Well, That Was A Freebie…
I’ve never cared to use my blog for sharing anything other than the public release of meaningful, original knowledge, however, instead of awkward conversations prefixed with ‘you know… the thing you need to know about me is…’ I have decided to put this aimlessly into the aether for semi-public consumption to atone for recent events.
BWI 2 BWI
Yesterday morning, true to personal form, I missed my flight to Milwaukee, Wisconsin and, in turn, missed my opportunity to present a position paper to an academic conference on computing. Over the past few months I had created this vision I stand up at a panel and speak truth to power — or rather, rationality to evangelicals/sobriety to alcoholics. Catastrophic. In failing, I was devastated and felt compelled to hide under my blanket and wallow in self-pity.
However, someone who has fast become a mentor admonished me that this was opportunity to examine my position and actions — this is such a process.
An Overtold Allegory
When Nick Bonnema and I went to Costa Rica in Spring of 2008, we landed without a plan, lodging arrangements, any knowledge of the area, or even how to get out of the airport. After disappearing to Puerto Veijo for several days, we decided to return to San Jose. Early one night, with the banality of tax collection, we, naive Midwestern boys, were mugged at-knife point.
I lost a watch — a gift received as rite of passage for turning thirteen — an ipod and cellphone; Nick lost a lot more. After drifting back to the hostel in a daze (although I remember the walk with vivid level of detail unmatched by any other event), both of us had the same reoccurring dream — a loop of the configuration of that night progressing from the actual events, to alternative histories where we escape, to an improbable ‘Kill Bill’-style decimation of our opponents.
Looking back, that night was probably the single greatest catalyst for who I am and what I have today. When we woke up, we both felt that if something bad was going to happen, it would have gone down then. We fled to Monteverde and faced my fear of heights, ziplining a hundred meters above the canopy. More deeply, for some time, I had been struggling between the question of going to law school as a step of pursuing a public, political career and the private life of an academic. With that audacity, I came to realize that I cannot even possibly feign pluralism in a society polluted with bad ideas. (On the flight back, I sat next to a lawyer who, while very affable, edified my position. I’ve never second guessed my decision.)
There are other things that are much more profound, much more personal, and an innocent story about a streetwalking prostitute, but such stories are left to personal conversations.
Most importantly, Nick had lost all his money and his accounts were emptied, so we were dependent on my debit card, which was saved by quick wit — as a result, I now have a lifetime of being able to say ‘hey Nick, remember when you were dependent on me? Buy me a beer!’
It is impossible to say where I would be if we hadn’t had been robbed, but I’d like to argue that I wouldn’t be where I am now. This isn’t some strand of a Leibnizian — best of all possible worlds — optimism, but a reflection on the principle of cause and effect. Relationships were formed and reinforced; without which, I may not have had the courage to quit computing as a profession and I wouldn’t be in DC.
To move forward to the present: sitting painfully at the airport, I could not help but try to imagine how much such a fork could affect my outcome. Had I missed a life-changing event?
This is my conclusion: having watched the notes of the conference unfold over Twitter, I soundly believe that I shouldn’t have been there anyway. In a million mental iterations of potential scenarios, I cannot fathom a parallel universe where I attend this conference and come away with a clearer sense of purpose or having had an effect on the audience. When one’s interests are so free-floating and nebulous, it becomes necessary to exclude subjects for the sake of focus and clarity. I’ve now come to appreciate that I don’t actually care to have any role in the open source movement or computing — and that my purpose in attending the event, in totality, was a mechanism of hubris. I wouldn’t have seen this truth if I had gone.
It would be pointless to turn my note into a critique of the free/open-source software movement (I’ve already written a couple), but I want to single out one historical occasion. My estrangement with the community began when I interviewed with the highly-regarded Free Software Foundation for a program position. It was the worst conversation of my life. I sat and listened to explanations of the difference between ‘free’ and ‘open source’ software that contained a virulence the Taliban would be envious of. FSF is the free culture movement’s mujahideen, espousing freedom of computing while militating against the right and rationality of people to choose closed computing platforms.
Why does this matter? The Kiwi Project and personal focus.
While the Kiwi Project never was about open source, necessity and image turned it into a minor beacon of the small F/OSS community existed in the area. In reality, the platform of free/open-source software which hardware ran on was the effort’s Achilles Heal — outside of my centralized leadership style. Community-developed operating systems cannot seem to serve anyone but the community that wrote it. In my position paper, I called out general undercurrents of self-serving libertarianism, but the problems endemic to the movement are much deeper than that. Open source has largely devolved into a Scientology-style cult of nativism and such conferences/organizations do nothing other than contribute to a structural materialism of self-delusion.
My broad and overriding concern is that lately modern, Western cultures have seemed to pick up a reoccurring obsessions of exhaustive evangelism of meaningless but completely dichotomizing philosophies. I will have no part in this. None of this is to say that I don’t believe in the merits of the free culture movement — I will always publish Creative Commons where I can, however to participate directly in such corrosive trends would be unconscionable. I’m no longer a computer scientist — I quit F/OSS, I don’t care anymore.
… I do, however, continue to travail to bend the world in what I hope to be the right direction.