LCA 2013: distributed democracy, speaking stacks, links

Thursday was my final day at Linux Conference, sadly, as I needed to get back to other work. It’s a pity, as there were quite a few talks on Friday that I would have liked to see, including the keynote by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Denise Paolucci’s talk on accessibility, Asheesh Laroia on quantitative community management, and Joh Pirie-Clark on what scans of the .au and .nz domains have turned up. Quite a few of the lightning talks also looked good.

On Thursday I went to a few of the more technical talks, including Bunnie Huang’s keynote: while much of this went over my head, there were some interesting points about the model of startup development and the difficulties involved in hacking hardware.

Distributed democracy

The most relevant talk for me was, of course, Pia Waugh’s, distributed democracy: geeks rule over king [edit: now available on the LCA talks site, here]  Pia began by arguing that the Internet has facilitated the decentralisation of many previously-centralised power structures, including publishing, communication, and monitoring. As we share more on the Internet, we’re going to have to finally accept that noone is normal, and revelations of (for example) drug use or other common-but-socially-risky behaviour will be more widely accepted. Similarly, the wide availability of 3D printing devices is likely to challenge our current system of property, eradicating poverty.

Two stormtrooper figurines putting up a sign reading 'In protest against SOPA and PIPA'
By Flickr user Kristina Alexanderson

While the Internet has enabled these shifts, Pia argued, we’re also seeing problems emerging from the attempts to use geographically-bounded entities (states) to regulate a system which crosses borders. While there’s still a role for states today, Pia suggested that perhaps we need to think about an organisation which will more effectively represent the interests of Internet users. This needs to go beyond the existing organisations which engage in lobbying (like the Electronic Frontiers Foundation and Electronic Frontiers Australia): perhaps we need something more like a government for, and composed of, Internet users.

While I have a lot of respect for the work Pia’s doing and think her talk was very thought-provoking, I disagree with much of her argument. While the Internet has certainly helped to change many of the structures mentioned (and will do so further), existing power structures have responded to the challenge and acted to further consolidate power where possible. For example, although it’s theoretically possible for people to get news from a wide range of sources, we’ve seen a massive concentration of media ownership over recent decades, and a look through the top sites visited in Australia shows that the most-visited sites are still predominantly controlled by large corporations. The idea that technology will solve poverty is also quite problematic, given that poverty is mostly an issue of distribution rather than limited resources: we have enough food to feed everyone, but we don’t.

My disagreement with the second part of Pia’s argument largely centres on the issue of where we put the focus of our political struggle. There are issues with how we regulate the Internet, and it’s worth thinking about how to resist attempts by elites (including economic elites) to control it (I’ve addressed this further in much of my academic writing). However, I think we need to put this in the perspective of other struggles. That means acknowledging that while the digital divide is lessening, Internet access is still linked to privilege, and a “government for the Internet” is likely to disproportionately represent the interests of those who are already relatively empowered. Instead, we need to think about Internet regulation in a way which centres the needs of those who are most marginalised, locally, nationally, and globally.

Making links and further reading

Brianna's moo cards with links to the Geek Feminism wiki and blog
Brianna’s moo cards with links to the Geek Feminism wiki and blog

I’ve had some great conversations throughout LCA, and I’m happy to see that in addition to having learned a lot myself and plenty of directions for further reading, some of the ideas I’ve suggested are already being built on and expanded. During the Free Software Activism BoF on Wednesday, I raised the possibility of using a simplified version of a progressive speaking stack: Brianna Laugher’s mocked-up an implementation in Python, and Russell Coker has a longer discussion suggesting how a progressive speaking list might be implemented at LCA and other events. Brianna also has some reflections on my talk from Wednesday, and plenty of other posts worth reading. I particularly like her ‘RTFM’ cards for feminism. Mary’s site is also worth looking through: I had somehow managed to miss it previously, possibly because I tend to by quite bad at visiting blogs (I really need to work out a RSS reader that I can feel enthusiastic about).

Did you write something about either of my talks, critical or otherwise? Do you have some recommended reading? Let me know! I’m really hoping that the excellent conversations I had at LCA can continue, and that I’ll stay in touch with people, particularly as I never get enough time to talk to everyone I want to in all the excitement of conferences.

Linux Conference Australia: disaster response, activism, and copyright

A mobile phone displaying the Serval software.I began the day with a couple of talks looking at FOSS projects for disaster support. Paul Gardner-Stephen started off talking about The Serval Project, which aims to provide secure communications for those in need. Mostly, “in need” means “affected by a disaster”, which was defined broadly as a situation where a community’s ability to respond is overwhelmed. The project allows the set-up of mobile-phone mesh networks that allow encrypted voice telephony, encrypted short messaging, file/data dissemination, and crowd-sourced mapping. Using mesh networks, rather than piggy-backing on existing infrastructure, is useful in situations where mobile networks or other communications services have been taken down by accident, or by the government or other forces. Theoretically, it will be possible to drop a single phone into an area and use it to copy the software onto other phones around the place to create the mesh. It should also be possible to transfer data by moving the phones around, even by bicycle or on foot. They’re also thinking about ways to develop mesh-based social networks which would be able to tie in to existing social networks like Twitter.

OpenStreetMap Indonesia

Kate Chapman talked next, about open source and open data for humanitarian responses with OpenStreetMap. OpenStreetMap aims to provide a worldwide map produced and available openly – the analogy she gave was ‘like Wikipedia but for maps’. She was talking particularly about the use of OpenStreetMap in humanitarian responses to disaster: mapping data is helpful for marking hazards (including violence), as well as for other tasks like coordinating clean-ups. Open data also helps communities to manage some of these processes themselves. A lot of this work is done with university graduates, particularly in geography, but more skilled volunteers and interns are still needed.

After lunch I spoke on Free and Open Source Software and Activism, to an encouragingly-full room (with, I found out later, more people who wanted to get in but couldn’t because the room was full): there were also plenty of questions. There was also a request for some ‘anarchism 101’ reading. I’ve been meaning to put this together for a while (and failing), but here’s a few starting-points:

  • Bob Black’s Anarchism 101 gives a useful overview, from the quick look I’ve had at it.
  • We are everywhere, put out by the Notes from Nowhere collective, is great to dip into for more detail. The introductory stories at the beginning of each chapter are particularly useful.
  • “Introduction to Anarchism”, parts 1 and 2, in Avenue 1 and 2, give a more in-depth discussion.
  • Refusing to wait: anarchism and intersectionality is a good look at feminism and anarchism.

If you’re interested in anything I raised in my talk, please feel free to contact me on here, Twitter, or elsewhere.

After me, ironically, there was a talk by the DSD guy, which apparently LCA wasn’t allowed to film. From the looks of it (on Twitter), I probably should have snuck over to the other room and seen Geoff Huston’s talk on the IPocalypse. Ben Powell also covered copyright issues in the final session, looking at how recent changes to legislation will affect the future of cloud-based and streaming services.

A group of penguins.
Adelie penguins, by !WOUW on Flickr.

The day will end with Birds of a Feather meetups. We already snuck in one BoF, looking at FOSS and humanitarian responses, over afternoon tea. While there wasn’t much time available, Tim McNamara had some useful things to say about ‘hfoss’: there’s a lot of need for good documentation and bug reporting, and for venues with wifi to provide support for teams on the ground. For those interested, there’s a list of helpful links on the lca2013 wiki. I’ll probably end up at the free software activism meetup for the BoFs, surprising no-one.

Linux Conference Australia: Haecksen

After Radia Perlman’s keynote talk, I spent today at the Haecksen miniconference, which focuses on women in open source. It was great to see a mixed audience, rather than an all-woman audience.

While much of Radia Perlman‘s talk on networks was focused on technical systems that are beyond me, it was still interesting because she talked a bit about the reasoning behind the adoption of different network protocols. She emphasised that the protocols which are widely adopted are not always those that are best, and made it clear that the development of network technology doesn’t always follow a ‘rational’ path of development. I also liked that she illustrated her talk with references to her children: it’s good to have people talk about their work in ways that acknowledge that it’s just one part of their lives.

I gave the first talk at Haecksen, critiquing ‘open-source politics’: you can find my slides and the abstract here.


A bee and a bee-mimic.
One of these is a bee. One of these is not. It’s doing just fine anyway.

Denise Paolucci‘s talk on Overcoming Imposter Syndrome was great, and happily included quite a few tips:

  • Watch your language: don’t reinforce the problem, for example by saying that you’re “just” or “only” a beginner (or a researcher, or whatever it is you are); avoid “I think” – this is implied by what you’re saying; avoid saying that you “should have…” done things a certain way; you could try a ‘self-deprecating language’ jar.
  • Teach what you know, even if you think you don’t know it. Explaining something will help you to realise what you know.
  • Question corrections (especially nitpicking about small details, but also larger criticisms). Have faith in your own work, and remember that not all criticisms are legitimate.
  • Ask questions.
  • Ask for perspective checks from a friend.
  • Keep a list of your accomplishments.
  • Get background information for comparison: if your boss or colleague is being very critical, for example, there’s a chance that it’s not you. Talking to other people who have worked with this person might give you more of an idea of what’s going on.
  • Remember that you are awesome.

Denise also talked briefly about how helping other people overcome their imposter syndrome: by providing appropriate support and encouragement, Dreamwidth has ended up with contributions from a much more diverse range of people than most other projects.

Mortar damage to a road, filled in with red concrete.
A Sarajevo Rose, marking a fatal mortar attack. Joh used this image to emphasise the difference between real war and ‘cyberwar’.

Next up, Joh Pirie-Clark gave an excellent critique of ‘cyberwar’ rhetoric, Cyberwar: Mo’ Metaphor, Mo’ Money, Mo’ problems? She argued that the analogies we use to describe the world shape how we respond, and the language of ‘cyberwar’ is problematic because it applies terms that refer to massive damage and loss of life to digital attacks which, for the most part, don’t. For example, NZ laws around “making, selling, or possessing software for committing crime” are clearly modelled around drug and gun laws, whereas it would be far more appropriate to base them on dual-use tools (like crowbars) that have legal uses. The cyberwar narrative is building a million-dollar industry, particularly in the use, and contributing to a sense of states under siege by vague and shadowy sources.

After lunch, there were a couple of talks looking at cool geeky craft stuff: Kathy Reid talked about integrating the Arduino Lilypad with knitting projects, and Ruth Ellison spoke on laser-cut jewellery (including some cool climate data visualisation jewellery).

Fee Plumley‘s talk on Open Source Cities raised some interesting points about how we think about cities, diasporas, and nomadic living. I was quite uncomfortable with the use of the term gypsy throughout the talk (more about this here). I’m always nervous about raising issues with problematic language at conferences, but happily Fee was open and asked for more resources to read up on: always a good way of responding if you get a call-out, even if you ultimately don’t end up agreeing with what’s said. We all make mistakes, including me, and I’ve had some great moments of learning when people have pulled me up.


A room full of young women sitting at computers and smiling.
Click on the image to see Kate Miller’s slides.

Katie Miller spoke on programs for teaching school-aged girls how to use FOSS, using FOSS programs. She had some good suggestions on specific lessons learned, including the need to break up large chunks of text and to include examples. Jacinta Richardson’s suggestions on getting your conference talk accepted had helpful tips, especially for those starting out: think about how difficult it is to get accepted to a particular conference; make sure that you write well, because organisers are likely to use this is a shortcut to guessing whether you’re a good speaker (including using clear language good paragraph structure); skip titles like “x for fun and profit” and “making x sexy”; consider asking for help from people who know the area, including people from the papers committee.

While the technical content of Mary Gardiner and Breanna Laugher’s demonstration of py.test didn’t make much sense to me, I liked the format of the talk. Breanna gave instructions to Mary (who hadn’t used py.test before) on how to use it for various tasks and Mary typed up her work on the screen. This seems like a useful way to make discussions less abstract, as well as to ensure that issues an experienced user might forget to cover are made visible.

A crocheted toy robot.
(Not this robot.)

Finally, Samantha Cheah and Lauren Hassall talked about the Robogals project, which uses university volunteers to run robotics workshops for highschool students. These workshops are designed to introduce girls to engineering in a fun way, with positive and relatable role models. The project’s been very successful, with several chapters in the Asia-Pacific (including Perth), UK, and North America.
Despite some initial worries that my knowledge base is too far away from the focus of Linux Conference, it’s been great so far. Even talks where I didn’t get all the technical detail were useful in other ways, and of course it’s lovely to meet new people, as well as meeting people in person who I usually only see online.

Upcoming talks: ‘Free and open source software and activism’ and ‘feminism, anarchism, and FOSS’

Next week I’ll be heading over to Canberra for Linux Conference Australia, where I’ll be giving a couple of talks. These will have a slightly less academic focus than many of my conference presentations: while they still draw significantly on my research, I’ll be giving a freer rein to my activist interests. During the main program I’ll be talking about free and open source software and activism:

Wikileaks, the Arab Spring, and the Occupy movement have made the need for user-controlled digital technologies clear, as activists have used the Internet and mobile phones to organise and to communicate with each other and with potential supporters. The consequences of failures in these systems, particularly security breaches, can be extreme: activists may face fines, jail time, or even death. Free and open source software (FOSS) provides one potential solution to these problems, as it is focused on users’ needs. FOSS communities also already overlap significantly with many other activist communities, and are working to develop cross-movement connections as well as useful tools. However, many FOSS communities, and particularly those defined by a commitment to open source, rather than than free, software, are reluctant to take overt political stands. Similarly, many activists on both the left and the right have an aversion to digital technologies for both ideological and practical reasons. This means that there are frequently significant barriers to increasing the links between FOSS and progressive political movements. This presentation explores the connections between FOSS communities and the broader activist landscape. It looks at the politics of FOSS, the ways in which global movements and FOSS communities are building links, and the potential benefits of actively seeking cross-fertilisation of ideas and politics between FOSS and progressive movements.

I’ll also be speaking at the Haecksen mini-conference that runs alongside the main programme. Haecksen, organised by the Oceania Women of Open Technology group, will “feature women speakers and panellists on technical and community topics related to free software and women in free software.” I’ll be talking about feminism, anarchism, and FOSS:

The language of open software is increasingly being applied to politics, as people talk about and develop “open government” projects. However, much of this discussion does not unpack the politics of “openness”, instead taking for granted that it involves a technologically-enhanced model of existing liberal democratic ideals. However, there are other ways to interpret what free and open source politics might look like. One is to more thoroughly apply the politics espoused by key figures within the free and open software movements, such as Stallman and Raymond. Another, more radical, route is to take the commitment to decentralisation of power that lies at the heart of free and open source software and apply it not only to an analysis of politics, but also to the existing free and open source software movement. This route demonstrates that there are useful lessons to be learned from looking at the interaction between free software principles, anarchism, and feminism.

This will be my first time at Linux Conference, and the mailing list has made it clear that the conference has a vibrant community around it. I’m also really happy to see that Linux Conference has a great Code of Conduct and is offering free childcare. While I don’t have kids, things like this seem like a good sign that the conference organisers are taking active steps to being an inclusive space that allows space for parents and supports groups that might otherwise be marginalised. I wish more academic conferences did this. If you’re going, please feel free to say hi to me!