FreedomBox: simple, inexpensive... and very likely ineffective

On May 7th, 2019, Professor Eben Moglen delivered a keynote address titled “Why Freedom of Thought Requires Attention”…

FreedomBox: simple, inexpensive... and very likely ineffective /img/goldfish-attention-span-beats-human.jpg

The main points of that great speech are here. This is my own synthesis of that synthesis, followed by my description of the limits I see in the solution proposed by Moglen.

What is happening

  • The businesses we have called telecoms and social media are behavior collection businesses (“Behavior, not content”, says Facebook)
  • The smart phone creates a network whose purpose now is to acquire your behavior, and to offer you services, at the price of who you are
  • Once behavior collection is what the network really does, then what it attempts to maximize is behavior
  • The machine is not interested in how you should live. It’s interested only in how much you should behave
  • [The resulting endless, incoming stream] drowns the inner dialogue, removes interiority, changes your understanding of time

The effects

  • The private, internal space in which truth is sorted out, and the human being decides for herself what is the purpose of the world, is decaying
  • The attention span of the human race collectively is shortening
  • [The social effect is] a decline of public rationality and our own ability to deliberate (see the deliberate production of ignorance)
  • The effect on our capacity for freedom and self-government is devastating, but not so bad for those who want to govern us

The solution, according to Moglen…

  • It should be the clear goal of social policy is to help us make the net quieter. Our politics depends upon it… The health of our democracies depends upon it
  • What we really wanted was for human beings to initiate requests for what they want
  • We need to make it possible to federate all services in the net [so] they are no longer paid for by exclusive access to the internal lives of human beings
  • Delivering [services] to one another cooperatively turns the net back in the direction that we originally wanted, the one in which it acts to liberate us through individual effort to teach and learn.
  • This is not unconceivable. Most of the services we have are meant to be federated. The net was designed for it. We are undoing problems rather than making terribly complicated inventions
  • This is the intended goal of the little gesture I call FreedomBox: the manufacture of simple, inexpensive, self-administrating servers that we can hold in the palm of our hands and distribute throughout the world like apple seeds

…And the limits of that solution

My own humble suggestion to “make the net quieter” is to remove instantness from social media. In general, I agree with everything Moglen said. I just argue that the Freedombox is much less applicable than it seems, and it may even be counterproductive.

Technically, stuff like the FreedomBox is great. The more people learn to build and use stuff like that, the better. No question about it. As a solution, though, the Freedombox is typically american: have everyone make and buy more stuff, andeverybody will be better.

Fact is, hardware pollutes, and physical resources to make more may not be so peaceful to get anyway. Besides, hardware like FreedomBox is a privilege. These times, real innovation is not making more stuff. It is making life better with the stuff that already exists.

Regardless of money, the real, most serious limit of any proposal to “undo the general problem” that is hardware-based and/or self-administrating is that:

  • it is completely unrealistic to expect it will be ever adopted by more than a very tiny percentage of the population, in the time frames that matter (“year of the Linux desktop”, anybody?)
  • and for this very reason, it may very well have no real impact at all all. Not soon enough, that is. Even for the users of FreedomBox!

I have been hearing schemes of technically great, “real” solutions like the FreedomBox for almost seven years now, and all they have achieved since then is to let Facebook double its users.

It doesn’t matter how cool you feel because chance and genetics gave you the money and skills to self-administer your server for email and other services. It does not make any meaningful difference. Until the only escape route will be self-administration, Gmail will still get all of your email anyway. Ditto for other services: the general public will remain caught in the toxic net that Moglen describes so well, and you with them. We don’t need something perfect. We need an escape route that works for everybody tomorrow.

Because “Every semester spent working on “real” solutions makes it much harder to get the mass of Internet users out of centrally monitored / monitorable walled gardens, where they have NO privacy at all, and to make the next NSA/PRISM/etc impossible”. Said me, FIVE YEARS AGO.

Image source: Attention Span of a Goldfish… (but verify that claim too!)