everything wrong with free software
"free as in speech"
other pages: [[why-bsd]] | *originally posted:* feb 2021
clown computing, sometimes called "cloud" computing, is both an effort to make people more dependent on vendors (giving them more power over your computing) and a marketing campaign to encourage this sort of dependency.
in the evolution of computing, work was originally centralised around a large computer, which everyone would bring work to. jobs were fed to the computer one at a time, while most users had no direct access to the machine itself.
eventually computers became powerful enough that people looked for more efficient ways to use the resources-- timesharing was invented. with timesharing, instead of feeding batches of work to the computer to be done in sequence, the computer would go around in a circle and do a little bit of each job fed to it, creating the practical illusion of doing every job at the same time. what changed is that instead of jobs standing offline in a queue, now more than one person could connect to the machine at the same time and see processing done immediately, or even interactively.
gradually computers became smaller, more powerful and more plentiful. it became more common for departments or offices to have one or more computers, instead of just a company or university. each step along the way, user autonomy increased, until the *personal* computer revolution happened.
by the time personal computers were common, the internet (but not the web) already existed. people exchanged email, they transferred files over ftp, they subscribed to newsgroups on usenet, and by the early 1990s they were creating directories of links (not entirely unlike early web pages) using a very simple protocol called *gopher*. although the web existed in 1994, it was probably not yet popular enough to push gopherspace aside until the following year. most people didnt use gopher in 1994-- but then at the time, most people didnt use the internet either.
although earlier online services existed, they were relatively expensive to subscribe to and the free ones (the typical bbs) were relatively small and obscure. what really brought online networking to the masses, for better or for worse-- was the web.
there were, and are-- two ways to put something up on the web. one way is you can run a computer with software that serves web pages out to the world, called a server. a large scale website that serves very many people at the same time may use a powerful server machine or even more than one, while a simple pc can be configured as a server to serve a few people at once. the higher the demand, the more robust a server is needed.
meanwhile, thanks to personal computing and moores law, people have largely grown accustomed to doing their computing on a machine that doesnt technically require a network connection. you go online to see what other people are doing, but (ideally) things like financial data, family photos, personal journals and your software in general are your own business, unless you get hacked or download and run malware.
over the past 20 years, people have gone from creating their own websites, uploading them to a server, and doing most of their work offline-- to relying increasingly on connectivity for things that dont traditionally require an active connection. you can check your email once or twice a day and be offline the rest of the time, or you can have your tracking device[lit]/[lit]phone connected 24[lit]/[lit]7, waiting for calls and text and constantly giving you email notifications.
and because its good for their own business, companies have sought to make the computer a more online-24[lit]/[lit]7 device, much like your phone. what has this done to computing?
for one, it has taken corporate platforms like windows (and anybody emulating windows) from optional updates on the users schedule to mandatory updates on the vendors schedule. along with mandatory updates is the idea that the vendor is free to install or remove whatever functionality pleases them-- so instead of the user deciding what features to keep or get stuck with, the vendor decides. on a whim, the software you rely on (that you already have installed) can be removed or changed, but you have very little (if any) say in this. its like its not really your computer.
even if you use a free operating system, many popular distributions have been taken over by companies (including microsoft) with similar ambitions. so you may feel using something like ubuntu, you are in control of your computing-- but every year that goes by, ubuntu acts more like microsoft in the way they treat and clearly view the user and their computer. as a doormat to wipe their feet on.
more functionality that people relied on applications for-- applications that worked without an internet connection, let alone a user account, such as for photo editing or word processing, have moved online. when you do these tasks online instead of on your computer, you lose privacy as well as control over your document, as well as the ability to do these tasks when the internet is down. choosing these ridiculous tradeoffs that benefit the company more and cost the user more are the reason some people refer to this as "clown computing".
all in all, the basic idea is a return to timesharing-- where your computer is merely a client, and all your computing tasks (apart from connecting) are controlled by some remote machine you dont control. this is great for the businesses who offer such services, because they can (and do) sell your personal information, plus they control every aspect of the computing you get suckered into doing online and remotely, instead of offline or locally.
another related problem is the creation of silos-- silos are like gated communities online, where they simulate a separate network by making it relatively difficult or next-to-impossible to connect without creating an account with them. if you build a website online, you have to create an account-- but anybody can view your website without one. compare this to facebook, where trying to view most things prompts you to login or register. the latter is a silo, which forces you to subject yourself to additional terms (including a great deal of personal surveillance done by facebook, which they then share with other companies) and enables them to have more control over what you access.
how do clown companies get you to put trust in large corporations and sign your autonomy away, to the point where people even stop considering alternatives they control, which run on their own personal computers?
the first way they do this is ease of setup. you dont have to install anything, you just sign up. for a small company (or a bunch of hobbyists or certain non-profits) even i find this tempting. you can try a service out to see what its like, before you go through all the learning (its often not that much learning) of installing and configuring something.
the second thing they do is promise security. this one is a bit of a lie-- you have less control and they create a bigger target, and they arent always as concerned (or competent) about security as their marketing people claim. when you do get attacked, there is nothing you can do about it except hope for them to fix it-- and they often use relatively insecure platforms or configurations that in hindsight are the obvious reason all your data (including credit card and private phone number) is now being leaked publicly.
and finally they offer free hosting. i wont lie, they even get me with this one sometimes. but the problem is the same-- you dont control what they host, they get to monitor things you might not even have access to, youre in "their house" under "their rules", etc.
although its still clown computing, and still has all the downsides, i recommend the following compromises to people who are not going to self-host:
1. first and foremost: learn more about self-hosting, continue to pay attention to alternatives, because theres a good chance its a better deal than what youre doing right now.
2. *minimise* your reliance on any online services-- maybe you use a 3rd party host for a website or for code, but choose carefully, avoid the biggest companies (they dont care about you) and for third-party code hosting, i only recommend a non-profit organisation. even then there is no guarantee they wont be taken over, bribed or corrupted, but a for-profit code host can simply be *bought* by another company. then they get all your data, and control of your data-- plus all users.
3. as mentioned-- a non-profit host doesnt solve all your problems, though they are harder to take over than a for-profit host. this isnt because commercial = bad, its because little companies get bought out (strategically) by big companies that care more about control than customer satisfaction. avoid silos like facebook that only allow access to your content to registered users.
4. dont move tasks that work perfectly well offline "to the clown". the gains are short term, long term youre sacrificing a lot.
5. keep backups of everything, and watch (and boycott) hosts that make further moves against privacy and autonomy.
the prompt for this article (which is hosted on neocities) is an admission that i do not follow every best practice, along with some advice based on how i actually make decisions about these things. clown computing is not a solved problem, though it is something i actively resist and i encourage you to do so as well, whether you do better than i do and self-host everything (except for mirrors) or you do worse and rely too much on big corporate 3rd parties.
we wont solve this by giving up and not trying. minimising your reliance on services that could be bought out or compromised (or that track you) is a good idea, and for the internet to keep its original promises, we cant simply brush these issues aside.
just as in the old days of record labels and movie companies, a big brand means higher discoverability. but as with a smaller label, you may have more respect from (and even show more respect for) your peers-- and a small label can give greater focus to the group of people you want to work with the most.
thus, big networks arent everything. but even without that, giving up all autonomy certainly isnt everything. we should all be a bit more sceptical of these services, even the ones that succeed in tempting us with short-term gains.
as for me, i currently dont run any self-hosted services. i would prefer to work with small groups of people i trust, and small organisations which i watch closely for corruption. but i am interested in trying out gemini, specifically because it makes hosting less demanding.
and since im far from ready to dedicate any resources to hosting a gemini capsule, what am i doing for an entrance to geminispace? finding a simple free host to use as a blog or similar. its that ease of setup thing.
but ive watched many online services come and go, and i know whatever i put my gemini content on, it could disappear at any time. this is one reason i use a free license-- anybody who likes my work enough to host a copy of it is free to do so.
something like ipfs is better than gemini for some purposes, and im interested in that technology too. but while ipfs provides the technology for mirroring, the license provides the right for anybody to mirror (or reuse) what they want to.
and gemini? it provides a way to get back to simpler pages to host.
i still encourage people to explore these technologies, but also the philosophy behind them. and if you arent doing everything necessary to have greater autonomy and freedom, i hope you are at least trying to head in that general direction, as much as youre able-- without knocking those who are farther along for the better choices theyve made. knocking people for caring more about autonomy and freedom is a hallmark of "open source", and one of the big signs that open source is a scam.
using only free software is possible today-- getting free of the github cult is going to take longer. being free of clown computing is also possible today, but i know we arent all going to leave it behind at once. if you can at least point your feet towards the door, thats a start. keeping your feet pointed in that direction is even better. freedom is a process, but its one that really matters.