📝 FOSS Talk: Mel Chua - "Universe Hacking"

17 Feb, 2018 — 6 min

Reflections on Mel Chua’s “Universe Hacking” talk for FOSS@MAGIC.

While the event is over, and this post is well-overdue (>1 week; event was Feb. 7, today is Feb. 17), the event page can be found here

Free and Open Source Software (FOSS), hardware, and content development can be the grounds for impressive technical feats – but they’re also spaces where radical political, social, legal, psychological, and cultural shifts can begin to take hold. This talk explores the interplay of four levels of “universe hacking” via (re)telling stories from FOSS projects both large and small. What does Creative Commons have to do with terraforming? How is FOSS@MAGIC like a Biosphere? Mel has both worked in and done research on FOSS communities, and will explain all this with plenty of cartoons and sci-fi analogies, so come and find out!

Mel’s talk covered a lot of history in open projects, from open tractors, to custom prosthetic hacks. She also went over the four ways of interacting with non-FOSS from the FOSS side that she’s found (detailed below). While the talk seemed to lack a punchline (since the specific method of interacting to use is subjective to the context), the talk was very informative and entertaining (particularly the spaceship sound effects). The four methods Mel discussed for interacting with non-FOSS are as follows, using metaphors for if you were to go to another planet that doesn’t have a breathable atmosphere:

  1. Holding your breath: This method has the advantage of quietly letting you use FOSS, but also doesn’t help spread FOSS, and you may occasionally get an odd look as well. An example of this is using Mozilla Thunderbird as your mail client if you’re being required to use a Microsoft Exchange email server, and LibreOffice instead of Microsoft Office (except for that odd document that doesn’t work).
  2. Using a spacesuit/remote-controlled avatar/robot thing: Unlike the first method, this method is showing off to the world that you are using FOSS. However, you have the potential of rubbing people the wrong way if you are being too in-your-face about it. This would be like the LibreOffice example from #1, except taking issue if a document doesn’t work in LibreOffice.
  3. Biodomes: You create a little sanctuary of FOSS. This also shows off your FOSS to the world, but the main risk is that you risk incompatibility if someone from outside your biodome tries to come in. To continue the LibreOffice example, your team might all use ODT documents and then export only when you need to send something to management or another team which is not part of this.
  4. Terraforming: You forcefully change the environment to be FOSS. For hopefully obvious reasons, this method does enforce FOSS, but you also are likely to run into issues with compatibility for people not using FOSS, and you are highly likely to really rub some people the wrong way. From the LibreOffice example, this is enforcing a company-wide standard that you have to use ODT documents, and if a client sends you a message with a DOC(X) file you send a message back telling them you don’t use DOC(X) files.

Since none of these methods is perfect for widespread use, Mel suggests using combinations as needed, particularly a series of biodomes you can go between and doing #1/#2 as needed. This extra week of not getting around to writing this post has been productive for reflecting on this, however. In particular, since co-op has been a frequent topic lately.

We have several people who are going to companies that aren’t always FOSS and taking a moral/ethical issue with it. A friend of mine previously stated (in the context of a Windows admin job), “why should they care what I’m running? As long as I can do my job…” While they relented a little upon an explanation of corporate culture, and this has since been brought into much more moderation, at the time it was highly ignorant of two points.

  1. Companies often have standards of what people can use meant for compatibility. Some care more than others, but a company is highly likely to be very unhappy if you spend (waste from their point of view) an entire working day (which can be >$100 for them) on you making your software work because you aren’t using the software that they are paying for you to have available.
  2. Your company has the final say, and that’s a fact. You may have a manager who knows nothing about FOSS and is scared of unknown. They might dictate that you can pick a Windows machine or a Mac. If you can prevail upon them and teach them why Linux is better, then sure, it’ll be okay, but you also run the risk of really annoying them. However, if they still don’t agree you ignore them and use Linux instead, that’s insubordination. It’s a simple fact, even if it might not be the “right” one.

We’ve also had a variety of conversations about proprietary software. We were discussing why I can’t use 100% FOSS due to the software I need for my major, and I was told: “oh, you don’t need [feature X, which did ‘destructive editing’]. Back in my day, we didn’t even have the undo button.”

Well, sometimes things change. If something gets taught within the first couple weeks of an introductory, “assume no one knows anything” (which was definitely true of some of us) course, then I think it’s safe to assume it’s necessary in a modern workflow. It might not always be needed, but that doesn’t mean it can be ignored.

Finally, I’ve also seen some very large egos among people lately. It’s worth noting that these people are still students and haven’t had the many years in the “real world” yet, so it’s not descriptive of most FOSS users by any means.

These people treat FOSS like “we are the enlightened beings, all the rest are ignorant.” Yes, FOSS is humanitarian and promotes the freedom of users, but it doesn’t automatically make you correct. I don’t remember the comment that prompted this paragraph, but I wish I did.

This reflection has been insightful for me in trying to interact on the FOSS/non-FOSS border. All of the reflection parts of this is not to say FOSS is bad but also illustrates why the combos that Mel mentioned are so important; Terraforming might be the long-term win, but it’s rarely a good solution for individual scenarios.

2019/07/28: Content reflow