Socially responsible toasters?

Paula Graham's picture

For most people, computers are just a bunch of glorified toasters. At best, they're an occasion to buy shiny gadgets. At worst, they're an electronic 'Big Brother'. But many people involved in technology production care about the world and feel there is a 'natural' fit between their ethical concerns and practices and those of the VCS. I don't meet so many people in the VCS who feels the same about socially-engaged technology producers, however.

Are technology activist concerns just a bunch of white-collar preoccupations irrelevant to a wider (and more sensible) world? Should anyone care about making technology production accountable to the communities which use it and, if so, what would that look like? Why should the UK government support corporate agendas at the expense of community-based technololgies and knowledge? Why do so many technology services by and for the VCS lock users into corporate IT frameworks?

  • What role does technology play in wider movements for social change?
  • How can techies work better with VCS organisations?
  • Does an under-resourced VCS still have a resonsibility to ensure that its technology use is socially responsible?

    If the free software geeks have got it wrong, how do we work together to get it right?

    Facilitator: Paula Graham

AndyDearden's picture

In my new role as devil's advocate, I think my starting point would be to ask "What's wrong with toasters?"

You talk about making technology production accountable, but what would you offer as evidence that the current dominant practices are unacceptable or antithetical to the voluntary & community sector (VCS)?
What is wrong with the VCS being locked into corporate IT frameworks?
In what ways is the current usage of technology by the VCS not socially responsible?


Paula Graham's picture

Well, I haven't got evidence in an academic sense (haven't done any controlled studies) but can give you some random pointers to the kind of thing that worries me.

How about forcing people to pay the 'Microsoft tax' whether they actually want the bloody thing or not:,1000000121,39261437,00.htm

For people in the developing world who can't afford the 400% markup on Windows OS ( MS is heavyhanded to say the least: blacking out your screen - or how about threatening a Russian teacher with jail and/or ridiculous fines:

Or the difficulties around .Net Kurdish version: "It is our concern that Microsoft may be delaying or excluding Kurdish from its supported languages just to avoid [...] potential political pressure."
Ubuntu, on the other hand, was the first distro to localise to Kurdish: And on the subject of localisation, not only is Ubuntu localised into many languages but it offers free support in those languages too:

Which is more consistent with VCS values? It's a bit of a no-brainer?

In terms of the British VCS -- much of it is as prone to piracy as anyone in China or Russia because they can't afford the 400% markup either. The piracy rate has gone down somewhat over the past few years because of the wave of dosh (relatively speaking) the gov't put into VCS ICT over the past 4 years. The general idea was to 'build capacity' (heh) -- ie the VCS was supposed to figure out how to manage ICT better. In reality, most of the money went to 'consultants' and on shiny MS XP machines which are now struggling to perform. Everywhere I go there are a a couple (or more) of XP machines shoved in corners cos they don't work and no-one knows why. Hell, let's just apply for money to buy some new ones! Rather like my father's crap jokes about moving house cos one has filled the ashtrays. This is funding intended for the public good which is being redirected into the pockets of one of the richest corporations in the world. How is that consistent with VCS values? Ubuntu's free and there are other well-supported distros which run well on older kit and are very resistant to malware/adware. They can be installed with a few clicks in 30-40 minutes on most PCs and an increasing number of laptops by any non-techie. Why is everyone so negative about this?

So, ancient pirated MS on PIIs and PIIIs struggles on unsupported all over the VCS and at the other end, XP/2003 P4s with inadequate RAM (MS told people they needed 256 MB RAM for the XP OS but failed to mention they needed another 256 MB for MS Office, duh!) are choked with an ever-rising tide of flotsam from the corporate sector which many of the popular corporate security software services don't consider a 'threat'. XP ships to run in root with everything open. The levels of malware and zombie PCs are approaching crisis. -- it's becoming increasingly unfeasible to run MS desktops without tech support.

Given the low levels of tech support or knowledge in the VCS this is a total disaster. My experience in the four boroughs I cover is that small orgs are crippled by slow-running and strangely-behaving desktops which they've no idea what to do with. Some of this is malware but a substantial proportion of the slowdown is created by corporate tracking cookies and adware or it won't boot cos malware has trashed the registry. I can't run around 4 boroughs fixing all this stuff and it takes forever to reinstall Windows on Dells (why does everyone have Dells?) many of whose components have no native MS support. I think this, alone, is an excellent reason for questioning corporate frameworks as appropriate for the VCS (or anyone else, frankly - but that's another story). I've never met a Dell (or Compaq, E, etc etc) I can't just chuck Ubunto onto in 40 mins and have everything work out-of-box. Laptops are more temperamental but I can still get Ubuntu up and running on them in half the time.

That's before we start on the 'green' stuff and labour rights. I won't set all this out here, I put some stuff about it here:

OK this is getting to be a big of a saga so I won't get into issues around buy-offs of anyone who makes substantial progress in moving towards introducing free software to local government and gifts to the higher profile end of the VCS blah blah blah.

How can this stuff be acceptable to a VCS ostensibly committed to fair trade, openness, community etc etc?

AndyDearden's picture

OK, so if I understand your argument correctly, the things that you find unethical about Microsoft are about the trading practices it is using to maximise its income from sales of Windows & Microsoft Office. But (devil's advocate again), as a private business, surely it has a right to make efforts to maximise income. Indeed, in law it has a duty to do its best for its shareholders, and it probably doesn't have any particular social duty to provide software for use in Kurdish. If we accept that Microsoft as a business has the right to trade competitively (as long as it stays within the law and meets the obligations placed on it by the relevant competition authorities), then in what sense can it be said to be unethical to decide to buy Microsoft's products?

Are you arguing that purchasing software or services from Microsoft is actually unethical for the VCS? If so, then surely you need to make a clear ethical case about that particular organisation.

An alternative argument would be about whether the VCS would be more effective (in its own terms, in promoting its own values) if it committed to FLOSS software. But this argument needs to consider the costs & benefits of FLOSS very clearly. The VCS exists in an environment that is not of its own choosing. In that environment, it has to deal with the familiarity that individuals have with existing systems (mostly MS Windoze & Office for reasons that you have set out very clearly), and where it may be collaborating a lot with other agencies also using Windows. Many organisations also feel very challenged by a lack of in-house IT skills to support and maintain systems.

How would you demonstrate to the VCS that switching to free software solutions would:
a) allow organisations to more effectively do their main job for the same money?
b) do their main job for less?
c) do their job just as efficiently, but in a way that provided some 'fair trade dividend'?
In particular, your answer probably needs to talk about the technical support side of the equation, as well as the boxes.

Paula Graham's picture

I'm certainly not intending to tell people that they're being unethical by purchasing MS products. That would be like telling people it's unethical to pay taxes which will end up being spent on invading Iraq etc. Not paying your tax incurrs serious unpleasant consequences for the individual. But if you were provided with a mechanism to choose where your tax would be spent, wouldn't it be a relief to be able to specify it had to be spent on social housing or hospitals? We are all caught up in forces beyond our control and most of us are doing our best to negotiate best possible practices for ourselves and our communities. This is not, for me, a discussion about who's 'holier than thou' or a lecture in good behaviour.
MS is a business, of course -- alot of the time it's actually not within the law (and, like many US Corporations it's begun to be overly involved in making laws, manipulating research agendas etc) but the fact that we are in some sense ruled by people we have no opportunity to elect is a macro point which applies to most areas of life. The point is MS's policies are pretty antithetical to corporate social responsibility agendas (let's face it, it's not one of the good guys however much Gates now pokes his nose into the non-profit and governmental sectors).
Its products are not really suitable for small charitable organisations either for the reasons I outlined above. MS is not really maintainable by non-technical users and are designed to make money for shareholders rather than to promote autonomous culural production, openness and sharing or socio-economic egalitarianism. These are, of course, truisms but no less important for that. Technology is a major shaper of our collective lives and we should have more control over it.
I completely understand why people use MS products and, for a long time, it has been one of only two possible choices. The point I'm trying to make is that there *is* a choice now, Ubuntu, in particular, is reaching maturity and can handle most VCS needs.
I work with small, frontline orgs trying to help them with their IT. Many of them are strongly sympathetic to free software and would like to make the change. Often they can't do so because the barriers are too high. It's bad enough to encounter proprietary 'lock-ins' - as you say, who can blame private companies obliged to survive in the environment created by the corporate super-powers - but why does the VCS create products and services with proprietary lockins?

Paula Graham's picture

An, by the way, I don't like 'efficiency' reductionism. Does the VCS exist to be 'efficient'? If so, just cut wages, cut staff, cut cut cut. Oh, wait, that's what *is* happening. Well, I know many would like to see any distinction between the VCS and the business sectors disappear (ie get rid of the VCS altogether) but I'm not one of them.

AndyDearden's picture

I think I would claim that my argument is about effectiveness and overall impact, rather than raw efficiency, and I don't want to spend a lot of time defending Microsoft.

I would like to pick up on the question about whether MS products are suitable for small charitable organisations, and the barriers that organisations face in trying to make the change.
Perhaps the biggest challenge that small organisations have is that the time of their activists & volunteers is very limited. For this reason, they would like to obtain services that they can rely on and to which they can pay minimal attention. You are making two distinct claims:
1) that MS products are not really suitable for small organisations (and by implication, that FLOSS is more suitable)
2) that the barriers to making the change to FLOSS are too high for some of the organisations you work with.

So I would like to ask three things:
1) Can you make a clearer case that the standard products are not suitable - bearing in mind the usual arguments about staying with 'standard' applications?
2) Can you be specific about the barriers that the organisations you deal with experience in trying to make the switch?
3) Can you suggest things that the VCS could be doing to reduce the height of those barriers?


Pamela McLean's picture

Ref '.. people in the developing world who can't afford the 400% markup on Windows OS....becoming increasingly unfeasible to run MS desktops without tech support....Given the low levels of tech support or knowledge in the VCS this is a total disaster....I completely understand why people use MS products and, for a long time, it has been one of only two possible choices. The point I'm trying to make is that there *is* a choice now, Ubuntu, in particular, is reaching maturity and can handle most VCS needs....I work with small, frontline orgs trying to help them with their IT."

I don't know if VCS has any specific legal definition, but if it does simply mean "voluntary and community sector" then perhaps it includes "me and my friends in Africa" who are in the Dadamac network. We often struggle to use ICT in ways that techies could do in their sleep.

It's not just about Microsoft - so perhaps I'm wandering a bit off topic here - but to me it seems relevant. It's about the whole problem of how a widely distributed frontline network can do all kinds of things relating to information and communication without really knowing how to get the technology out of first gear. The open source movement has produced wonderful tools, but how do small VCS players learn to make the most of them? (Moodle and Drupal are in the front of my mind at present - plus various multi-media things that are so important in effective communication.) We have quite challenging problems related to knowledge management as well as needing effective communication that is not too reliant on the written word. Paradoxically we are also heavily involved in text based conferencing - but there are good reasons for that. One is the fact that for people using English is an additional language, not mother tongue, discussion at a distance is easier in written form than in spoken form.

I have a feeling (or maybe just a hope) that there are techies "out there somewhere" who would enjoy getting involved with things like the Dadamac projects - just like some techies enjoy being part of FOSS development. The social, cultural and community development issues we are involved in are wide ranging and very interesting to anyone who likes to broaden their horizons. I reckon that somewhere there must be a techie or two who would enjoy occassionally applying their technical skills to our information and communication challenges. Some of the issues Dadamac is involved in are far removed from UK living, others, such as eco-development are relevant to us all.

If anyone has any suggestions where I could start looking for such techie treasures please let me know.

Chris Bailey's picture

Andy writes:

"How would you demonstrate to the VCS that switching to free software solutions would:
a) allow organisations to more effectively do their main job for the same money?
b) do their main job for less?
c) do their job just as efficiently, but in a way that provided some 'fair trade dividend'?
In particular, your answer probably needs to talk about the technical support side of the equation, as well as the boxes."

I think this misses the point. FOSS advocates working with the VCS,both in the UK and elsewhere, *have* demonstrated all of these, over and over again. We have done so by going into individual organisations, analysing their present IT set up and showing them precisely how FOSS could do all of the above. But we are faced with a highly resourced international corporation with vast sums of money to spend on making sure people stick with their products, even if FOSS is more suitable. I have worked as a FOSS circuit rider (IT adviser to VCS organistions) in both the UK and the Balkans. In Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia Microsoft just resorts to straight forward bribery and corruption of politicians and decision makers to ensure its continued domination, thus helping to perpetuate the serious corruption that holds back overall development in these countries. In the UK it is slightly more subtle, but just as effective. Let me give just one example of many I could give. An organisation I worked with in Cambridge provides services for blind people. As such, it was being donated lots of old computers. The system administrator for their computer network is himself blind, though the rest of the staff are sighted. After a series of discussions I had with him he became very enthusiastic about going over to Linux. He discovered a blind Linux users group and realised that he would be able to administer a Linux system much more easily than Windows. We developed a plan to use the old computers as terminals to one fast Linux server. At first other staff were rather dubious, but we held a presentation session showing them all Ubuntu and Open Office in action and they and the Manager all now became enthusiastic too.

All that was left was to convince the Management Board. But at this point Microsoft got wind of what was happening and stepped in. They announced that they were giving the organisation 25 free licences for XP and would also donate a new computer providing the organisation stuck with Microsoft and agreed to be photographed receiving the new computer (showing how socially responsible Microsoft was - helping the blind!!). The system administrator was disgusted with what he saw as a sick exploitation of blind people to promote Microsoft. We explained to the Management Board that most of the computers the organisation had were not good enough to run XP anyway. The Management Board excepted this, but now decided to spend £15,000 on new computers so they could run the XP operating system Microsoft had given them! The old computers were thrown away.

Do we really have to explain that giant corporations totally distort social action and responsibility for their own ends (or the profits of their shareholders)? Pat Cox, when he was President of the European Parliament, described FOSS as "the biggest cooperative effort in the history of the world". Surely it should be obvious to socially responsible people that such a worldwide cooperation is ethically and morally superior to the greed for profits of the giant corporations? The fact that it isn't only shows the powers of distortion and misrepresentation Microsoft has been able to mobilise.

Paula Graham's picture

Agree Chris!

Andy, we're talking at cross purposes and I don't really know how to answer you so I'll just try to deal with your bullet points:
1) Can you make a clearer case that the standard products are not suitable - bearing in mind the usual arguments about staying with 'standard' applications?
-- The usual arguments, eh - tired of them (I think everyone is!)
If we're talking about small frontlines, my experience on the ground is that a striking proportion of MS products will become unuseable within a year unless maintained by MS-trained tech support. People can't get their email for this and that reason, can't find their stuff, machines are so slow you wanna scream or have developed spontaneous rebooting habits, weird home-pages etc etc. Ridiculous amounts have been spent on providing MS training of one sort or another yet skill-levels are still minimal. Few have a clue how to use the minutest fraction of MS Windows' or Office's capabilities. They have Outlook .pst files of 4 gigs and counting and use Outlook as a general filing system -- without Outlook's folder structures they can't find anything and then Outlook finally freezes and crashes under the strain of inappropriate design and total lack of maintenance or the entire user corrupts. Futile efforts have been made to reinstall, frequently with the result they now can't boot at all. Or something's trashed the MBR etc etc. They have Access databases they don't/can't use or which give them endless headaches.

How all this is considered efficient by any measure at all really escapes me. For organisations which have tech support MS will function fine (and so will Linux) but, for the small orgs, MS requires considerable tweaking on the out-of-box scenario and/or a fair bit of week-to-week maintenance. You need to know what all the CD installers are shoving onto your machine and about malware risks etc etc and few individuals at small orgs can cope effectively.

-- I think we need to stop going along with the idea that MS is less trouble and bite down on the fact that SMOs don't have technical skills, have no intention of getting the necessary tech skills, and need to be provided with basic stuff that does the job and needs minimal maintenance once set up. Proprietary practices and systems designed for commercial settings are frequently a hindrance rather than a help to this.

2) Can you be specific about the barriers that the organisations you deal with experience in trying to make the switch?

-- 99% of the time it's proprietary lock-in -- closed systems which make it difficult and expensive to migrate data in order to 'maximise' their profits -- when VCS oganisations get restive about what they're paying, proprietary companies give them massive discounts to hinder the spread of cheaper options better suited to SMOs. Frequently, these closed systems are actively promoted by VCS and governmental advice and infrastructure agencies

-- FUD and the effect of misinformation on user perceptions such as 'MS make the chips don't they? they won't work properly with anything else' etc etc

-- users are used to shoving a CD into their machine every time they buy a peripheral and don't know how to do the simplest configuration task. People think this is an argument for MS and installation CDs but in reality this means their PCs get plastered in adware and bloatware they don't even know is running in the background until their machine is so slow it's barely useable. If more people used Linux distros, manufacturers would produce CDs - and would be accountable to the free software communities to design them with more limited impact on the users' setup

-- most of the popular linux distros ship without proprietary codecs, runtimes, players or DRM support -- codecs and players can be easily installed but it needs some level of technical skill, distros such as Ubuntu eschew DRM altogether - but DRM is a nightmare on Windows anyway. Ubuntu already provides the codecs, runtimes and players in an easy-to-install bundle but you have to enable the repos (because otherwise Ubuntu would get sued -- hardly Linux' fault - it's a shame that open standards have not been enforced for stuff like the music format the entire world uses etc etc).

3) Can you suggest things that the VCS could be doing to reduce the height of those barriers?

-- re-evaluate why everyone builds everything in Access? There's a myth that Access can be used effectively by non-technical users which appears to be total BS on the ground. Probably a third of calls I get are from users who can't figure out how to use their Access databases and the db's themselves are not very good mostly. People throw endless training at this but, frankly, relational dbs are a bit of a tall order for most people, I think we just have to admit that dbs need to be designed by people who know about dbs with point-and-click interfaces for the user. Access, unfortunately, uses proprietary scripting etc which is hard to migrate (or scale -- I mean, it's no use on Windows either). I think it would be a better strategy all round to develop modular solutions on the LAMP platform with its openness, scaleability and standard browser interfaces.
-- community accountants, CVSs etc frequently advise people to use products like Quickbooks - again, proprietary lockin
-- funders frequently use interactive pdfs that are difficult to deal with even with Adobe products running on MS - they crash and freeze and generally drive users insane. In fact, you can install Adobe products (or alternatives which will cope with interactive pdfs) on Linux but, again, there's no Adobe .deb for Ubuntu so requires a bit of tech. Anyway, I don't know why funders do it -- wouldn't it make more sense to have a web interface to a db?
-- taking limited freebies which then lock you into a lifetime of expensive uprades - not really a plan?

I'd suggest that sticking with the usual arguments results in sending us all around the same old circles of not really addressing it?

stevewalker's picture

Andy (sorry - couldn't immediately see how to get this message placed next to your message!),

I'm wondering about the questions you're asking. If the questions we ask are purely pragmatic, it's unsurprising that the answers we get will similarly be pragmatic. If we ask a different question: 'what is that we as technologists can do to contribute to social emancipation (social change, etc. choose your language...)', which is probably a large part of what motivates many to become active in TSA fields, then we would get a different sort of answer. It would be one that reflects more ethical values.

In some cases the answer to the pragmatic/ethical dilemma is straightforward - for example green computing would be an easy one if we could demonstrate that lower power consumption reduces the total cost of ownership. The ethical and pragmatic answers are the same. My guess (and it really is no more than that) is that around FLOSS the balance of pragmatic arguments varies depending on the specific situation. The ethical arguments about economic power (and its relation to policy,as Paula points out) are rather more straightforward. The practical question then becomes one of how to take account of the two sets of arguments in a particular situation. I'm not sure how to answer this question, but an answer would need to include consideration of values and politics.


AndyDearden's picture

I think it is clear that there are two issues here: a pragmatic and an ethical issue.
I don't want to deny the ethical/political questions, but I also don't think we should deny the pragmatic concerns.

I like the point you make about the way the pragmatic / ethical trade-off happens in different settings probably being rather specific. And this particularly applies to the corporate sector donating software & hardware to 'nice' voluntary groups such as the story that Chris Bailey tells (above - or is it below)!

In any case, I think we could move to the question of 'if we are not succeeding in promoting FLOSS, then how could we organise ourselves differently to be more effective?'

Paula Graham's picture

Thanks Chris, I think this puts us back on the original theme and sums up the problem well.

Social change is not primarily a pragmatic effort. Obviously it needs to be grounded in real needs and goals or it becomes yet another imposition -- but it does require an effort, and often a leap into the relatively unknown, to make things different -- to try to make things better! As far as I can tell, making things better is pretty much the raison d'etre of the VCS? Unless I missed something?

30 years ago, concern for ecology was considered the domain of unwashed hippies with no sense of reality. In this decade, it has been the subject of governmental world summits and celebrity endorsement. I have a feeling that in the next few years, community software will go mainstream -- this won't be because of a change in the real conditions but because enough people make a decision to step back from their (not-so-)comfy habits and look at the wider picture.

I'd say that most of the barriers to the widespread adoption of a popular and accessible distro such as Ubuntu are ideological rather than practical and, therefore, to get bogged down in a discussion of the practical is repetitive and, I think, off-putting.

The reality is that, in practical terms, there is much to be said for any operating system which will do the job at hand sort of OK. In their native state (aka 'out-of-box') either Linux-Ubuntu or MS Windows will sort of deliver a functional PC. Neither is satisfactory without any kind of skills. Both are easy to sort out for any half-way competent techie. Technology is, ever increasingly, a shaping factor on people's lives. People should have more control over the technologies which shape their work and play -- and the world we live in.

The barriers to adoption are a product of deliberate actions on the part of certain individuals following corporate agendas which frequently conflict with the best interests of the human race as a whole (I think it's hard to argue about that).

Human beings could choose different deliberate actions which would result in manufacturers supporting Ubuntu adequately within a year or two. All a popular and community-responsive Linux distro such as Ubuntu needs is a 10% market share. At this point, manufacturers of peripheras would ensure that their stuff works on Linux.

Pragmatically, we, as techies, can also work with community-orientated Linux distros to shape a technology which can deliver what VCS organisations need 'out-of-box'. This latter is impossible to do with Windows because it's not open to community ownership and can't be rebuilt to serve the diverse communities which use it.

The VCS could decide actively to promote Ubuntu-Linux rather than actively promoting MS Windows, as is currently the case. Promotion of MS Windows in the VCS *is* active, but I don't think it's the result of definite decisions, it's just that it feels 'safe' -- and the rather strange conviction in many parts of the VCS that what works for business is best for community orgs (another issue which needs unpacking).

All I'm suggesting is that we stand back from the alleged 'pragmatic' agenda -- it's not pragmatic, it's hegemonic (ie it's a result of the purposeful manipulation of reality and not a transparently obvious state of affairs such as that apples fall downward from the tree).

It's a major support of neo-liberal manipulation to suggest that the '(not-so-)free market' is 'pragmatic' and all other ways of seeing the world are somehow 'impractical'. I don't think it's in the best interests of the VCS to go along with this kind of approach.

We need to unpack the 'standard arguments' and make our own purposeful decisions rather than going along with an illusion of 'safety'. MS is not working for frontlines in the VCS. Nor is Ubuntu-Linux right now without a little bit of tweaking, but if I'm going to put some effort into making *something* work for the VCS, it's going to be an autonomous, community-based option.

Paula Graham's picture

And to answer Pam -- yes, open source can offer a lot to your project. For open source techies there are so many projects and so little time! This is why we're focusing on trying to produce re-usable customisations.

Chris Bailey's picture

The ethics of Ubuntu from Nelson Mandela (video):

chriswhitworth's picture

I have just logged on, lurked and make the following observation: There are 2 themes here-
Should a major corporate dominate the world - Ok, thats easy
Should we, as activists, point out the value of alternatives to the Microcrap solution

On the second point- yes, we should, and can. I do, in my regular teaching, and whenever any of my friends complain about Vista. But realistically, support is in place for Microsoft products, in every shop, and in most living rooms. Yes, it shoulldnt need it, but it has the dominant position because it is the preferred solution- rightly or wrongly. I know of nowhere, in the physical world I live in, where I can take my Ubuntu desktop, or Asus K laptop for support. As well I can cope isnt it.

And, when I work with community groups- I offer them the advice they can choose, but, as their focus is ontheir task (Hospice, allotmrent assn or whatever, they usually go for the "norm" solution.

Until entrepreneurial SME PC shops get their heads round FOSS thats how it is!

AndyDearden's picture

I wonder whether the funding game in the VCS is part of the problem. Although it is getting better, there is no doubt that it is easier to get funding for a new machine than it is to get funding for ongoing software maintenance costs. The enterprising SME PC shop might need to be offering some kind of service contract that offers to maintain FLOSS kit to some quality standard for a given period of time.

Part of this is about organisations' handling of risk. Ultimately, as Chris says, the groups want to get on with their main work. They see technology as a potential source of risk.
They want software services provided with the minimum investment of their time and energy, and they want this done for a competitive price.
Are they following old adage 'nobody was ever sacked for buying IBM'?

Can the free software advocates provide services in a way that clearly takes that risk away from front-line organisations?

mintra's picture

The way I see it was that in the old days you dealt with a load of craftsmen, and some craftymen. After a few craftymen came up with sawdust the comcept of the brand was created. Hence people wanting tea would get a consistent brand experience rather than coloured sawdust.

Since then the Advertising agencies (my clients for many years) drummed the concept of brand and product into peoples heads so much that they now think that there is a branded product to solve every eventuality, amd if it does not work then they "I have rights you know".

The issue of course is that other things exist. specifically process.

Computers and computing are by definition process.

It is difficult enough to sell process as a product whoever you are, see what a jerkly transition microsoft is between versions.

However Free and open software people are not so good at this, e.g. the penguin logo should be in a toyshop and ubuntu is a horrible word to call a product.

I have tried the technology as a toaster (I was the importer of the cobalt qube) and have tried the productisation appoach.

This is no longer much fun, currently I am trying the process approach and trying to get my voluntarty service client involved to the process
of computerisation.

However they are largely product heads who treat techy people as service providers, (That is as in upsatairs downstairs type service).

Should we tell them that the open software process may indeed be the largest voluntary effort in the world and they should ditch the full retail experience and get with the program?

Brittain Adams

AndyDearden's picture

Ubuntu is not really a horrible word - it's just a foreign word.
An attempt at a longer definition has been made by Archbishop Desmond Tutu (1999):
“ A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.

But this is not an answer to your other points!

Paula Graham's picture

We could try ;) I do get fed up with being treated as menial technological handyperson but I'm never sure how to try to open out technology as a process without losing people in a load of techo-babble. My current feeling is that it's no good trying this from 'cold' but to introduce people to Ubuntu as a viable alternative with community-engaged roots and gradually build on their experience with it to start opening out more community-orientated ways of engaging with technology.

mintra's picture

I can see this "techno babble" difficulty, however I am increaingly seeing this as a political rather than a technical issue. I am looking to political solutions. For me the traditional models of

1) Captialist Limited Company
2) Members organisation type volunatary group
3) Co-operative

Are all is small ways flawed, as a way to promote open working techniques.

I can smell a hybrid type orgainsation brewing owned by the members offering participation and support as the answer.

Brittain Adams

chriswhitworth's picture

Are we losing sight of the issue though. Surely the point of the "toaster" is that its an enabling tool, not an end in its own right. The only exception being where the technology is an end in itself- in a FOSS community for example. Or, as a business opportunity or a training tool. But surely most interactions with the toaster are to make toast, not promote the use of different coloured toasters- or have i lost the plot?

I can see the value in promoting FOSS as a tool, if it creates work or social opportunities for the community, but not as an end in itself- it would be like trying to persuade the darts club to only speak in Polish (Dzien Dobry). But, it adds no value to do that.

Paula Graham's picture

Well, this does seem to be the view of most of the VCS.

I think the first point I'm trying to make here is that technology is not just a toolbox in the same way that a house is not just an investment opportunity (or should not be if we want to be happy, healthy, sane, and not credit crunched!). Technology now shapes our lives in enormously impactful ways -- it's not only that we can't get anything done without it but communication technologies are increasingly shaping our social and cultural interactions as well as the ways in which we do anything at all.

The second point is that technology is shaped by human decisions and guesswork and does not spring fully formed from the brain of Zeus as many people seem to feel. Technology production is always a process of research, design, testing, redesign, trial and error etc etc. That process can take place behind closed doors and decisions taken for you which are based on profit, exploitation blah blah -- or they can be taken in the open by communities of users themselves supported by community-motivated technicians.

I know which I'd prefer. The question is whether most people in the VCS would prefer to be involved in helping community-oriented techies in sorting out technological solutions which prioritise social needs, bottom-up economic development, respect people's privacy and their democratic aspirations or whether people really would rather ignore the whole thing and be handed inscrutable and impenetrable fortresses of technology which distort social relationships, spy on you to maximise profits and control social movements, socially exclude, poison landfill -- etc etc etc.

The toasters don't make this kind of decision, and if we can't be bothered then important decisions about the shape of work culture, (lack of) privacy, sustainable environment and economy and social justice will be taken for us without consultation -- not by some immanent property of technologies themselves but actually by men in suits who don't care about anything but power, control and their own status.

Paula Graham's picture

Hi Mintra -- yes, this is pretty much where I'm going with it. The difficulty one faces is in shifting preconceptions about technology and making people feel empowered to make decisions about it when it's not very high on their agenda of social concerns.

We need to find ways of facilitating participation which don't require any depth of knowledge about the technologies themselves -- to facilitate understanding of the social and political dimensions and how these fit with the agendas and concerns of VCS organisations overall.

There's also the nagging problem of the sheer logistics of supporting grassroots orgs with few resources when revenue funding for support schemes will be for a short period and then you have to 'sustain' it -- as we all know, you can't sustain a charging model when people have no money. But it's very hard to get people involved in participatory schemes. I'm trying different things at the moment with patchy success -- I'm hoping this forum can throw up new ideas and approaches? Or maybe form the beginnings of a practical network of people with similar convictions and aims?

mintra's picture


The answer to the funding issue is the Robin Hood Method.

Today I sat with my collegue and we automated the backups of 9 sites for a Health Care Charity. However it is the Oil Piplene monitoring company that really currently pays our Bills.

Hence if we have the propper mix of volunatry and capitalist clients things can run smooth.

However one has to sell the Porche to sustain this mode. Thankful I love My Bike

Richard Rothwell's picture

My feeling is that the lack of knowledge amongst decision makers in VCS organisations - and probably many other types - is the key issue. If they feel that they cannot understand the explanation then they will revert to activities that are perceived to be safe. They used to say "No one ever got fired for buying IBM." The current attitude is the same but for Microsoft. The first strand must be education. We need to find some way of getting the managers and boards of these orgs to *think*.

I've run courses like this; in the past.

As for the idea of a network, that is a good idea - especially as then you can sell the project with the line "and if I'm not around to support it, then these people can." We are involved with the Open Source Consortium ( for this sort of reason, but there is no reason why a 'riders' version of the OSC cound not be formed.

Richard Rothwell

Paula Graham's picture

If anyone's still scratching their heads about the 'Ubuntu' thing, Nelson Mandela explains it here:

And if anyoneo's unfamiliar with the Ubuntu operating system, there's a nice video overview here:

Paula Graham's picture

Darn, where did I put that porche?

williamH's picture

Can I just add one bit of factual information to this debate?

Through my charity, Charity Technology Trust (CTT), Microsoft and a number of other technology companies donate their software to charity. In fact, over the last two years, we've helped more than 5,000 UK charities get access to donated software. Moreover, it would be 50,000 charities if we could find a way of getting to the 'long tail'. The vast majority of the organisations we deal with are very small and trying to get by with 'string and sellotape' systems. The transformational impact of our donation programme on the efficiency of these organisations is hugely significant and in turn their ability to fulfil their potential is also advanced.

CTT is one of 20 NGO's from as far apart as Chile and South Africa runing similar schemes for Civil Society with companies like Microsoft, Cisco, Symantec and others. You can find out more about the programme at You can also read what organisations that benefit from the programme are saying about the scheme. Unsurprisingly, it's pretty positive stuff!!

Richard Rothwell's picture

just one question - do they also donate the software to the charities constituents as well?

Richard Rothwell

maddison's picture

Miss the point much?
That, in your own terms, the only thing hampering your efforts to help Microsoft save the world is your inability to reach the 'long tail' rather gives the game away, doesn't it? Getting a pretty comprehensive list of UK charities and mail-shotting them isn't exactly difficult. This is about PR for MS, not assisting charities in their IT requirements. Do you also provide the means for charities to update old equipment so that new software won't cripple them?
Giving MS products away for free, to a limited number of organisations, who may then in fact find their IT provision compromised by the 'gift' (as Chris's eg above demonstrates) sidesteps the critical role of FLOSS in terms of recognising the relationship between technology and social power. FLOSS introduces transparency, participation and the possibility of a more horizontal relationship to tools and processes that are becoming ever more central to social activity. This is an issue about politics, not about numbers of freebies (and I hardly think that MS can compete here with Linux in numbers of freely distributed pieces of software). And here, I have to say, I'm also rather incredulous at Andy's points above. Profit isn't a neutral entity, to which corporations are haplessly bound, but an instrument of exploitation and inequality.

williamH's picture

Not through our programme, but through the Microsoft Authorised refurbisher programme they do in some circumstances. For example, as I understand it, Local authorities may be licensed through the MAR programme to support disadvantaged individuals or families by providing access to refurbished computers equipped with new Microsoft softare.

Paula Graham's picture

Last time I checked you needed to be a registered charity to benefit and jump through rather a lot of hoops. Has this changed, cos you're not going to get to the long tail like that . . .

Paula Graham's picture

And are you supporting this stuff once it's out there?

Paula Graham's picture

Ubuntu is estimated to have over 8 million users worldwide (download and shipit stats). Users who bothered to register on the Ubuntu counter are running Ubuntu on 31896 machines. The Linux counter project shows 134303 users globally -- it's estimated that these represent a tiny proportion of actual users. These are all freely downloaded without any registration or proof of eligibility etc. Ubuntu can be downloaded freely or they will send you a free CD on demand or one can be purchased for about £3 per CD from various suppliers.

Ubuntu has extensive free support on its website, free local support projcts in many languages and free or inexpensive online tutorials and an active mutual support community where tolerance and helpfulness are enshrined in its constitution.

Anyone can download and use Ubuntu and most other Linux distributions and adapt them to their own languages and requirements without eligibility criteria and can undertake whatever improvement projects they like independently.

Even without taking into account cultural reasons why Ubuntu is so much more appropriate, I don't think just giving away a closed and unsupported operating system within a restricted context constitutes an argument for MS's appropriateness?

williamH's picture

Ok one by one...

I don't know about jump through hoops. You have to register on our site, provide name address, charity ID etc; hardly onerous!

In terms of support, it's Microsoft so there tend to be a few people around that understand it. There are also online resources aplenty.

I think that the problem here is that this FOSS vs Microsoft debate is simply not relevant for the vast, vast majority of Civil Society organisations, that are trying to deliver on their mission and have enough on their plate without engaging in what they probably see as a fairly esoteric discussion.

Paula Graham's picture

I don't think small, frontline organisations should have to understand internal process debates within technology discourses but we, as providers, do, I think, have something of a duty to advise on all aspects of technology choices, including the socio-economic. If I go to a doctor to be treated, I don't want to be shunted around without being made aware of my choices. I don't need to understand the chemical constitution of a drug, but I do broadly want to know its implications -- both biological and social -- and not just be prescribed whatever the pushiest and best-resourced salesman managed to convince my GP about -- or something whose test information has been manipulated or concealed and which will cause my nose to turn green. I also expect those who manage the NHS to understand all these implications fully and to be able not only to advise me in my own best interest personally but also to ensure that the NHS overall is managed for the public good and not manipulated by business agendas. We (or the NHS) may not always deliver as we would like but we expect them to make their best efforts.

I think we owe our clients and users the same. We should not only advise our users in the best interests of their individual organisation (and, by the way, I will always advise people who have high levels of proprietary lock-in that they can't realistically migrate to FLOSS at this time) but also to understand the workings of the technology industries and the VCS to assist people who don't know much about technology to make good, rounded decisions in their own best interests and that of society as a whole and not those of any particular company or agency.

Leonie Ramondt's picture

I want to explore our mental models starting with the nhs metaphor to see if it generalises. When I go to see a doctor, i expect him to be my ally and co-investigator. Drugs are my last resort. I spend significant time searching out and testing information on how to stay well. This information is frequently not known by my doctor, who simply doesn't have time to keep up with the literature. I'm pretty pro-active in keeping healthy and he thankfully is happy to give me expert feedback when i ask for it. My experience with the nhs is that this philosophy is rare, you have to be pretty empowered to make the system work for you instead of being another number that does as its told. (and if you don't, you disappear off the books). What i want is for the ability to bring together the often informal knowledge and experience from "users" who are learning what works and find a framework to test it so that it becomes evidence based. This means that ordinary folks can have easy access to data and tools to help determine whether for example it is sugar sensitivity that causes their depression or obesity, and then have the wherewithal to try "potatoes instead of prozac". Instead of treading the old disempowered (paternalistic) paths of allopathic medicine or more seriously - supporting drug company vested interests.

So what empowering models might there be for the FOSS community? Monthly subscriptions allow game companies like Blizzard to hone their product ongoingly in response to and in collaboration with (in the main) their user population. I love that software keeps getting more agile in response to our skill and innovation with it. I think it is incredible that the FLOSS community does this for free. Low income does however restrict its agility- (being Porsche-less is one thing, homeless another ;o). So would it destroy things if we were happy to subscribe via a monthly fee - say for Google-doc-like cloud (remote server/ thin client) potentially mobile technology that is delivered by a social co-operative instead of a data mining company? (the developing world is better off jumping boxes altogether don't you think?). Is the web/ browser ubiquitous enough? If not yet, won't it be? And even... what would it take to enable (young?) innovators to have some additional resource to do some cool bottom up stuff - eg develop / adapt virtual world community software on web enabled technologies like game machines so all can have a community in their pocket, or bend guitar hero to become an actual music tutoring tool?

dowdinsk's picture

Leonie asked, "...what would it take to enable (young?) innovators to have some additional resource to do some cool bottom up stuff - eg develop / adapt virtual world community software on web enabled technologies..."?

On a bit of a tangent, I'd suggest the FOSS community is part of something bigger, and from that larger community SiCamp (Social Innovation Camp) is worth watching. Dan blogs about it here. As another point of entry try this SiCamp project especially the 2nd video sequence - bear in mind if you do that some of the coders with the fancy MacBooks are running Ubuntu.
Its an example of bottom up development responding to need, as opposed to product development on a corporate model of market research, R&D for commercial gain, discounting to the CVS. Some of the participants at SiCamp came from the corporate sector (advertising/new media) so it can fit under the banner of Corporate Social responsibility too. .takes the discussion around openness a stage further, the open data movement already having made significant steps towards democratisation of previously not-so-transparent.
Taken together does all of this scale?

(apologies if this has been covered in previous hotseats)


chriswhitworth's picture

I think any non-free FOSS model is flawed. I havent researched this deeply but there are clear differences between the mental maps of employees and community participators- to treat the case simplistically. As soon as there is an income stream involved a different mindset takes over, and we could get back to the Microsoft Corporation attitude! The whole point of the FOSS core is that it operates under a paradigm of "fun", a hobby, an interest, a challenge, not a career- surely. So, the developers arent expecting income- or even costs?

Although- there are many businesses already living off it- LocustWorld being one I know of. These businesses seem to survive on a support model, without locking out the developer community. And I am aware of others that do "hijack" free code, bundle, change and distort it, then offer a package that isnt easy to duplicate. I wont bore everybody with the business references and theory- but, hope you get the point. So, perhaps the community is actually a spectrum, from "parasites", through symbiotes, to charitable gifters?

And maybe the "Robin Hood" model is the way forward. Using the rich to prop up the poor? If so, that provides resources as a "tax" on funded [rojects. If so, perhaps a way forward is to play the system- should we promote grant writing applications to create software for specific purposes, with some padding in to siphon off to support the community? Is it being done? If so, is the padding explicitly defined or hidden? Started a whole new theme here- or, is it commonplavce and I just dont know about it?

We live in interesting times!

Paula Graham's picture

Leonie - I'd love to do this (as you know, we've talked about it). I have a couple of groups interested in it but, of course, we'd need funding to deliver it properly. It's certainly something I have on the back burner.

Chris - I know many regard FLOSS as entirely altruistic but, of course, no-one's got any objection to earning a living! I think it's the shareholder model which is flawed -- we need sustainable models and that means people need to eat. I'm not sure about the Robin Hood model -- for one thing I don't imagine most paying clients would be happy about it. The usual model is that you develop something and make it available for free and only charge cost for distributing it. You pay your rent, food and clothing from billing time on customisation, support, training etc or subscriptions for delivering related services (such as Leonie is outlining) plus some grant money for development (if you can get it). I think many of us like the Co-op/Social Enterprise model for this kind of thing.

espmorgan's picture

This topic is really one about choice and change.

How easy is it to change the way we work?
How easy is it for organisations we support or provide services to change?

Going back to the Toaster analogy, if there was a choice between a 'normal' toaster and a 'socially responsible' (e.g. a green) toaster, many would chose the green one provided it was not a great deal more expensive.

But the analogy doesnt hold when it comes to technology. Changing your toaster has no exogenous effects whatsoever, and there is no overhead of any kind in making the change. Technology on the other hand is deeply embedded both in organisational processes and - as a shared cultural phenomenon - in every individuals' own psyche. As a result, advisors are unlikely to recommend major changes and clients are even less likely to want to adopt them. Barriers and obstacles to change are everywhere..

Nevertheless over time we can and do absorb many technological advances where the transition:

a) Does not involve 'losing' anything (i.e ones gains additional functionality and does not have negative compatibility issues)
b) Is easy for inexperienced people to learn and operate
c) Clearly solves a particular problem/opens a new experience
d) Reaches some kind of critical mass of cultural awareness
e) Is widely adopted and promoted by technology practitioners

I dont think this actually has anything to do with cost savings (although the kind of people that worry about cost savings may well use them as a killer argument provided everything else is in place). Nor has it really anything to do with socially responsbile/ethical angle. Nor does the willingess and ability to change have much to do with owenership structures..

For example, millions of staff within VCS organisations, businesses, and public sector bodies have managed to adopt the PC, email, the internet and (currently) even Web 2.0, yet have failed to make the ostensibly simpler switch from MS Office to OpenOffice, despite the fact that it is massively cheaper and more 'ethical'.

Where practicable, FLOSS has managed to get everywhere - most of the web runs on it for a start. It just hasnt made (many) inroads onto commonly used Desktop or Application software. Yet.

When this does change it will be because the technology is easy to adopt, extremely useful and works alongside and in addition to current technologies. It shouldn't need the political angle (and hasn't for the areas it has come to dominate)...

chriswhitworth's picture

I agree with your comments about the Robin Hood model being flawed- but it happens all the time in reality, in industry. At least it did everywhere I worked. We used "big business " resources to shore up our pet projects. Informally and unofficially usually, but I dont see it as fraud. The core stakeholder often sees spinout that benefits them financially, as well as keeping their employees at the top of the Maslow tree- self actualised or whatever.

And there is plenty of literature on this - from the old 3M stuff to much newer material on firms that encourage it- Google etc, as well as Virgin (allegedly).

On the last point, from espmorgan, is it purely ignorance? I use OpenOffice exclusively to create my work- and ths is via Firefox/Ubuntu, but teach at work in Office applications. And no-one knows. Unless I tell them (which I do). "But does it work, doesnt it crash, will it still print" are the reactions I get all the time. So, is the "big issue" actually education, countering the huge dinosaur of Microsoft and its marketing dept (which includes every end user as far as I can see). Should our role as converts/disciples/enthusiasts/missionaries be to get out there more and prosetylise?

And- could we even get grants for it (only kidding!)

Paula Graham's picture

Thing is, Chris, that model only works if you're primarily a commercial operation -- we're entirely VCS-based so it's hard to see which rich we'd be robbing from ;) It's also pretty unusual in commercial culture to be allowed to do this. I left my previous job in a marketing agency precisely because, despite promises to the contrary, they gradually began to take not only all my waking hours but half the ones I normally use to sleep.

On espmorgan's point: yes, I agree with your summation and these barriers are very real. What makes me weep is that almost all of them are external to free-software-world and therefore free software producers have absolutely no control over them.

a. 'negative compatibility issues' -- 99% of these are caused by proprietary companies who ensure that their file-types will be as difficult to convert as possible in order to promote artificial 'loyalty' and peripheral manufacturers who do not produce linux drivers or instructions - much less installation CDs for their kit. It's hard to see what Linux developers could do about this apart from promote an expanding Linux market share for the latter. As far as filetypes go, there's nothing whatsoever that free software can do besides fighting a rearguard to prevent companies like MS jockeying the rest of the world into accepting their crap as standard.

b. The newest versions of most of the really popular distros are already more user-friendly in most areas (and catching up fast in others) -- this is now mostly an issue of perception rather than reality

c. Free software clearly solves all sorts of problems -- just getting rid of the licensing nightmare is a massive plus in terms of the complexity of managing a network. Loads of really professional software for free? Simple, well-designed interfaces with lots of user in the design? And most of all, ***stuff that's designed to work together and where data can be exported and imported without needing third-party software or a team of migration experts not only across applications but across platforms*** -- What's not to like?

d&e. You don't reach critical mass overnight, someone has to be an 'early adopter', I think we're hovering on the edge of cultural breakthrough though.

I'm very aware of how much more constructive this debate has been than anything along these lines I've participated in before. OK it's probably still a minority of VCS techies but the difference between promoting Ubuntu now from 5 years ago is really making me feel hopeful.