Computers can be good

Since at least the 1980s, the promise of computing has been the dream of a more connected world where artificial barriers are torn down, especially the artificial barrier of national borders. This dream has been co-opted and twisted by the rich and powerful, but we shouldn’t forget that even as far back as Marx himself, the socialist potential of communication technology was clear:

Now and then the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battles lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever expanding union of the workers. This union is helped on by the improved means of communication that are created by modern industry, and that place the workers of different localities in contact with one another. It was just this contact that was needed to centralise the numerous local struggles, all of the same character

- The Communist Manifesto

Many of us have grown up on the internet, with dear friends across the planet. We understand instinctively that the shallow “connection” that serves parasitic monetization is not the only thing on offer. Even with platforms meant to serve our enemies, we find ways. The massive wave of wildcat teacher strikes in 2018 and 2019 often began with organization on Facebook. Capital can never truly steal away the potential of a connected world; it is a hammer lying there, waiting for us to pick it up and remake the world.

Computing remade

What would computing look like if it weren’t led about on a leash by capital? It wouldn’t just be the same things, but without the spying on us. Many things would be fundamentally different. Social networks built to foster communities, rather than drive engagement, look very different (and unfortunately networks like Mastodon are too heavily influenced by the platforms they aim to replace). What might such a social network look like?

Phones today are meant to drive app sales, and spending in apps, and replacement every 2 years. If we rebuilt them from the ground up to empower users directly, what they be like? If the tens of thousands of minds behind Android and iOS were put toward developing an operating system that could help a user learn to make it truly work for them, to use the power of a programmable tool to solve problems rather than always having to spend money on things that barely work and probably steal their information, what would they produce?

Without the endless need for growth driving expansion, what would websites be like? Would we go back to the world of dozens of websites filling the same role for different communities? Would we all host our own? What would cloud services look like? I like to think that communities would run their own little instances, with a hobbyist volunteer or two managing them. Without all the pressure to ship shiny demo features and all the reasons to backdoor everything to enable surveillance capitalism, we might find that it’s possible to make a properly secure-by-default system an amateur volunteer can safely run.

Into the future

Maybe I’m totally wrong! I’m writing all this and posting it totally unedited in 45 minutes on a Monday night while eating dinner. But I want to start really talking about this kind of thing, because none of us ever do. At best we talk about frustrations with big platforms and small ways FOSS software could be better, and that’s not enough. Before we can remake computing, we need to get used to talking about what we could build, and how, and why.

It’s time we stopped being afraid of dreaming political dreams about computing. We don’t need to talk around it in arguments over licenses. We don’t need to settle for excitement over better performance, or safer type systems, or more reliable filesystems. The technical improvements are worth doing, but they’re loose change compared to the changes we need to dare to dream, and one day to build.

Computing has always been political. In the 1940s, computing ran death camps for Jews, and killed tens of thousands of fascists, and helped end a world war. In the 50s, computing helped create the nuclear Sword of Damocles. In the 60s, it helped the US government make sure it could kill billions in retaliation if it was shot at first. In the 70s, briefly, it struggled to put us all on a level playing field with the corporate giants. And so on.

Computing has always been political. Let’s make it serve our own politics again, and stop letting it make us serve others’ politics.