March 2013 Archives

RMS Sighting

I had the unique pleasure in attending a Richard Stallman talk at the Stamps auditorium on UMich West campus. During the years of my involvement with Free and Open Source software, I have met Jon "Maddog" Hall, Richard Perens, Eric Raymond and now RMS.  All of these men have accomplished much with Open Source and Free Software respectively

English: Richard Stallman in his Saint iGNUciu...

and their views are certainly as diverse as the movements to which they prescribe.  RMS entitled his talk, " A Free Digital Society", and he described several interesting conundrums that people should consider.  Some of which I have discussed on my blog in recent years.

  • Data Brokers
  • The Evils of Facebook
  • Importance of Free Software
  • The Perils of Walled Garden
  • Computers as Appliances
The data broker conversation is one that often falls upon deaf ears among the uninitiated. In general average computer users are quick to choose "ease of use" over control.  It is not unusual for people store all kinds of information about themselves or friends online simply because mainstream says it is trendy.  Stallman did an excellent job describing the various ways one could protect themselves and thwart the data brokers.  He mentioned a free software alternative to GOOG analytics, Piwik allows you to sleep easy at night knowing that your content is not being harvested by ad mongers.

Facebook has become the ubiquitous social network. I happen to think the Zuckerberg walled garden has given people a false sense of security. Definitely, boggles the mind that people actually use it a their sole voice on the Interwebs.  I wonder if there would be so much commercial excitement if there was a pay model?   RMS talked about the "like" button and how Facebook servers associate click through with IP addresses.

Walled Gardens will eventually spell doom for freedom, as people will come to expect that Data Brokers will protect your privacy with same zeal that is given to finding new ways to generate revenue. The sad reality is privacy and security is mere lip service. Just ask Zuckerberg.  Community efforts like the Freedom Box project will hopefully become mainstream robust alternatives oddly pervasive, "gee let me put everything in the cloud" attitude that has become an integral part of marketing campaigns.  Computer memory and hard disk space has become very affordable, there is no reason to allow data brokers to continue harvesting our data with no respect for our privacy or security.  

Perhaps the most concerning trend is the proliferation of appliances and what I call the point and swipe brand of computing. IMHO computers were designed to help us solve complex problems, in fact, the machines are supposed to help make us more intelligent. In contrast, the appliance seems to make people dumb.  I'll accept that I am not the average use case for computing; however, our children and people associated with academia should never accept that a computer is only for web surfing, looking at photos and checking email.

Computers as appliances are tablets and unrooted smart phones. There is something criminal when a company forces you to give up your credit card number to simply enable your smart phone. RMS advocated open hardware with no handcuffs or back doors.  Too often manufacturers setup back doors to collect personal information from their consumers. Empowerment originates from understanding and exploration, you cannot accomplish these objectives if your computer is a black box.  I refuse for anyone to tell me that _their_ hardware is too complex for me. Our minds are not feeble. There is nothing particularly advanced coming out of Cupertino.  If you pay your hard earned cash, you should be able to inspect your hardware it as you see fit.

Though, many would describe RMS as an idealist and an eccentric. He really understands the problems as they exist. Although, I would suggest that I am a bit more pragmatic when it comes to software. I wished that I could have stayed longer, so that Dr. Stallman and I would share a photo op.  Oh well, perhaps next time ;-)


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