The road ahead

The Road Ahead

This one is a little different. I had to give a talk for Software Freedom Day for Free Software Melbourne and Linux Users Victoria on 21st September 2019. Below is the brief script I wrote which is just a few ideas about the future of computer technology for the next decade. It is a lot more direct and specific than most of what I write on here.


The free software movement is one of the best kind of activist groups that you can be a part of. We don't just talk the talk but we also walk the walk. We demonstration how modern technology can work for us and against us. BUT we also provide solutions. And practical ones at that. It comes with the nature of the modern technology. Its fragility allows for us to change it far more easily than other fields of life, this is a part of its massive appeal. This allows us to demonstrate to others what can be done and why. This is something very special that should be cherished.

I don't want to throw others under the bus but it is when folks preach one point of view and then do the other in real life that people will start to turn away. Folks are sensitive to hypocrisy like that. For every environmentalist that protests and proclamation of what needs to be done on the streets and in the media but then go back home in an SUV - that hypocrisy can do more damage to a movement than any potential good. When a politician talks about fixing home prices, does nothing so that they can keep their own house prices high, people figure eventually that out.

These are just some prominent example out of thousands; for all their best intentions, we are but human and can miss even the most obvious signs. What looks pure and clean on the inside can be very different from the outside. If we do not pay attention to the image from the outside then we will blindly walking to hell singing "Here comes the peace train" the whole way down the road to hell. It was the Neoplatonists that fell into this folly and for all the advances in philosophy they made, eventually they where driven out or killed because they didn't see how the rest of the world saw them. The worst we would probably have is be called some nasty names.

Free software is very different in that aspect.

I was not putting down the environmentalist movement, their task is a thousand times bigger than ours. And if I am putting down politicians, well... that comes with the territory. Change is difficult and the best intentions can come across poorly in those moments we are not paying attention.

Free software is fundamentally simple. We recommend new programs and operating systems that can help people to help themselves today. This is not a matter of reconstruction of economics, politics and society itself, but that would help. And best of luck to those than need to do that and that we should look to groups like those, help out where possible and also realise just what we are dealing with in our own movement. Why it is so important. It is through others that we can see how we are working for the better.

Free software is something that is very near and dear to my heart. I'm sure it is to a lot of people here as well. It is a demonstration that when people come together, they can make wonderful things regardless of who else is trying to stop them from achieving their goals. Yes, we fight with each other over ethical and technical details, some interactions are down right toxic, others are wonderful to see everyone helping out – there is something so human about it all. And I don't mean "human" in a corporate advertising sense... It is the best and the worst of people put to the task of trying to make the world a better place and that is something that we should cherish.

Next year is the 10th anniversary of Free Software Melbourne. That said LUV is beating us by a wide margin seeing as they are now 26 years old! I have no idea that when FSM was first proposed this organisation that we would make it this far and yet here we are. In that regards, I must thank absolutely everyone that has organised and attended these events for they are the people that make these events great. You are the ones that make these events great. The church is the people, not the building.

You don't have the be a full time devotee, just drop by and say hi every once in a while. This is about ensuring that free software and open source continue into the future. Without groups like these, I doubt we would have our free digital world that we use even if it is not widely accepted yet.

In 95 days it is the end of the 2010's! We will be in the, not so roaring 20's again. It is going to be an interesting time indeed. From a more broad perspective we will be seeing more economic, environmental and political turmoil and this will have an impact on how we use our computer technology. How this relates to free software will be interesting. I am going to step into a Brahman hat for a moment but please take these ideas as just speculation. I cannot see the future and there are many unknowns.

Unfortunately, we still don't have a moon base, Stanford rings or the Hyperloops but we have Facebook and that is better! Am I right!?! ahem...

We live in a era were cheap debt has allowed businesses that typically failed early in life to now fail late in life. In our example I'm thinking technology business like Twitter, Uber etc. Companies that have spent more than they have made for years. Cheap credit and the insistence on GPD growth at any cost has meant that a lot of bad businesses have lived far longer than they normally would have. I say Twitter and Uber and yet the things that allow them to survive has allowed for thousands of other major sites and services to continue. Combine that with the massive data collection that ends up funding large chunks of the Internet and we have an interesting situation. The internet has the appearance of being a free-no cost platform. We jump on, do our business and then go on our way without ever seeing a single cent of dollar changing hands - all this despite using 6% of global energy use. That does not account for the production of the computers and infrastructure that run it as well.

It is likely that the no-cost, free and open Internet is going to start slowly dying. As much as this sounds like a very negative thing, I think it is the potential catalyst that can be used to further free software and have people realise the wonderful potential of the internet and the software we use. If you want people to cherish something then you have to teach them to value it. In this case it might be actual money.

If it comes down to an internet were a lot of websites become pay-to-access only then hopefully folks will become a lot less tolerant of those same services also being data collection monsters. People will be like "$20 a year for Facebook and it sells my info? Get out of here!". They are much more likely to pay that same $20 to a site/group that will respect their freedoms. What is online can migrate down into the users own systems.

Side note: I thought this would be something that would happen in the next decade, but just last week Facebook dropped their slogan "Its free and always will be", consider it a distant echo of the future we have coming.

Services like Media Goblin, Peer Tube, Diaspora are all visions of the future. Yes they will cost you money but at least you will know were it is going and you can get the software back for your own use if you wish. Through donations things like Wikipedia and Archive will continue but even their needs are growing rapidly.

To compound this issue, we are hitting the end of the road of computer chips performance increases. When it comes to computer chips we have maxed out the possible wattage in the 90's, clock rates in the 2000's and finally now the physical limits of the universe are on the horizon in the next decade with no clear paths forward. By the way, If you can solve Boltzmann tyranny of electron quantum tunnelling, there is a Nobel prize in physics for you. You could be more famous than Einstein and have a million dollars TAX FREE! With computer performance stagnating relative to the price per dollar we are going to see a fracture in the hardware business.

On one hand we will have the proprietary monsters that will try to keep people locked in at any cost. Think Google and Apple as they are now primarily "services" companies. Devices that not only have massive amounts of tracking as today but that you don't even have a choice of content providers. We are already seeing that today. Devices that will have active software powered kill switches, when they become "obsolete" the real owners can actively shut them off – permanently.

On the other hand, without the endless need for new hardware, we have the opportunity to buy hardware that can potentially last decades like your grand dads 386 running word prefect. Hardware that is open and encourages us to tinker and modify and share the changes. I'm thinking the likes of the Librebooted computers, Raptor 2 PowerPC computers, small tinkerer hardware. Things that work like we want them too and are actively encouraging others to contribute.

To this matter, we will probably have a schizoid computing environments with absolute control on one side with freedom on the other with very little middle ground. Again I expect the freedom based machine to cost more up front without subsidies from services. But in the long run that is a very minor detail for using your machines as you please.

This is the time that we need to capitalise on, before the chasm forms, to teach people to see that computers aren't just closed black boxes that dictate to us how they work. They are machines that should work for us and not just the jerks that make them.

So keep on fighting, keep on discussing these ideas, don't let the ideas of freedom slip away from us as they are the most important thing we have.

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