April 17, 2020

No Thankssoftware freedom without programmers

Software people tend to assume that everybody loves open source, or would if they got the chance. After all, who doesn’t like free stuff? Who doesn’t like freedom? Blinded by their own light, software people miss how differently not-software people see open source and all the preachy enthusiasm popping off around it.

From outside software looking in, “software freedom” walks and talks a lot more like “coder entitlement” or “coder privilege”. In short, a hacker on a tear should never hear the word “no”. Not when breaking into offices to steal parts for a train set. Not when contending with a printer they didn’t develop or pay for. Not when building the next hot web or mobile app … again. Not when building a war cloud or optimizing a baby-photo reinforcement schedule for grandma.

All of this with heaping spoonfuls of coder flattery, bordering on worship, to boot. Coders as indomitable “innovators”. Coders as righteous “disrupters”. Coders as “kingmakers”. Coders eating the (business) world. Coders as pious priesthood of the Internet miracle, taking the world like the friars took California.

For all the frantic ego stroking, software people forget that marketing never sleeps. “Open Source” was a tremendous gap-filler on the balance sheets of early-2000s great tech company expectations. Something accounted for VA Linux’ valuation, not to mention its generosity to spinmeisters, at least before crashing back to earth. Then Red Hat’s valuation. Then GitHub’s. Then Red Hat’s again. Each new ascensions with a twinge of outgoing incumbent resentment, as the mantle passes to the next hot firm crafty enough to seize it, leaving the prior emperor more visibly disrobed. Open Source can figure on your balance sheet. But it can leave as quickly as it came.

“Open Source” hasn’t depreciated to nil quite yet. But the business world did not stop minting new buzzwords. And curiously, given the all-encompassing intellectual dominance over software that open source asserts, the new hot words and phrases have tended to reject coder supremacy and the universality of “free” and “open”. In explicitly negative terms.

Three for the record: No Software. No Code. No Logs.

No Software

“No Software”, the famous slogan of Salesforce, never actually meant no software. It meant Salesforce would keep and run the software for you, so you didn’t have to be a geek, or suffer to hire one. After all, you’re a businessperson, or in sales. You can just do that, better.

As it turns out, coders and their ilk are basically the only people who feel good, or anything but annoyance, about possessing and installing copies of code on computers. Everyone else bears the chore begrudgingly, when a means to a necessary end. Sometimes software isn’t available any other way. Sometimes practicalities like performance require a local install, as for competitive gaming.

Given the choice, normal human beings don’t want to handle downloads. They don’t want to initiate upgrades. They don’t want to decipher version numbers or release codenames. They don’t want to manage license keys. They don’t want to coordinate backups. They definitely don’t want to squint at system requirements, or to understand them. Not even under the guiding hand of an app store. In fact, normal human beings dislike these things a lot more than paying for them. Business has made payment pretty easy. Far easier than programmers have made programming.

If, as a music listener, you’ve slowly given up ripping, cataloging, and backing up your music collection from physical media, because you can just stream it all for a few bucks a month or a few ads an hour, you know exactly where non-coders are coming from. You want to listen to music. Unless acquiring, cataloging, and handling music has become your thing, an end in itself, it’s at best nostalgic, and mostly just inconvenient. Spotify doesn’t threaten your freedom, your autonomy, or your dignity. Actually, it’s better.

In the same vein, unless you’re a committed gearhead, you probably don’t care to change your own oil, switch gears manually, steer without hydraulics, or even own a car at all. In urban areas, you may simply prefer to hail rides when you need them. The auto makers are onto this, even among those who want a car at their own beck and call. Subscription-based auto “memberships” are here, and we’ll likely see more of them.

Call No Software “service bureau”. Call it “application service provider”. Call it “software as a service”. Call it “cloud”. Call it Aunt Jemima. Business rejected open source’s obsession with possessing the goods, its fetish for techno-prepper-esque autonomy. To the point of pitching itself as anti-technocrat rebellion, a throwback to the protests that rocked the labs where free software was born.

That marketing coup built the tallest tower in San Francisco. Open source still rents.

Much has been written about open source and SaaS. But the simple fact is, as a phenomenon and a brand and a program, open source never cogently responded to service delivery. Network-aware copyleft licenses never took GPL’s place. There isn’t any free, open, vendor-neutral service analog to RPM or APT or CPAN or RubyGems or npm. And in the mindspace, being “open source”, not to mention using it to build closed SaaS, coexists peacefully with “No Software”. After all, the audiences are different. They don’t regularly mix and mingle. HR at Salesforce can talk open source all day long to would-be engineers, while its sales team talks No Software all day long to would-be customers. Nobody’s stung by the dissonance in their day-to-day.

No Code

Fast forward to the late 2010s. Another rebellion is born.

From Bubble:

You don’t need to learn to code or hire engineers to make your next idea a reality. Bubble enables anyone to design, develop, and host fully functional, powerful web applications.

From Zeroqode (note the name):

Everything You Need to Build Web and Mobile Apps Without Code

Its homepage calls to action?

Build an App

Start an Agency

How about VoiceFlow?

Collaboratively design, prototype and build Alexa Skills and Google Actions—without coding.

And, of course, AirTable, which often takes top slot on sites like nocodehq.com, nocode.tech, and the Twitter hashtag.

Visual programming is reborn. The East Coast, financial-center spreadsheet jockey, always the direct analog of the West Coast code monkey, gets his day in the sun, replete with a dash of California, boomer-hippy vibes.

All of these “No Code” services are full of code. Code their engineers wrote. Code their users, who aren’t engineers and don’t self-identify as such, also wrote. It’s not the utility of software or software skills that these companies invite their customers to reject. It’s the priesthood of programmingdom. Code, but don’t be a programmer. Depend on code, but don’t depend on programmers.

No Log

So much for code. What about data?

From NordVPN:

We don’t track, collect, or share your private data. It’s none of our business.

From ExpressVPN:

ExpressVPN does NOT and WILL NEVER log:

We have carefully engineered our apps and VPN servers to categorically eliminate sensitive information. As a result, ExpressVPN can never be compelled to provide customer data that does not exist.

From Surfshark:

For us, no-logs is a no-brainer.

From CyberGhost:

Do we log, keep logs, protocol surfing behaviors or record content, visited websites or IP addresses of our users? No! Why? People in non democratic countries (so maybe YOU!) are in real danger, just for expressing their opinions. If we implemented back-doors,deep packet inspections or store information about our users and share those with authorities regardless their origins, we would risk the lives of people. We will not do that! Ever!

And from ProtonVPN:

ProtonVPN respects its users’ privacy and enforces a no-logs policy. This means your VPN connections remain private and we do not store information about your connections or the websites you visit.

Take a minute to appreciate what’s going on here. These are marketing pages, advertisements, about privacy policies. VPN providers are competing on their privacy policies.

Largely, I suspect, because so many VPN users use VPNs to evade region restrictions and infringe copyright. But we’ve seen technologies and technology practices jump the gap from illicit to licit use cases before. We will see it again. In the meantime, this is exactly the kind of cross-vendor privacy policy feature the European Union hoped to codify with standardized icons under GPDR. Bubbling up from the bottom, across companies, without legal requirement.

Yes and No

No Software says you don’t have to become a techie to leverage technology. No Code says you don’t have to rely on techies to tell computers what to do for you. No Log says that when you do rely on techies, they won’t track, tattle, or otherwise sneakily monetize you.

That’s software freedom!

No, emphatically not.

Free and open source never credibly delivered what non-software people want. They deliver what software people project that they want, occasionally. That failure is what the new buzzwords exploit. That failure is why the companies leveraging those phrases don’t bother drafting off “open source” for their customer-facing identities.

Part of what non-software people want is preserving their own identities, fascinations, skills, and focus. Free and open source invited non-coders to give themselves over to a self-consciously aloof subculture, hackerdom, as a rite of passage to the benefits of computing. They invited non-software people to think of freedom first and foremost in software terms. When we chortle that early free software activists expected everyone to be a programmer, this is what we mean. They were wrong. All the seductive deductions from that flawed premise trapped true believers behind an original sin of aggrandizing self-deception. Folks want a better deal than Stallman ever offered them, and increasingly, they can get it.

Open source pretends to universality, both by specializing broad generalities to its own domain, and just as often, opportunistically, by holding itself out as a shining light, a model, a revolution to join or be overthrown by, for basically everyone doing basically anything, anywhere. Software freedom is just “freedom” applied to software. But open source is also a model, a truth to proselytize, for open science, open government, open data, open everything. Openness is inevitable. Join, or wither and fade.

On the receiving end, that gives openness the harsh ring of a rhetoric of conquest, first intellectual, but translated, through business, into a general rout. People don’t want to be conquered, in any aspect of their lives. As a rule, they don’t want to become hyphenated coder-artists, coder-musicians, coder-salesmen, coder-registered-nurses. They can get better deals for the benefits of computing than that, without paying the tolls of coder education and acculturation. And we see coders sharing the wealth without taking those tolls expressing themselves in new, catchy, understandable ways.

Traitors to their culture and class? Perhaps.

Turncoats on “openness”? Frankly, who cares?

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