A few months ago, Deloitte, a large professional consultancy, invited me to speak at a conference held for their tech consultants in the Midwest region. I delivered this address on September 21st, 2007:
Good morning... I'm honored to be here. I'm Dave Eads. I am an activist, a programmer, and a designer. I'll tell you more about my story in a bit. First, a question...
In Steven King's excellent book "On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft", he concludes with his ultimate description of the writer's vocation:
"Writing," he says, "isn't about making money, getting famous, getting dates, ... or making friends. In the end, it's about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It's about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy. ... Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art."
Can we say the same of being a geek, or a hacker in the broad sense, or even an IT consultant? What is being a geek about? Is it about making money or being famous? Can we say it's about getting up, getting well, or getting over? Can we say it's about getting happy? What can we say about the satisfactions of our work?
And if the technologies we are expert in are, for most people, indistinguishable from magic, have we become the magicians of our hyperconnected world? As experts in information technology, what is our responsibility to our fellow citizens, our society, and our world?
* * *
Today, I'll be talking about several projects that I have been involved with over the years -- as an independent consultant currently working for the Chicago Technology Cooperative, as a founder and staff member at the FreeGeek Chicago computer recycling, training, and advocacy project, and as the accidental web guru for The View From The Ground, a web publication in the tradition of classic human rights reporting, focused on the plight of Chicago's public housing residents during a time of historic and often tragic change. As we go, I'll be focusing on the ways we strategically applied free and open source software in innovative ways, and asking some hopefully poignant questions about the nature of information technology work, and what we can hope from our profession. The photographs you'll see were taken by Patricia Evans, Jason Reblando, the Basel Action Network, and myself.
* * *
In the spring of 2000, six months after I moved to Chicago, I heard about a crazy guy named Jamie Kalven who was doing journalism and activism at the Stateway Gardens housing projects on Chicago's south side. Always up for an adventure, I set off to meet him. Who I found was not a crazy man at all, but a disciplined and insightful writer. And what I found at Stateway changed my life.
Stateway, along with its more famous neighbor to the south, the Robert Taylor Homes and a few smaller developers to the north, were known as the "South State Street Corridor." The developments along the South State Street corridor was said to have the highest concentration of poverty in America during the 80s and 90s. With their almost exclusively black population and vigorous drug trade, Chicago's public housing projects -- Cabrini Green, Stateway Gardens, Robert Taylor, the Henry Horner Homes, Ida B. Wells -- were symbols of inner-city decay to the public at large.
My first work at Stateway was simple, manual labor with residents in a program called the Neighborhood Conservation Corps, a sort of insurgent public works program that recruited veterans of the gangs that was headed by Jamie. Over the course of the next year, we began to plan an online publication focusing on human rights issues in public housing.
I already had some experience in web and IT work, and had been messing around with computers since I was a kid. In my physics course, I began to learn the rudiments of programming. We had very little in the way of monetary resources. Instead, we had the intersection of our skills and the possibilities of the web. The Internet would be our platform for reporting on human rights in public housing. We named our publication The View From The Ground. I began to develop a technological framework that would allow us to tell the stories of residents to a wider audience.
It was and is easy to think of places like Stateway was being worlds' apart from where we live. The word often employed is "isolation." As Jamie says, it is comforting thought to imagine that the poor "somehow pulled up stakes and moved away from the rest of us." When we realize that Stateway Gardens was surrounded by institutions and infrastructure like the headquarters for the Chicago Police Department, the Dan-Ryan Expressway, the CTA Red Line, De La Salle High School, and the Illinois Institute of Technology, The Illinois College of Optometry, and several hospitals. it is hard to say that Stateway was isolated. We used to joke that we'd finally discovered the precise location of the digital divide on 35th street, where it separated Stateway Gardens from the Illinois Institute of Technology. Stateway Gardens was not an isolated community, it was a community that had been abandoned by many public and private institutions most of us take for granted.
Advancing the official narrative of inner city decay to the exclusion of all others, the Chicago Housing Authority began their "Plan For Transformation" in the late 90s. The Plan consisted of the demolition of public housing projects and the creation of "mixed income" developments in their place. The story driving the Plan for Transformation sees places like Stateway as fundamentally defective communities which must be torn down for the good of the residents and the public at large.
It does not account for the complex, often beautiful forms of community that residents had created at Stateway, or the rich histories that unfolded there. As long as this the Orwellian logica of urban transformation, gentrification, and redevelopment predominate our discourse, we cannot make an honest assessment of what the Plan For Transformation means for this city and for the residents it displaced.
One by one, the buildings at Stateway were demolished. In May of this year, the last building was gone.
My experience was that the reality on the ground was infinitely more complex than the narratives told by power. The Stateway community was strong and utterly vibrant, filled with the hustle of alley mechanics and street corner salesmen hawking burned CDs and white athletic socks, the sounds of children playing, or old-timers conversating while sitting on milk crates because the city had removed all the park benches years before. I remain close with many of former Stateway residents, but the old sense of community -- of running into crazy Roy, watching a barber cut hair in a building lobby, or just sitting out on a summer's evening drinking beers and seeing old friends -- have not survived the "transformation" in tact.
I also learned of the terror that brutal, corrupt police officers inflicted on the citizens who lived at Stateway in the name of the drug war. Within 30 minutes of my first visit to Stateway, I saw a police car driving so fast and so recklessly in pursuit of some unseen hoodlum that they nearly ran over a young girl riding a bicycle with training wheels. That image is indelibly burned into my brain, but it was certainly not the last time I saw or experienced the violent, seemingly senseless abuse of state power at Stateway.
As time went on, our technology changed. We've been through several content management systems and web designs over the years, and soon we'll be moving again. The more I did it, the better I got.
More importantly, our strategic focus was honed. The more we talked with residents and the more we hung out and the more we experienced, it became all too clear that the issue par excellence was the policing of the drug war, and the space it created for abusive, cruel officers to inflict great suffering on innocent citizens. The more we investigated the police, the more we found structures within the police department and the prevailing public discourse that allow us to avert our eyes, and embrace what Jamie has called the logic of not-knowing. We began to ask a question. If, in fact, a group of rogue officers known as the skull cap crew, had systematically terrorized public housing residents during the final days of public housing in Chicago, what conditions allowed them to act with impunity?
In my years at Stateway, I experienced some of the abusive policing first hand. Early on, a squad car pulled a u-turn as I was walking down the sidewalk near Stateway and four officers jumped out, guns drawn. I grew up in Kennewick Washington, where the cops would give you a ride if you were walking home. I'd never had a gun pointed at me in my life. So I blurted out what was probably the most sincere thing I've ever said: "Be careful."
The worst happened on my way to play some basketball at Stateway, near Roosevelt and Ashland. My friend and I were nabbed and slapped around by some police officers who took offense that I mentioned to my buddy they weren't showing their badges as we rode by an arrest on our bikes.
After punching me in the head, planting drugs on me, slamming me into the hood of their car, refusing to arrest us, and calling my best friend and I a slew of racist and homophobic names, they let us go. "We do this for your good," one officer told me. "We're the reason you sleep at night." It's funny, because I actually believe they were sincere. They seemed to truly believe that their means justified some greater end. Personally, my nightmares typically have less to do with drug dealers at Stateway and more to do with getting repeatedly slammed into the hood of a police cruiser.
For me, these experiences were exceptions to a life largely free of such hassles. For Stateway residents, including several we wrote about, they were part of everyday life.
While what we covered and the technology that drove the site evolved significantly over the past six years, our online strategies were refined more slowly. We began with two ideas: that you must think about how to use to classic joke -- on the internet, nobody knows you're a dog -- to your advantage. Second, we believed that the unfettered presentation of substance and content should be valued as matter of design and engineering above all.
When I'm working as a consultant I often run into clients who want web sites and web apps that are everything to everyone -- because hey, everyone is on the web, right? At the Chicago Tech Cooperative, we try to gently remind our clients to focus on core strengths and a core audience.
Our approach with the View has always been the opposite. Instead of being everything to everyone, we tried our hardest to be something to someone. In our case we wanted to present challenging, rigorous, and credible reporting on the abuse and systemic corruption to city and federal politicians, lawyers, and the press, who would be pushed and prodded by our work.
The View may not get hundreds of thousands of visits a month. But for city politicians, who recognize the rigor in our work, it doesn't matter. They don't know who is visiting the site, or what statistic, story, or framing of an issue will makes its way from the View onto the front page of the Chicago Tribune, or into the hands of a federal investigator.
Technologically, we embraced Linux and free software early on, mainly because we had no money and the little firsthand experience I'd had with Linux in prior work environments had piqued my interest immensely. It didn't hurt that I had a Redhat install CD and a Pentium III that I liberated from storage closet at school when I saw that it had been gathering dust for at least a year. So I learned Linux and Apache as I went, picking up some Perl and C, lots of PHP and Python, and a whole lot of system administration and security. A few months before he passed way, a physics professor bequeathed me the purple version of the classic guide to Unix system administration.
You could say we were innovators, but it was not so much with development of the technology itself but with how we employed it. From the start the site used a content-first design, and a dead simple home-grown CMS written in Coldfusion. I thought I was pretty dang cool for learning enough about programming to unsystematically write a CMS that barely worked.
At a time when most home-grown sites were homepages, with animated GIFs and splash pages, we embraced a site that put our stories front and center, with none of the techno junk or horrendous lapses in taste that continue to take root these days on Myspace. It's funny, because at the time, we didn't really have a name for what we were doing. Nowadays, sites that feature periodic content front and center released according to a loose schedule are called blogs, and they dominate a significant part of our discussions about life online.
If we anticipated blogging by several years, it was because of the dictates of our substance, and our audience, and, most important, the audience we felt most accountable to -- the residents of Stateway. Our innovation was not for the sake of niftiness, however worthy or fun that can be, but stemmed directly from the need to effectively tell a story that was urgent, and important, and that had quite concrete material consequences for more than few people.
The free and open source software movement, which at that point I was mainly consuming instead of contributing to, provided us with tools that we could afford, that we had the freedom to to experiment with and learn from, and the space to pursue our more important strategies without much technological distraction. Open source gave us a freedom similar to the freedom we had as a result of working in a squatted apartment as an office. It allowed us to think about the social ramifications of the technology. Paradoxically, it provided us with the tools we needed to go about resuscitating the dying practice of long-form political journalism in a new medium.
Another innovation, strangely at odds with the general pace of technological change, is that going online meant we could be patient. Unlike newspapers and magazines, which have to pump out the pages no matter what, we could publish whenever we wanted, and let work accumulate over time. Maintaining an online archive is practically free. Lots of journalism is, by the nature of its medium, highly disposable. Much to my surprise, some of that patience has been paying off this summer.
After requesting that records of police misconduct be released as part of a civil suit on behalf of Diane Bond, we've received a great deal of attention -- on the cover of the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times, as well as in the New York Times and other national publications. After several years of slow progress and hard effort, we have been able to put some serious pressure on the Mayor to reform the systems of police accountability.
* * *
As we went along, I began to feel more strongly the arguments behind free and open source software, and realizing that many of the values we were embracing in our work were a serious, stated part of some free software communities. One of my favorite languages is Python, where the community has an almost magical combination of technical prowess, engineering elegance and strong ethics.
If you have time, open up a Python shell and type "import this". You'll see the Zen of Python, a lovely easter egg. Among its maxims: "Explicit is better than implicit," "beautiful is better than ugly," "complex is better than complicated", and the one I could learn from better: "in the face of ambiguity, refuse the temptation to guess." It is striking that this is codified into the Python language, even if it is a bit of a joke. I find it remarkable that the Python community strives for many of the same values that we have worked so hard to affirm in our reporting and photography in the philosophy and design of the language.
Larry Wall, of PERL fame, has said that the hacker's virtues are laziness, incompetence, and hubris. Laziness because good programmers don't like doing busy work or boring work, and so they create tools to help them be lazy. Incompetence -- the most controversial of the virtues -- because good hackers learn what they need, as they go, approaching each problem domain fresh. And hubris because uber geeks want people to see, and respect, their awe-inspiring code. when he says these anti-virtues tend to self-organize in the open source world into communities that emphasize patience, cooperation, and humility. I'd like to add a caveat. With PHP, hubris, laziness, and incompetence tend to lead to communities that tend to emphasize hubris, laziness, and incompetence.
But for us to really talk about what it means to be a geek, we need to broaden our perspective, a bit. Let's start with a key premise. In "After Virtue", Alasdair MacIntyre discusses the Greek notion of a "practice". A practice, he says, is "a coherent and complex form of socially established human cooperation" that is engaged in for its "internal" goods. Most human activity, says MacIntyre, is at least partially done for its external goods -- the making money and getting famous -- of Steven King's argument about the nature of writing. Some human activity is done for its internal good -- healthy patients for a doctor, a beautiful chair for a carpenter, the thrill of competition for an athlete. A practice systematically embraces these internal goods, and through competition and passion expands the human capacity for excellence.
Now, we can begin to sharpen the question posed I posed at the beginning. If we are going to ask if being a geek is about getting happy, or if our work is the water of life, we must ask: is being a geek a practice? What is that practice? What are the internal and external goods of our practice? How should what we know about information technology shape how we act with information technology?
The methods of inquiry I learned from the work at Stateway suggests more questions: Information technology has potential for social goods -- things like better discourse, access to information, and greater government transparency as well as watching videos on YouTube, playing online games or ordering Christmas presents in your skivvies. What sort of ecology do we need to realize those goods, and to ensure that the advances in IT are healthy and humane?
* * *
Another home for me is FreeGeek Chicago, a collectively-run computer training and recycling center in Logan Square that I helped found along with five others.
Our system is simple: volunteers come in and learn how to tear down, test, and rebuild donated computers. If they log 20 hours, they receive a free computer running Xubuntu Linux -- usually that they built. Any components that aren't viable are responsibly recycled. We also sell complete systems for $50 to the general public.
FreeGeek is a conscious, collective effort to think about how we use and consume information technology in a limited, critical, and cohesive way, that focuses both on hardware and software. Personally, my work with FreeGeek has been an extension of the skills and values I learned working on the View, but dealing with the technology itself. In fact, I'd already been brokering donated computers to public housing residents, but couldn't keep up with the demand, or the additional support people needed for their Windows 98 systems, especially as Internet-connectedness and its wicked counter-part, pervasive malware, become increasingly common.
FreeGeek Chicago is a pretty unique organization. FreeGeek's operations are always a little chaotic. Nothing ever works quite right, at least at first, and sometimes forever. Our volunteers are a diverse mix -- at any moment in our basement warehouse our radio might be rocking the Chi-Lites. Or Jay-Z. Or the Pixies. Our stuff includes a straight-up anarchist and a former Marine. We once had a gray-haired Catholic sister from the Daughters of Charity tearing down a computer with a young man from the Gangster Disciples.
Most organizations tackling the so-called digital divide specifically think about their missions of terms of class, and economically empowering the poor. We care a great deal about the poor, but our perspective is somewhat different. Sometimes, when I talk with groups about FreeGeek, I ask them if they fully understand and feel able to do what they want with their computers, or if they feel frustrated by the spyware, and baffled by the autochart wizards. Usually, everybody laughs. Once, after a particularly good rendition of the question, someone held up their hand and said "amen".
I don't know that trick will work as well with this crowd, but the point is that to focus on economic class with information technology is somewhat to miss the point. Whatever side of the "digital divide" they may be on, many people -- perhaps most people -- rarely feel empowered by information technology, and often feel alienated and confused by these electronic marvels. Members of the MySpace generation are not as confused or frustrated with the technology, but it could be argued that their technology use is by and large is an extension of the shopping mall, not the public square.
We decided early on that FreeGeek will not exclude any income brackets -- anybody who puts in their 20 hours is eligible for a system, no matter what. Affluent suburbanites who want to learn about Linux or improve their hardware skills are as welcome as Section 8 folks from the west side who are looking for job skills and training.
We've also seen the class notion undercut in the opposite direction. Slowly but surely, FreeGeek has become a magnet for homeless men with considerable IT skills. The case of Tim, a volunteer-turned-staff member, especially blows the theory out of the water. Tim wandered in sometime last winter. After a few weeks, he admitted that he was homeless, perhaps the result of previously-undiagnosed Aspberger's syndrome mixed with a lot of very bad luck.
Until a month ago, Tim was sleeping under bridges and bathing at the public library. Tim also happens to know more about Unix operating systems than anyone I have ever met.
He has an almost preternatural skill for troubleshooting incredibly tricky problems on obscure, ancient hardware. The worldviews of most digital divide groups don't encompass a guy like Tim, who loves computers and free software for their own sake, and whose social status we don't typically associate with his skill. I would guess that most digital divide groups would be intimidated by someone who fits their economic profile, but could easily show up most of them with his skills. It poses for groups whose idea of empowerment is handing out a lot of rinky dink certifications while lacking substantive training or even actual economic empowerment.
Lots of digital divide efforts are centered around computer labs -- participants sit in a lab for an hour or two, sometimes with an instructor. This isn't all that effective if the participants don't have a computer at home. Labs are great, but learning computer skills is exploratory, dynamic, and is most effective when there's a computer around to play around with. I'll bet many of you learned computers by goofing around on the family PC in the basement, or got interested after playing thousands of hours of Nintendo. Imagine the course of your life if that hadn't been around.
Instead of working within the lab model, we give away computers precisely because while public terminals and labs have some pragmatic uses, they really don't fulfill a key prerequisite for technological empowerment, which is ownership of the capital needed to truly learn computing.
We also try to take some of the mystique away by helping people get their hands dirty. There's some folks in Brazil who call themselves Meta-Reciclar who do similar work -- though out of sheer necessity. Perhaps also out of necessity, they have developed much more mature and thoughtful formulations of their work than we have managed. They say that for disadvantaged communities to truly make use of IT, the technology needs to be physically acquired, it needs to assimilated into the culture that will be using it, and as they put it, you must 'take out the magic'.
People are often scared of computers. Slowly, that is changing. But it would change more quickly if more people would come to FreeGeek and peel apart a case with a crow bar.
Computers have potential as tools of liberation, but they also consume a good amount of natural resources to make. Unlike many other forms of consumer electronics, computer manufacturing overseas seems to have pretty decent labor conditions. But it certainly can't hurt the environment to make them to last, and recycle them when they give out. That many people are sending viable computers to landfills is simply a waste of resources.
At FreeGeek, I also learned abut the enviromental and human costs of computer recycling overseas. In cities like Guiyu, in China, barely regulated recycling operations are quite literally killing people with their toxic by-products. The scale is pretty amazing -- supposedly more than 100,000 people work in Guiyu. The situation in places like Guiyu is tragic. And unlike tough, intractable problems like racism, preventing this is not particularly hard to do.
This is one of the ways that the free software movement's values and alternative economy are so powerful. Free and open source software is a very efficient, competitive market that is driven by a variety of personal motivations. You can even make money doing it -- that's what I've supported myself for many years, and now at the Tech Coop we are seeing clients ask that we release our work for them as open source projects.
While there is no way that Windows Vista will run on any of the Pentium III systems we outfit at FreeGeek, Xubuntu Linux provides our volunteers with systems that have support for modern technologies like wifi and usb out of the box yet run reasonably on pretty old hardware. Linux developers do not share the interests, dictated by a an economic system that values growth above all, of the big manufacturers who benefit greatly from Microsoft's ludicrous system requirements. And because the source code is free, those who want to keep Linux working with obscure and old architectures, like PowerPC, have the right and opportunity to do so.
It may not be a big surprise, but we've found at FreeGeek most people need email, web, basic multimedia, and word processing. With software like Vista, you pay over and over and over -- for the OS, for the hardware, for the support. It seems a bit excessive, and funny because OS X still trumps Vista in usability and beauty, and modern Linux distributions let you have up-to-date systems on hardware that most people would have long ago left for dead.
There is no good reason that we can't treat computers as devices that can and should be maintained as long as possible and expect that we'll get good use out of them. But with powerful, anti-competitive corporations in the marketplace, we cannot expect the invisible hand to guide us without some serious intervention.
I should note that FreeGeek could use your help. Our demand is running laps around our supply and we are in desperate need of hardware donations. We always need volunteers of all technical skill levels and abilities. If you have clients in the Chicagoland region who have computers that they don't need, please send them our way. We will make sure that they get a new life for someone who needs them. Better yet, come hang with us.
* * *
As you might have noted, I'm pretty critical of the overwhelming drive to make money at the expense of all other considerations that many of our clients, and sometimes employers, exhibit. It seems clear that we need motivations that go beyond money, or that at least offset the drive for money. You should make good money and receive acclaim for doing good work. But you should also do good work because it is a good in itself, and for the benefit of your neighbors and friends and fellow citizens. Personally and corporately, we need aspirations that respect the substance of the work as well as the rewards.
We need to think about it corporately and collectively because these many of these issues are systemic, not personal. One of the things we saw with the Chicago Housing Authority was that overwhelmingly its employees were honorable, caring and ethical. But their collective efforts wound up being misguided, hurtful, and sometimes corrupt.
And if we're going to talk about ethics, we must talk to some degree about politics -- an ethic of free information and transparent infrastructure has a distinct and real policy dimension to it. If we are to talk about politics, we must talk about corporations. In the global economy, can politics and the actions of corporations ever be separated?
I cannot speak directly to the ethical ramifications of your own work, though I'm sure you wind up doing work for pretty onerous companies (even if the work you are doing isn't onerous). It happens to me on occasion. What I know about Deloitte itself is impressive, especially considering the scrutiny faced by your competitors. How you think about and make decisions about that work is not an easy matter. The danger is that we don't think about it at all.
One case where the ethics are pretty clear-cut is labor conditions -- if people are being hurt or dying to produce some commodity good for Americans, we need to ask ourselves if its worth it. Somewhat shockingly, W.G. Sebald notes, "Mass murder, after all, was no more than an extreme variation on the elimination of human beings by working them to death." Are we doing this? And if we are, how can we possibly respond?
Perhaps we need a Hippocratic oath for the IT field. There is a need for a a sense of professional vocation and responsibility among tech workers beyond the world of open source, and also within it.
* * *
These questions are interesting, but so are more pragmatic but no less important ones. Why is it so hard to put timelines on software development? Why is software so buggy? Why are our projects chronically haunted by the Mythical Man Month and the sunk-cost fallacy? Why is client communication so difficult sometimes? Why do the organizations that contract with us chronically mis-estimate the technical resources required, or allocate their resources in positively crazy ways?
I believe this is in part because our field is so young. The pace of advances in the capacity and capability of information technology in today's world is mind-boggling. We count in milliseconds as we situate live our lives online, juggling the sound and fury of cell phones, text messages, email, social networking, blogs, newspapers, TVs, radios, iPods, and the spectre of omnipresent advertising. We've got a pretty good handle on blasting data packets across the globe at miraculous speed, but we often forget that other processes have their own timelines and dynamics.
A friend of mine tells the story of the American who goes to Great Britain. "What marvelous lawns you have," he tells a Brit. "How did you do it?" The Brit answers "Oh, it's quite easy. You till the round, and plant the seed. Then you care for it and cultivate it and water it... for 500 years."
We, as geeks, have not been around for long. When I studied physics, we would talk about the heroes of the 17th and 18th centuries. Physicians have traditions that stretch back several thousand years, and embrace ancient traditions from Greece, Rome, China, and India. Bakers and brewers have traditions that go back millenia. Geeks have roamed the Earth for barely a half century.
Another question, then, that we must raise about our profession and what it entails, is what we want it to accomplish and what we want it to look like in the next 25, 50, 100 years, and how our actions today will affect that.
As a matter of our professional responsibility, I'd argue that thinking this way necessarily entails a strong commitment to open and transparent and freely available standards and protocols.
None of the cool goodies jQuery gives you are possible without mature, well-understood public standards. Writing against jQuery feels efficient and natural in part because jQuery is well-engineered, but also because web pros know their CSS selectors, and we know them because they are a standard.
Some applications and classes of applications themselves clearly should be open source. Though Richard Stallman might argue all software should be free-as-in-beer-and-freedom all the time, I think we can get closer to a consensus in more particular cases.
Take voting machines and the example of Maryland and Queensland, a state in Australia. Maryland has spent over $25 per citizen to pay for the pleasure of using Diebold voting machines while they were simultaneously suing Diebold for some curiously partisan malfunctions and for many undisclosed security holes. Queensland, on the other hand, spent around less than a dollar per citizen for their voting machines and software, which were developed by a local company that was paid handsomely for their work on the basis that the source code be released to the government and the public.
The debate about voting machines could learn a few things from the Zen of Python. Counting votes electronically may be complex, but it is not complicated. At least, it doesn't have to be.
My girlfriend is an election volunteer, and the most recent municipal elections in the Chicagoland region were marred by electronic voting machine errors. The communication system was so bad that many locations had to write their results to flash-drives in a special format, which then had to be physically transported by election judges accompanied by Sheriffs to the central office. Then they were attached to a special hub which runs over a serial cable which sometimes was able to correctly transfer the data off the USB drives.
Our common sense as tech people tells us that it does not have to be this way.
"Voting machine software should be open source, including the operating system." Once you say that, it becomes starkly obvious that this is a good idea. The inner workings of elections in a healthy democracy should be open to public scrutiny from all citizens. This is not radical, and it is not rocket science. My work with The View and the work with FreeGeek is fundamentally conservative, affirming basic values of honesty, rigor, fairness, freedom, and transparency. You needn't be radical, or partisan, or even particularly political to arrive at such conclusions.
The voting issue is so silly that it takes on the qualities of dark humour. Real world experience over the past ten years of electronic voting experiments leave little doubt. Australia managed to support a local business and run a fair election at minimal cost to their citizens. Their solution supported both the market economy and the goals of democracy. Maryland wasted orders of magnitude more tax payer money on bunk elections and litigation. Sad as that is, it's hard not to find it a little funny, even though joke is on us.
Where are the voices of software engineers in this debate, the folks with expert knowledge in the field? You don't see that so much in the press. And posting as an anonymous coward on Slashdot doesn't count, either. Maybe we haven't raised our voices. Maybe not enough of us, or enough of us in "respectable" areas of the field, have raised our voices. Maybe we have, but we aren't being listened to.
Our society should be and is looking to us to provide guidance on a slew of topics: from voting machines to DRM and intellectual property, to how we should share and archive our personal records, to the responsible recycling of computer equipment. What are we going to tell them? And if we don't, who will?
As practitioners at a moment when our trade is still very young, we have an intensified responsibility to try to create a healthy ecosystem that balances technological progress with human freedom, human need, and human frailty.
* * *
I'd like to end by talking a little about hope and realism.
If someone were to have said to you in the early or mid 80s that over the next twenty years, tens if not hundreds of thousands of people would spend millions and millions of hours writing software whose source code they would give away to anyone, for free, you probably would have responded with extreme skepticism. And yet this is exactly what has happened as the free software movement has become a powerful force in the market, and one of the most successful civil rights movements of our time. In tech years, it has taken a relatively long time. In human years, it has been amazingly swift. What does that say about what we consider realistic and possible?
The question I posed about getting happy at the beginning is one that I continue to struggle with. At Stateway, and at FreeGeek, and at the Tech Cooperative, there are moments when I feel genuinely whole, able to work with the technology to try to do something decent in the world while learning cool stuff. Sometimes, it seems pretty frustrating, and pointless.
Can being a geek be a practice that rewards our souls? It can. But it doesn't just happen when you sit down in front of a keyboard. It takes discipline, and discrimination, and thought. When we -- when I -- get so caught up with the insanity of clients or the grind of perpetual problems, I don't feel whole at all.
I find refuge in stepping back, and thinking about this incredible moment in human communication. I'm blessed to have had a miniscule role in participating in it, with both code and content. And really, unless your name is Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or Linus Torvalds, it's probably unlikely that any of us will garner much more than a footnote in the history books. But that doesn't make our contributions any less important, because it's us, the practitioners and professionals, as a culture and a community, who are building our online world. At some fundamental level, being a geek today means taking on the responsibility of our defining role in the future of the humane use of information technology.
Of course, things are also bleak. At the View, we feel proud of our achievements, but the bigger issues -- like the fact that the US holds 25% of the world's prisoners, directly as a result of the tragic policies of the drug war, with a huge number incarcerated for non-violent crime -- dwarf our successes. The big issues seem so hard, and so stuck. Consider that we rarely ask whether the people who make our t-shirts and our cellphones were paid a fair wage in a safe work environment. That according to our best science, we are rapidly overheating our crowded planet. Or that middle class folks are starting to directly experience the problems in our health care and education systems.
The HBO series The Wire, my favorite show of all time and probably the starting place if you want to understand better the world I described at Stateway, describes this conundrum with incredible clarity, as we see cops, gang bangers, and politicians buffeted by bureaucracy, blind institutional momentum and the perverse logic of the drug war. We go pale when we confront these issues -- like computers for many people, they seem too big, too mysterious, and too scary to do anything about.
W.G. Sebald writes about this when he describes Auschwitz survivor and philosopher Jean Amery. Sebald says that Amery's description of "his life as a slave laborer in Auschwitz-Monowitz affirms the utter helplessness of human beings before the objective lunacy of history." But "although he knew the real limits of the power to resist as few others did, he maintains the validity of resistance even to the point of absurdity. Resistance without any confidence that will be effective, resistance ... out of a principle of solidarity with victims as a deliberate affront to those who simply let the stream of history sweep them along."
What we must try to do, sometimes simply because it is right, is apply what we know how to do best: pragmatically tackle technical problems one step at a time, and apply our ways of thinking, our creativity, and our skill to working on these things, whether it is at a suburban school board or in the slums of Capetown. As early pioneers in the field of applying computers to business problems, a great track record in terms of your own behavior in the marketplace, and the work many of you do in implementing systems of corporate transparency, however screwed up Sarbanes Oxley may be, the culture and history at Deloitte seems to provide some starting points.
Rudolf Virchow, an doctor who embraced both anthropological analysis and the brand new field of statistics in the 19th centry, puts this point most elegantly: "Medical statistics will be our standard of measurement: we will weigh life for life and see where the dead lie thicker, among the workers or among the privileged." I know of few better statements of what it means to be a professional.
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A few years ago, on a beautiful late summer night, my friend Aaron and I sat in the parking lot at Stateway in the shadow of the one remaining building with Pete Haywood and his brother Dave, two lifelong residents. Despite never having left Illinois, much less the country, Dave is a geography freak. As we sipped on beers and watched the sun set, Dave passionately spoke to my buddy and I. "You got the chance to travel the country and travel the world, and you got the chance to talk with people, folks I'll never meet. You you are traveling around, you gotta tell folks 'I've walked down the South State Street corridor, the toughest place in America, and it ain't that different than anywhere else, that the folks here are still people like they are all over the place.'" So here I am. The question for me is this: what does having walked down the State Street Corridor mean when I practice my skill? Can being a geek -- through our culture, our ways of thinking, and our tools and skills -- help us to be better friends and neighbors, to be happy and whole, and to take on the injustices of the world we live in?