The Intersection of Hard, Important, and Profitless Problems
The recent announcement from Mozilla Corporation that it is laying off almost a quarter of its work force has many, including myself, thinking about how we as a society go about ensuring the continued existence of the fundamental digital infrastructure on which so much of modern life depends. The continued funding of open source software, and therefore its long-term sustainability, has been a perennial question for developers, the for-profit companies that rely on open source libraries, and even some of the large philanthropic foundations. There don’t seem to be any silver bullets to solve the problem, but the software produced by these projects can be massively important. We’ve seen time and again how just a handful of unpaid people can be responsible for complex pieces of code that are fundamental to the continued operation of our global network. The funding story gets even worse if you look at the need to maintain software instead of develop something new.
On top of that, our relationship with our electronics has always been tinged by the background issues of how they’re made, how quickly we are convinced to replace them, and, frankly speaking, their human and ecological costs. The online services that we connect to using those devices have their own problems, from privacy violations to radicalization, all in service to (or an outgrowth of) keeping us glued to our screens so companies can sell more advertising.
It seems like there should be solutions to both of these (and some other) issues. A way to support the necessary work on important infrastructure as well as divorcing our own use of technology from the incessant needs of capitalism.
There have always been groups of people willing to dedicate themselves to what they view as fundamental in life, without concern for what profit it brought. What if there existed a model for an intentional community where this type of work could be done? The course of 2020, from pandemic, to the battle for civil rights, to uprisings against dictatorships in Belarus, Hong Kong, and Thailand, has tought us the importance of solidarity, of the power of community, and the need to think beyond the well-trod paths of the 20th Century. So, how could a new type of intentional community, focused on building and maintaining technology to help real people as well as our planet, operate? How would it sustain itself against the backdrop of a capitalist world?
There are, of course, some analogs to this kind of community, both ancient and modern. The Christian monasteries of the late Classical and Middle Ages are one example. The dedication to the church and its teachings gave the members of the monestary the drive to remove themselves from everyday life and pursue what they felt was a higher calling. They were not generally completely separate from society, however. Monks and nuns taught the laity not just religion but also agriculture, mechanics, and metallurgy. They were also responsible for the diligent copying and storage of manuscripts, eventually giving later thinkers the opportunity to read copies of ancient Roman and Greek texts. Monasteries and cathedrals also often offered the only meaningful schooling of the time.
The monasteries themselves were supported by the laity by donations and via the larger Church structure. Some monestaries also produced their own products for sale to the public. The two groups relied to a certain extent on one another. This reciprocal relationship of donations given by the public and knowledge and care given by the monastics in return still sustains the monasteries of today.
The monestary model of course shows up in other cultures as well, such as in Buddhism. The Buddhist model shows a similar symbiotic relationship between monastics and the laity. In fact, monks and nuns are forbidden from growing their own food and must go into their communities to collect donations of food. This binds them to the surrounding people and ensures that they do not retreat and seal themselves off. In return, of course, the monastics provide education and spiritual guidance to the public.
A Shift of Priorities
Religion as a motivating factor is less of a driving force today, but perhaps the drive to improve the lives of people and the planet can still be captured.
Could some of the issues facing the open source movement in particular and the world more broadly be addressed and perhaps alleviated by a reimagined version of that same kind of intentional living and reciprocal support structure? We can combine elements of monastic living with the tenets of open source, communal solidarity, and ecological care, to create a new model for living with technology and the environment. I don’t have a name I like yet (suggestions welcome!), but I’m rolling with “a Dedication” for now. Here are some thoughts on how a Dedication could operate:
Fundamentally Important Focuses
While of course individual Dedicateds will always have their own passions to pursue, the overriding focus and mission of the Dedications should be centered around a central core of priorities:
- Crucial and under-supported digital infrastructure on which many people rely
- Tools that empower the people that work with them, particularly in cases where those people belong to marginalized communities, instead of huge corporations
- Objects and ideas that are designed to operate on long time scales – This means avoiding planned obsolescence, designing for easy repair, and not fetishizing other goals such as speed or size over resilience and longevity
- Outcomes that benefit local communities first, rather than trying to solve the problems of a global audience
Self Sufficiency and Helping Local Communities
In addition to support from local and other communities, a Dedication can and should do what it can to be self sufficient:
- Grow what food it can given the physical location it occupies
- Accept donations in return for things they produce or services they provide (e.g. organizations like Edinburgh Remakery)
- Limit the impact on the Earth that the group has by reusing whenever possible, offsetting electricity use by using more efficient equipment and installing solar, wind, and other renewable electrical sources
The COVID pandemic makes this suggestion an odd one, but hopefully some day we will be able to go outside and see other people again… While the bulk of open source development happens online, there are some clear benefits that come from gathering together. I think a solitary modern monastic could constitute a Dedication-of-one located in an apartment above a coffeeshop, but they would miss out on some of these benefits:
- Costs of all necessities fall when you purchase in bulk. Food, rent, clothing, furniture, and most other items can be had cheaper when you’re buying for 20 instead of one.
- Groups of larger numbers are more likely to engage in activities, both in the open source ecosystem and in the local community, that would be likely to garner support through donations of money, equipment, or time.
- The work of coding obviously benefits from bouncing ideas off of others. While the internet makes distance collaboration much easier, there is still a tangible benefit to sharing space with colleagues.
A Common Outfit
There are a few reasons why Dedicateds should stand out wherever they go. As with monastics of every tradition, Dedicateds should remind everyone around them of the work that they’re doing and the commitment that they have made. They are ambassadors of the entire idea.
It should be as simple as a robe of a given color. In my head green makes the most sense. The color is a reminder of the goal to heal the planet, and green is said to cause feelings of safety and calm. The robe form is important for all the reasons that it was 500 BCE when the Buddha chose it: it is easy to create, inexpensive to obtain, easy to repair, and simple to hand down to another. It is also conveniently non-gender specific. It therefore represents the ideals of reuse, simplicity, and equity that would underly the work of the Dedication.
I’m not running off tomorrow to start some commune. This is 90% “what if” ideas that have been bouncing around in the back of my head for a while. But there is still that 10%…
This is also obviously not the only way to support people working on these important but profit-less projects. There have been some success stories of people making enough of a living off of individual grants, Patreon supporters, or GitHub’s new “Sponsors” program to work on open source as a full time job. I’m not sure that these solutions really scale to more than a handful (relatively speaking) of people, and they don’t really address the issues of our technology’s impacts on ourselves and our planet.
Clearly, nothing in here is even a quarter fleshed out. I’d love to hear from people who are into the idea or think its completely bonkers, as long as they’re cool about it. You can reach out to me on Twitter, on Mastodon, or on Matrix.