Preserving the commons in computing



I must begin by expressing the joy that is unspeakable to be born in this era and to be using this impressive technology that is computers, to the fullest and is thankful to be able to develop software on them with the least effort and price than it was ever before. For that, I think I must heed the engineers of the past, who knew what they were doing, and to the companies for manufacturing electronics and their ideas. empowering the world as we know it, ultimately allowing you to read this very blog.

This is by far, in many others' words, the most open, free and accessible state of computing and its innumerable resources ever. We have the average cost of a gigabyte of internet data lowest in history, smartphones with more features than laptop from less than ten years ago, allowing you to take computers to your fingertips. I happened to take one of my classes through my phone while on transit recently and imagined about the state that I am in. I was on a moving train, but with my smartphone and 4G, I was still connected to my peers! The underlying levels of abstraction: from the silicon to my floating tiles of my apps, from the copper wires to the wireless data transmission rate of about a megabyte per second- all are exciting and worth exploring. A part of this would not have been ever possible without the work of the unpaid open source contributors who found this ‘cool’, and a another part of this, would not have been possible without business minded people and corporations doing their part.

But, that’s not what this article is about. Perhaps, you might’ve already gotten a gist of what I’m going to say from the title. For the others, I’m just going to walk through what I’m about to say rather than spilling the beans right away.

Let me introduce the word ‘commons’ to you. It’s an Old English word. And Oxford Learners defines it as something or particularly a resource that is shared and truly belongs to the community. This word must’ve taken you to the Victorian era where people actually used the word and really had a commons. To put things in perspective, it is safe to say that a no-man’s tree in your neighbourhood is a commons. Meaning, To sit in its shade, to extract its resources without harming it, is everyone’s right. So is the night sky.

The reason why at least some of the current dictionaries have this word inside them is probably because of a man named Ivan Illich, who coined the term ‘Radical Monopoly’ in his book and almost kickstarted a movement. He talks about how a particular technology or a product becomes so powerful and dominant that the other services don’t get a chance to prevail. And he illustrates that with the example of cars. Back in the days, cities were something anybody could go to- a commons. But later, cities shaped itself so that cars could be easily driven, so that people without cars were, in a way, blocked from the cities. Well, people realized that back in the 80s and ‘walkability’ was considered in urban design since then.

I think radical monopolies are predominant in computing, right from its inception. In the case of microchip manufacturing to operating systems, there have always been mostly the same corporations since a very long time. Windows, for example, which runs on 76.65 percent of the personal computers and it spies on you. Recently, I also learned about the presence of undocumented instructions on x86 processors- basically, assembly instructions that does not show up on the manual, which was put mainly for debugging and now has undesirable effects and transcends into backdoors. All of these changes were slow, and it’s almost like they became ubiqutous.

The condition is pretty much the same for software. A recent example from personal experince would be about not being able to attend my classes on Firefox because Microsoft Teams only allow us to do that from Google Chrome or the app. This move forced me to use their Electron app, which is obviously sluggish and very Electron. What’s also striking here is the amount of features that are now turned on by default. Data collection is now a de-facto standard on mostly every software that we use. But again, not all of them are malicious, but the times are when it doesn’t even ask the user for consent explicitly for permission and argues that it’s down somewhere in the terms and conditions, when get asked.

Personal computers are sort of a commons. I can buy all the parts and assemble it myself and decide on whether to drop Linux or Windows on it. But smartphones, both Android and iOS are totally walled gardens. You just get one OS and you’re stuck with it, sometimes even with bloatwares you can’t remove. Unless, you’re very smart and specialized, un-Googling your phone is a hard job. Even replacing a battery is impossible, right now. All of these are signs of a radical monopoly.

Tech changes everything. What the internet and computers did to music, media and scientific research has now come down normal people’s lives and has changed them forever. 80% percent of the population has a smartphone now and our relationships are more virtual than ever before. Software and computing must be a shared commons so that we can make sure that it works for all. An act in this direction is not entirely exclusive to programmers and professionals alone. Deleting one’s Facebook account and getting the news directly from a news agency without having a mindless algorithm pick one for you, is a start. Using open source software and helping its community, even just by helping out in improving its users' manual is also a great thing to do.

But, I know, that’s hard, or it sounds hard. Sometimes, a practical open source alternative for the software of your interest may not exist or they may not live up to your level in terms of features and user interface. I think I can comfortably say that if we need new users to the community, we need to develop more robust libraries to make more user friendly UI. To finish this off with a hot take, I would also add that we need to move away from develping through mailing lists, or provide an alternative to be more open to first-time contributors.

Let me make it clear, one must not see the current situation as one of the worst form of capitalistic exploitation or assume that having more commons will make way to a utopia. I think, we should just root for more users' freedom, transparency and responsibility from the big corporations and make it easily accessible for the masses.

It may be wishful thinking to say that people will be moved by this article or any. As something administrative like a legislation may somehow help, but may never become a driving force for things like this. Moreover, this is pretty much a perspective and it’s sort of an oasis, and is purely inconsequential, as all is a matter of perspective and one gets engulfed into this only by themselves. There are no winners here and I think all of this comes down to one’s perception.

So, the next time you see a person running a Pinephone, using Matrix, or insisting that he or she would use an open source client instead of the paid (or pirated) one, see them as a cyclist protesting for bicycle lanes twenty five years ago or a as a person advocating for walkable neighbourhoods.

I am seeing a lot of good signs lately. More people becoming aware of it (thanks, WhatsApp?), notion of ‘Right To Repair’ gaining momementum and so many others.

I hope that the new commons movement is just around the corner.

Notes on the margin

Hacker News thread about Radical Monopoly which served as an inspiration for this post:

Windows 10 is spying on you - []( s-spying-on-you/)

Windows' share on personal computers-

Silence is a Commons by Ivan Illich -

‘Right to repair’ law to come in this summer []( s/business-56340077])