Swatantra'17: software freedom, and awareness of larger picture

A couple of weeks ago I attended the Swatantra'17 conference in Trivandrum, Kerala, and came back with a lot of food for thought.

First of all, a great conference

Many important topics, by a well balanced mix of national and foreign speakers, nice venue… Thanks and well done, ICFOSS! The only things I would add (but I’m sure they’re already in the works!) are two pages in the Swatantra'17 website linking to all the slides and, respectively, to media coverage.

Distributed, Community-based digital manufacturing for human development

My own contribution to Swatantra'17 was about “Open, Digital DIY manufacturing across countries and cultures”). For me, the discussions that followed, and feedback like this, confirm what I had written in the talk abstract: when it comes to digital DIY manufacturing, “first world” countries must learn from the rest of the world, and the rest of the world can and should benefit a lot by not repeating the mistakes we’ve made so far. I do hope to work more on this in 2018! For the record, I found further confirmations of what I proposed myself, in the talk about assistive tools for paraplegics), and above all in the great healthcare-related projects presented by Ashwin Whitchurch of ProtoCentral, also mentioned here.

When you educate a woman in ICT…

During the conference, someone said (sorry, I forgot the source!): “When you educate a woman, you educate a family or village. When you educate a woman in ICT you educate a country”. Swatantra'17 did have good participation of women, as both speakers and participants, and provided plenty of inspiration and best practices. Sticking to the talks on this topic that I could follow personally, I would like to thank Mallory Knodel, speaking about feminist principles on/in the internet, Karen Sandler (“Large Hearted Queen of Open Source Code”) and Aruna Sankaranarayanan. Mrs Sankaranarayanan presented interesting work about gender bias in street names in India and, among other FOSS-related initiatives empowering women, explained why and how she worked in Outreachy.

Control vs Convenience or “what is the main battle?”

Karen Sandler noted, among other things, that today “Free Software is in everything, yet we have less freedom than ever”. During his own talk, Todd Weaver observed that:

  • in general, when dealing with digital technology “people will give up control for convenience” (a statement which, in my opinion, would make a pretty good answer to the question “please sum up the whole history of humankind in one sentence”)
  • if every person used, supported, recommended and made CONVENIENT, ETHICAL PRODUCTS, we would already be in UTOPIA
  • an ethical digital society must be decentralized and have full encryption, FOSS, convenience and NO tracking

“Less freedom than ever” is probably a bit too much. However, all the statements above make very good background for a core FOSS-related issue raised by several members of the audience during the final discussion. The most important comments, which I edited and grouped for clarity, are:

  • software is useless without data: [from now on, let’s] focus on freedom of data, it is more important than software freedom
  • we cannot create an island, we must create an ocean; we should bring larger part of socieaty to such meetings
  • [it is bad that] FOSS advocates do not have one strategy for a free society

Personally, the last bullet doesn’t worry me. I see Free Software as one really transversal value and need of society, like proper handling of food. Should we expect all people who rightly preach to never handle food with dirty hands to also have one and the same “strategy for a better society”, or be concerned if they don’t?

About the other two points, I can only share a remark I made at the end of my own talk: “WHY AREN’T CONSUMER ASSOCIATIONS here? Even more: why aren’t THEY organizing conferences like Swatantra'17? This is a proof that we are doing something wrong. Don’t worry too much about involving more hackers or makers: focus on how to involve everybody else, instead.”

That’s the main reason why I think Swatantra'17 was a great Free Software conference: the widespread awareness, which still seems far from granted in many gatherings of the same kind, that “software freedom” counts quite little, in and by itself.

Stay tuned for more posts coming about what else I learned outside Swatantra'17, during my stay in Trivandrum.