, what do political philosophers care about?

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The FSF’s four freedoms try to do the right thing and help build a more just world.

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If you don’t have some combination of time, money, or programming skills, it isn’t entirely clear the four freedoms do a lot for you.free-as-in-what- - 48

The four freedoms are negative rights: things no one can take away from you. And that has been terrific for our elites: Locke’s landed aristocracy is our Software as a Service provider, glad the King can’t take away his right to run MySQL. But maybe not so much for most human beings.
free-as-in-what- - 49This brings us to our second question – what system?

Inspired by the capability approach, what I would argue that we need is a focus on effective freedom. And that will need not just a change to our focus, but to our systems as well – we need to be pragmatic and inclusive.

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So let me offer four suggestions for free software inspired by the capability approach.

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We need to start by having empathy for all our users, since our goal should be software that liberates all people.

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Like the bureaucrat who increases GDP while his people die young, if we write billions of lines of code, but people are not empowered, we’ve failed. Empathy for others will help us remember that.

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Sen, Nussbaum, and the capability approach also remind us that to effectively provide freedom to people we need to draw opinions and information from the broadest possible number of people. That can simply take the form of going and listening regularly to why your friends like the proprietary software they use, or ideally listening to people who aren’t like you about why they don’t use free software. Or it can take the form of surveys or even data-driven research. But it must start with listening to others. Scratching our own itch is not enough if we want to claim we’re providing freedom.

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Or to put it another way: our communities need to be as empowering as our licenses. There are lots of great talks this weekend on how to do that – you should go to them, and we should treat that as philosophically as important as our licenses.

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I think it is important to point out that I think the FSF is doing a lot of great work in this area – this is the most diversity I’ve seen at Libre Planet, and the new priorities list covers a lot of great ground here.

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But it is also a bad sign that at the new “Open Source and Feelings” conference, which is specifically aimed at building a more diverse FOSS movement, they chose to use the apolitical “open” rather than “free”. That suggests the FSF and free software more generally still have a lot of work to do to shed their reputation as being dogmatic and unwelcoming.

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Which brings me to #2: just as we have to listen to others, we have to be self-critical about our own shortcomings, in order to grapple with the broad range of interests those users might have.

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At the begining of this talk, I talked about my last visit to Libre Planet, and how hard it was to have a conversation about the disempowerment I felt when Libre Office crashed. The assumption of the very well-intentioned young man I was talking to was that of course I was more free when I had access to code. And in a very real way, that wasn’t actually true – proprietary software that didn’t crash was actually more empowering to me than libre software that did crash. And this isn’t just about crashing/not-crashing.

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Ed Snowden reminded us this morning that Android is freely-licensed, but that doesn’t mean it gives them the capability to live a secure life.

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Again, here, FSF has always done some of the right thing! You all recognize this quote: it’s from freedom zero. We often take pride in this, and we should!

But we also often say “we care about users” but only test what the license is. I’ve never seen someone say “this is not free, because it is impossible to use” – it is too easy, and too frequent, to say “well, the license says you can run the program as you wish, so it passes freedom zero”. We should treat that as a failure to be humble about.

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Humility means admitting our current. unidimensional systems aren’t great at empowering people. The sooner we admit that freedom is complex, and goes beyond licensing, the quicker we can build better systems.

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The third theme of advice I’d give is to think about impact. Again, this stems from the fundamental pragmatism of the capability approach. A philosophy that is internally consistent, but doesn’t make a difference for people, is not a useful philosophy. We need to take that message to heart.

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Mako Hill’s quantitative research has shown us that libre code doesn’t necessarily mean quality code, or sucessful projects. If we want to impact users, we have to understand why our core development tools are no longer best-in-class, and fix them, or develop new models to replace them.

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We built CVS, SVN, and git, and we used those tools to build some of the most widely-used pieces of software on earth. But it took the ease of use of github to make this accessible to millions of developers.

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Netsplit.de is a search engine for IRC services. Even if both of these numbers are off by a factor of two (say, because of private networks missing from the IRC count, and if Slack is inflating user counts), it still suggests Slack will have more users than IRC this year. We need to think about why that is, and why free software like IRC hasn’t had the impact we’d like it to.

If we’re serious about spreading freedom, this sort of “post-mortem” of our successes and failures is not optional – it is a mandatory part of our commitment to freedom.

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I’ve mentioned that democracy is one way of choosing what capabilities to focus on, and is typically presumed in serious analyses of the capability approach – the mix of human empowerment and (in Sen’s analysis) better pragmatic impact make it a no-brainer.

A free software focused on impact could make free licensing a similar no-brainer in the software world.

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Dan Gillmor told us this morning that “I came for the technical excellence and stayed for the freedom”: as both he and Edward Snowden said this morning, we have to have broaden our definition of technical excellence to include usability and pragmatic empowerment. When we do that, our system – the underlying technology of freedom – can lead to real change.

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This is the last, and hardest, takeaway I’ll have for the day.

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We’ve learned from the capability approach that freedom is nuanced, complex, and human-focused. The four freedoms, while are brief, straightforward, and easy to apply, but those may not be virtues if our goal is to increase user freedom.

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As I’ve said a few times, the four freedoms are like telling you the king can’t take your property: it’s not a bad thing, but it also isn’t very helpful if you don’t have any property.

We need to re-interpret “run the program as you wish” in a more positive light, expanding our definitions to speak to the concerns about usability and security that users have.

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The capability approach provides us with questions – where do we focus? – but not answers. So it suggests we need to go past licensing, but doesn’t say where those other areas of focus might be. Here are some suggestions for what directions we might evolve free software in.

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Learning from Martha Nussbaum and usability researchers, we could work with the next generation of software users to understand what they want, need, and deserve from effective software freedom.

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We could learn from other organizations, like UNICEF, who have built design and development principles. The graphic here is from UNICEF’s design principles, where they talk about how they will build software that improves freedom for their audience.

It includes talk about source code – as part of a coherent whole of ten principles, not an end in and of itself.

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Many parts of our community (including FSF!) have adopted codes of conduct or similar policies. We could draw on the consistent themes in these documents to identify key values that should take their place alongside the four freedoms.

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Finally, we can vote with our code: we should be contributing where we feel we can have the most impact on user freedom, not just code freedom. That is a way of giving our impact: we can give our time only to projects that empower all users. In my ideal world, you come away determined to focus on projects that empower all people, not just programmers.

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Ultimately, this is my vision, and why I remain involved in free software – I want to see people who are liberated. I hope after this talk you all understand why, and are motivated to help it happen.
Thanks for listening.

Further reading:

Image sources and licenses (deck itself is CC BY-SA 4.0):

 

 

Reinventing FOSS user experiences: a bibliography

There is a small genre of posts around re-inventing the interfaces of popular open source software; I thought I’d collect some of them for future reference:

Recent:

Older:

The first two (Drupal, WordPress) are particularly strong examples of the genre because they directly grapple with the difficulty of change for open source projects. I’m sure that early Firefox and VE discussions also did that, but I can’t find them easily – pointers welcome.

Other suggestions welcome in comments.

Software that liberates people: feels about FSF@30 and OSFeels@1

tl;dr: I want to liberate people; software is a (critical) tool to that end. There is a conference this weekend that understands that, but I worry it isn’t FSF’s.

Feelings are facts, by wrote, CC BY 2.0

This morning, social network chatter reminded me of FSF‘s 30th birthday celebration. These travel messages were from friends who I have a great deal of love and respect for, and represent a movement to which I essentially owe my adult life.

Despite that, I had lots of mixed feels about the event. I had a hard time capturing why, though.

While I was still processing these feelings, late tonight, Twitter reminded me of a new conference also going on this weekend, appropriately called Open Source and Feelings. (I badly wanted to submit a talk for it, but a prior commitment kept me from both it and FSF@30.)

I saw the OSFeels agenda for the first time tonight. It includes:

  • Design and empathy (learning to build open software that empowers all users, not just the technically sophisticated)
  • Inclusive development (multiple talks about this, including non-English, family, and people of color) (so that the whole planet can access, and participate in developing, open software)
  • Documentation (so that users understand open software)
  • Communications skills (so that people feel welcome and engaged to help develop open software)

This is an agenda focused on liberating human beings by developing software that serves their needs, and engaging them in the creation of that software. That is incredibly exciting. I’ve long thought (following Sen and Nussbaum’s capability approach) that it is not sufficient to free people; they must be empowered to actually enjoy the benefits of that freedom. This is a conference that seems to get that, and I can’t wait to go (and hopefully speak!) next year.

The Free Software Foundation event’s agenda:

  • licenses
  • crypto
  • boot firmware
  • federation

These are important topics. But there is clearly a difference in focus here — technology first, not people. No mention of community, or of design.

This difference in focus is where this morning’s conflicted feels came from. On the one hand, I support FSF, because they’ve done an incredible amount to make the world a better place. (OSFeels can take open development for granted precisely because FSF fought so many battles about source code.) But precisely because I support FSF, I’d challenge it, in the next 15 years, to become more clearly and forcefully dedicated to liberating people. In this world, FSF would talk about design, accessibility, and inclusion as much as licensing, and talk about community-building protocols as much as communication protocols. This is not impossible: LibrePlanet had at least some people-focused talks (e.g.), and inclusion and accessibility are a genuine concern of staff, even if they didn’t rise to today’s agenda. But it would still be a big change, because at the deepest level, it would require FSF to see source code as just one of many requirements for freedom, rather than “the point of free software“.

At the same time, OSFeels is clearly filled with people who see the world through a broad, thoughtful ethical lens. It is a sad sign, both for FSF and how it is perceived, that such a group uses the deliberately apolitical language of openness rather than the language of a (hopefully) aligned ethical movement — free software. I’ll look forward to the day (maybe FSF’s 45th (or 31st!) birthday) that both groups can speak and work together about their real shared concern: software that liberates people. I’d certainly have no conflicted feelings about signing up for a conference on that :)

What tools are changing our world next?

Quick brain dump after a bike ride home: free software took a huge leap in the late 90s and early 00s in large part because of non-ideological advantages that the rest of the world is now competing with or surpassing:

HDR automatically created from old pictures of Muir Woods by Google Photos.
HDR automatically created by Google Photos from my old pictures of Muir Woods. Not perfect, but better than I ever bothered to do!
  • Collaboration tools: Because we got to the ‘net first, our tools for collaborating with each other were simply better than what proprietary developers were doing: cvs, mailman, wiki, etc., were all better than the silo’d old-school tools. Modern best-of-breed collaboration tools have all learned from what we did and added proprietary sauce on top: github, slack, Google Docs, etc. So our tools that are now (at best) as productive as our proprietary counterparts, and sometimes less productive but ideologically agreeable.
  • Release processes: “Release early/release often” made us better partners for our users. We’re now actively behind here: compare how often a mobile app or web user gets updates, exactly as the author intended, relative to a user of a modern Linux distro.
  • Zero cost: We did things for no (direct) cost by subsidizing our work through college, startups, or consulting gigs; now everyone has a subsidize-by-selling-something-else model (usually advertising, though sometimes freemium). Again, advantage (mostly?) lost.
  • Knowing our users: We knew a lot about our users, because we were our biggest users, and we talked to other users a lot; this was more effective than what passed for software design in the late 90s. This has been eclipsed by extensive a/b testing throughout the industry, and (to a lesser extent) by more extensive usage of direct user testing and design-thinking.

None of these are terribly original observations – all of these have been remarked on before. But after playing some with Google Photos this weekend, I’m ready to add another one to the list:

Worth asking what your project is doing that could be radically changed if your competitors get access to new technology. For example, for Wikipedia:

  • Collaborating: Wiki was best-of-breed (or close); it isn’t anymore. Visual Editor helps get editing back to par, but the social aspect of collaboration is still lacking relative to the expectations of many users.
  • Knowledge creation: big groups of humans, working together wiki-style, is the state of the art for creating useful, non-BS knowledge at scale. With the aforementioned machine learning, I suspect this will no longer the case in a (growing) number of domains.

I’m sure there are others…

Come work with me – developer edition!

It has been a long time since I was able to say to developer friends “come work with me” in anything but the most abstract “come work under the same roof” kind of sense. But today I can say to developers “come work with me” and really mean it. Which is fun :)

By Supercarwaar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
By Supercarwaar, CC BY-SA 3.0
Details: Wikimedia’s new community tech team is hiring for a community tech developer and a team lead. This will be extremely community-intensive work, so if you enjoy and get energy from working with a community and helping them achieve their goals, this could be a great role for you. This team will work intensely with my department to ensure that we’re correctly identifying and prioritizing the needs of our most active editors. If that sounds like fun, get in touch :)

[And I realize that I’ve been bad and not posted here, so here’s my new job announce: “my department” is the Foundation’s new Community Engagement department, where we work to support healthy contributor communities and help WMF-community collaboration. It is a detour from law, but I’ve always said law was just a way to help people do their thing — so in that sense is the same thing I’ve always been doing. It has been an intense roller coaster of a first two months, and I look forward to much more of the same.]

I am the CADT; and advice on NEEDINFOing old bugs en masse

[Attention conservation notice: probably not of interest to lawyers; this is about my previous life in software development.]

<a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MW_Bug_Squad_Barnstar.svg">Bugsquad barnstar, under MPL 1.1</a>
Bugsquad barnstar, under MPL 1.1

Someone recently mentioned JWZ’s old post on the CADT (Cascade of Attention Deficit Teecnagers) development model, and that finally has pushed me to say:

I am the CADT.

I did the bug closure that triggered Jamie’s rant, and I wrote the text he quotes in his blog post.1

Jamie got some things right, and some things wrong. The main thing he got right is that it is entirely possible to get into a cycle where instead of seriously trying to fix bugs, you just do a rewrite and cross your fingers that it fixes old bugs. And yes, this can particularly happen when you’re young and writing code for fun, where the joy of a from-scratch rewrite can overwhelm some of your other good senses. Jamie also got right that I communicated the issue pretty poorly. Consider this post a belated explanation (as well as a reference for the next time I see someone refer to CADT).

But that wasn’t what GNOME was doing when Jamie complained about it, and I doubt it is actually something that happens very often in any project large enough to have a large bug tracking system (BTS). So what were we doing?

First, as Brendan Eich has pointed out, sometimes a rewrite really is a good idea. GNOME 2 was such a rewrite – not only was a lot of the old code a hairy mess, we decided (correctly) to radically revise the old UI. So in that sense, the rewrite was not a “CADT” decision – the core bugs being fixed were the kinds of bugs that could only be fixed with massive, non-incremental change, rather than “hey, we got bored with the old code”. (Immediately afterwards, GNOME switched to time-based releases, and stuck to that schedule for the better part of a decade, which should be further proof we weren’t cascading.)

This meant there were several thousand old bugs that had been filed against UIs that no longer existed, and often against code that no longer existed or had been radically rewritten. So you’ve got new code and old bugs. What do you do with the old bugs?

It is important to know that open bugs in a BTS are not free. Old bugs impose a cost on developers, because when they are trying to search relevant bugs, old bugs can make it harder to find the things they really should be working on. In the best case, this slows them down; in the worst case, it drives them to use other tools to track the work they want to do – making the BTS next to useless. This violates rule #1 of a BTS: it must be useful for developers, or else it all falls apart.

So why did we choose to reduce these costs by closing bugs filed against the old codebase as NEEDINFO (and asking people to reopen if they were still relevant) instead of re-testing and re-triaging them one-by-one, as Jamie would have suggested? A few reasons:

  • number of triagers v. number of bugs: there were, at the time, around a half-dozen active bug volunteers, and thousands of pre-GNOME 2 bugs. It was simply unlikely that we’d ever be able to review all the old bugs even if we did nothing else.
  • focus on new bugs: new bugs are where triagers and developers are much more likely to be relevant – those bugs are against fresh code; the original filer is much more likely to respond to clarifying questions; etc. So all else being equal, time spent on new bugs was going to be much better for the software than time spent on old bugs.
  • steady flow of new bugs: if you’ve got a small number of new bugs coming in, perhaps you split your time – but we had no shortage of new bugs, nor of motivated bug reporters. So we may have paid some cost (by demotivating some reporters) but our scarce resource (developers) greatly appreciated it.
  • relative burden: with thousands of open bugs from thousands of reporters, it made sense to ask old them to test their bug against the new code. Reviewing their old bugs was a small burden for each of them, once we distributed it.

So when isn’t it a good idea to close ask for more information about old bugs?

  • Great at keeping old bugs triaged/relevant: If you have a very small number of old bugs that haven’t been touched in a long time, then they aren’t putting much burden on developers.
  • Slow code turnover: If your development process is such that it is highly likely that old bugs are still relevant (e.g., core has remained mostly untouched for many years, or effective use of TDD has kept the number of accidental new bugs low) this might not be a good idea.
  • No triggering event: In GNOME, there was a big event, plus a new influx of triagers, that made it make sense to do radical change. I wouldn’t recommend this “just because” – it should go hand-in-hand with other large changes, like a major release or important policy changes that will make future triaging more effective.

Relatedly, the team practices mailing list has been discussing good practices for migrating bug tracking systems in the past few days, which has been interesting to follow. I don’t take a strong position on where Wikimedia’s bugzilla falls on this point – Mediawiki has a fairly stable core, and the volume of incoming bugs may make triage of old bugs more plausible. But everyone running a very large bugzilla for an active project should remember that this is a part of their toolkit.

  1. Both had help from others, but it was eventually my decision. []

Forking and Standards: Why The Right to Fork Can Be Pro-Social

[I originally sent a version of this to the W3C’s Patents and Standards Interest Group, where a fellow member asked me to post it more publicly. Since then, others have also blogged in related veins.]

Blue Plastic Fork, by David Benbennick, from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Blue_plastic_fork.jpg used under CC-BY-SA 3.0.
Blue Plastic Fork, by David Benbennick, used under CC-BY-SA 3.0.

It is often said that open source and open standards are different, because in open source, a diversity of forks is accepted/encouraged, while “forked” standards are confusing/inefficient since they don’t provide “stable reference points” for the people who have to implement the spec.

Here is the nutshell version of a critical way in which open source and open standards are in fact similar, and why licensing that allows forking therefore matters.

Open source and open standards are similar because both are generally created by communities of collaborators who must trust each other across organizational boundaries. This is relevant to the right to fork, because the “right to fork” is an important mechanism to help those communities trust each other. This is surprising – the right to fork is often viewed as an anti-social right, which allows someone to stomp their feet and walk away. However, it is also pro-social: because it makes it impossible for any one person or organization to become a single point of failure. This is particularly important where the community is in large part a volunteer one, and where a single point of failure is widely perceived to have actually failed in the past.

Not coincidentally, “largely volunteer” and “failed single point of failure” describes the HTML working group (HTML WG) pretty closely. W3C was a single point of failure for HTML, and most HTML WG participants believe W3C’s failures stalled the development of HTML from 1999 to 2006. For some of the history, see David Baron’s recent post; for a more detailed
history by the author of HTML5, you can look in the spec itself.

Because of this history, the HTML WG participants voted for permissive licenses for their specification. They voted for permissive licenses, even though many of them have the most to gain from “stable reference points”, since they are often the ones who (when not writing the standards) are the one paid to implement the standards!

An alternate way to think about this is to think of the forkable license as a commitment mechanism for W3C: by committing to open licensing for the specification, W3C is saying to the HTML WG community “we will be good stewards – because we know otherwise you’ll leave”. (Alternate commitment mechanisms are of course a possibility, and I believe some have been discussed – but they’d need careful institutional design, and would all result in some variety of instabililty.)

So, yes: standards should be stable. But the options for HTML may not be “stable specification” or “unstable specification”. The options, based on the community’s vote and discussions, may well be “unstable specification” or “no (W3C) specification at all”, because many of the key engineers involved don’t appear to trust W3C much further than they can throw it. The forkable license is a popular potential mechanism to reduce that trust gap and allow everyone to move forward, knowing that their investments are not squandered should the W3C screw up again in the future.

Information diet weekend

As a slight sequel to my “feed reading is an open web problem” post, so far this weekend I have taken the following information diet steps:

RSS feeds: 610→339 (and counting).

Based on Google’s stats, I’d probably read about a million feed items in Reader. This is just too much. The complaints about attention span in this piece and in The Information Diet1 rang very true. Reader is a huge part of that problem for me. (Close friends will also note that I’ve been mostly off gchat and twitter during the work day since I started the new job, and that’s been great.) So I’ve spent time, and will spend more time soon, pruning this list.

National news feeds: lots→~0; weekly paper news magazines: 0→2; local news feeds: small #? large #?

My friend Ed put in my head a long time ago that national news is not very useful. It riles the passions, but otherwise isn’t helpful: you’re not making the world a better place as a result of knowing more, and you’re not making yourself happier either.2  So you’re better off reading much less national political news, and much less frequently: hence the two new on-paper subscriptions to weekly news magazines.

Besides allowing you to get off the computer(!), the time saved can also be used to focus on things that either make your life better (e.g., happier) or that give you actionable information to resolve problems. To tackle both of those needs, I’d like to curate a set of local news feeds. I’ll be blogging more about this later (including what I’m already reading), but suggestions are welcome. I suspect that will make me much happier (or at least less angry), and present opportunities to actually do things, in ways that the national news obviously never can.

Moved from reader→feedly.

The impending shutdown of Reader was obviously the catalyst for all this change; feedly seems not perfect but pretty solid. I continue to keep an eye on newsblur (still a variety of issues) and feedbin.me (no mature Android client yet), since feedly is still (1) closed source and (2) has no visible business model – leaving it susceptible to the same Reader shutdown problem.

"Two young children picket for the ILGWU carrying placards including 'I Need a Healthy Diet!' outside the Kolodney and Myers Employment Office" by the Kheel Center at Cornell University, used under CC-BY 2.0.
“Two young children picket for the ILGWU carrying placards including ‘I Need a Healthy Diet!’ outside the Kolodney and Myers Employment Office” by the Kheel Center at Cornell University, used under CC-BY 2.0.

Steps still to come:

Separate the necessary from the entertaining

Joe pointed out to me that all news sources aren’t equal. There are feeds you must read in a timely manner (e.g., for me right now, changes in work-critical Wikipedia talk pages), and feeds that can be sampled instead. The traditional solution to this is folders or categories within the same app. But we’re starting to see apps that are optimized for the not-mission-critical entertainment feed stream (Joe specifically recommended Currents). I’d like to play with those apps, and use one of them to further prune my “serious feeds” list.  Recommendations happily accepted.

Improve publication

I do want to participate, in some small way, in the news stream, by creating a stream of outbound articles and commentary on them. I never used Reader’s features for this, because of the walled garden aspect. Many of our tools now make it easy to share out to places like Twitter and Facebook, but that means I’m contributing to the problem for my friends, not helping solve it. I’d like my outbound info to be less McDonalds and more Chez Panisse :) The tools for that aren’t quite there, but this morning I stumbled across readlists, which looks like it is about 90% something I’ve been looking for forever. I’ll keep keeping an eye out, so again: good suggestions for outbound curation tools happily accepted.

What else?

I hate the weasely “ask your audience” blog post ending as much as anyone, but here, I have a genuine curiosity: what else are friends doing for their info diets? I want to eventually get towards the “digital sabbath” but I’m not there yet; other tips/suggestions?

  1. capsule book review: great diagnosis of the problem, pretty poor recommendations for solutions []
  2. It’s pretty much a myth that reading the news makes you a better voter: research shows even supposedly high-information voters have already decided well before they read any news, and if for some reason you’re genuinely undecided, you’re better off reading something like ballotpedia than a streaming bunch of horse-race coverage. []

Why feed reading is an open web problem, and what browsers could do about it

I’ve long privately thought that Firefox should treat feed reading as a first-class citizen of the open web, and integrate feed subscribing and reading more deeply into the browser (rather than the lame, useless live bookmarks.) The impending demise of Reader has finally forced me to spit out my thoughts on the issue. They’re less polished than I like when I blog these days, but here you go – may they inspire someone to resuscitate this important part of the open web.

What? Why is this an open web problem?

When I mentioned this on twitter, an ex-mozillian asked me why I think this is the browser’s responsibility, and particularly Mozilla’s. In other words – why is RSS an open web problem? why is it different from, say, email? It’s a fair question, with two main parts.

First, despite what some perceive as the “failure” of RSS, there is obviously  a demand by readers to consume web content as an automatically updated stream, rather than as traditional pages.1 Google Reader users are extreme examples of this, but Facebook users are examples too: they’re no longer just following friends, but companies, celebrities, etc. In other words, once people have identified a news source they are interested in, we know many of them like doing something to “follow” that source, and get updated in some sort of stream of updates. And we know they’re doing this en masse! They’re just not doing it in RSS – they’re doing it in Twitter and Facebook. The fact that people like the reading model pioneered by RSS – of following a company/news source, rather than repeatedly visiting their web site – suggests to me that the widely perceived failure of RSS is not really a failure of RSS, but rather a failure of the user experience of discovering and subscribing to RSS.

Of course, lots of things are broadly felt desires, and aren’t integrated into browsers – take email for example. So why are feeds different? Why should browsers treat RSS as a first-class web citizen in a way they don’t treat other things? I think that the difference is that if closed platforms (not just web sites, but platforms) begins to the only (or even best) way to experience “reading streams of web content”, that is a problem for the web. If my browser doesn’t tightly integrate email, the open web doesn’t suffer. If my browser doesn’t tightly integrate feed discovery and subscription, well, we get exactly what is happening: a mass migration away from consuming (and publishing!) news through the open web, and instead it being channeled into closed, integrated publishing and subscribing stacks like FB and Twitter that give users a good subscribing and reading experience.

To put it another way: Tantek’s definition of the open web (if I may grotesquely simplify it) is a web where publishing content, implementing software that consumes that content, and accessing the content is all open/decentralized. RSS2 is the only existing way to do stream-based reading that meets these requirements. So if you believe (as I do) that reading content delivered in a stream is a central part of the modern web experience, then defending RSS is an important part of defending the open web.

So that’s, roughly, my why. Here’s a bunch of random thoughts on what the how might look like:

Discovery

When you go to CNN on Facebook, “like” – in plain english, with a nice icon – is right up there, front and center. RSS? Not so much. You have to know what the orange icon means (good luck with that!) and find it (either in the website or, back in the day, in the browser toolbar). No wonder no one uses it, when there is no good way to figure out what it means. Again, the failure is not the idea of feeds- the failure is in the way it was presented to users. A browser could do this the brute-force way (is there an RSS feed? do a notice bar to subscribe) but that would probably get irritating fast. It would be better to be smart about it. Have I visited nytimes.com five times today? Or five days in a row? Then give me a notice bar: “hey, we’ve noticed you visit this site an awful lot. Would you like to get updates from it automatically?” (As a bonus, implementing this makes your browser the browser that encourages efficiency. ;)

Subscription

Once you’ve figured out you can subscribe, then what? As it currently stands, someone tells you to click on the orange icon, and you do, and you’re presented with the NASCAR problem, made worse because once you click, you have to create an account. Again, more fail; again, not a problem inherent in RSS, but a problem caused by the browser’s failure to provide an opinionated, useful default.

This is not an easy problem to solve, obviously. My hunch is that the right thing to do is provide a minimum viable product for light web users – possibly by supplementing the current “here are your favorite sites” links with a clean, light reader focused on only the current top headlines. Even without a syncing service behind it, that would still be helpful for those users, and would also encourage publishers to continue treating their feeds as first-class publishing formats (an important goal!).

Obviously solving the NASCAR problem is still hard (as is building a more serious built-in app), but perhaps the rise of browser “app stores” and web intents/web activities might ease it this time around.

Other aspects

There are other aspects to this – reading, social, and provision of reading as a service. I’m not going to get into them here, because, well, I’ve got a day job, and this post is a month late as-is ;) And because the point is primarily (1) improving the RSS experience in the browser needs to be done and (2) some minimum-viable products would go a long way towards making that happen. Less-than-MVPs can be for another day :)

  1. By “RSS” and “feeds” in this post, I really mean the subscribing+reading experience; whether the underlying tech is RSS, Atom, Activity Streams, or whatever is really an implementation detail, as long as anyone can publish to, and read from them, in distributed fashion. []
  2. again, in the very broad sense of the word, including more modern open specifications that do basically the same thing []

Licensing confusion is great! (for lawyers)

I want to heartily unendorse Simon Phipps’ Infoworld article about Github and licensing. Simon’s article makes it sound like no one benefits from sloppy licensing practices, and that is simply not true. Specifically, lawyers benefit! I regularly get calls from clients saying “I have no idea if I’m allowed to use <project X>, because it is on github but doesn’t have a license.” When that happens, instead of money going to developers where it could actually build something productive, instead, I get to spend my time and the client’s money fixing a problem that the original author could have easily avoided by slapping an Apache license on the thing in the first place – or that github could have avoided by adding default terms.

So, support your local open source lawyer today – publish source code without a license!1

  1. Tongue firmly in cheek, in case that isn’t obvious. Seriously, lawyers are the only ones who benefit from this situation, except for that handful of seconds it took you to “git add LICENSE”. Always license your code, kids! []