Re: Why host Emacs packages on GitHub? (Microsoft VS Freedom)

The following is an excerpt from a recent exchange that I am publishing with permission. The identity of my correspondent remains private.

Something off-topic but I noticed that you had made an announcement in January that you switched git providers from sourcehut to GitHub and GitLab (with the former as the main one). May I suggest another git provider: It is opensource, non-profit and can be run independently on a server (I believe the software is called forgejo) as compared to GitHub which is owned by Microsoft. The main reason I suggest this is because I find using GitHub contradictory to standing for free and opensource software.

I am aware of the problems and do know Codeberg. I cannot run my own server due to the costs and time involved. The technical reason for not opting for such alternatives is that I will not be getting enough contributions there. Either we like it or not, GitHub has the network effect.

When I was using SourceHut, I would rarely get a patch sent my way. Those I would receive were often malformed and I needed to modify them before applying them. SourceHut also has this bug where a patch sent as an attachment gets a > appended to its first line when I receive it: this breaks the formatting, again requiring manual intervention.

Speaking of patches, the web interface of SourceHut did not have (and maybe still does not) any indication that the message has an attachment. No button to download the thing. Nothing! So unless you know which message to download, you are left with the user-unfriendly option of fetching the entire thread in an mbox format that you must then process further to eventually get the patch out of it. And you must hope the patch is in working condition to save you from further trouble.

I do not blame SourceHut, as they clearly state they are still in alpha. I do recognise though that there are better things in life than trying to fix a political problem with unpolished software. I will return to the notion of the “political problem” below.

More on the technical side of things for now. I take my denote package as a case study for assessing contributions to a free software project. Unlike most of my other packages that are solo endeavours, Denote attracts lots of questions, issues, and pull requests. All of them are on GitHub. This was the case even when SourceHut was the “official” source and GitHub was a mirror (I also have a GitLab mirror, which probably never received a single contribution): the vast majority of the contributions were on the GitHub mirror, while SourceHut was adding friction to my maintenance work.

A package like Denote benefits from the input of a diverse set of users. We learn about more use-cases and can think of ways to make the code even more flexible. This results in a program that can add value to more people’s workflow. Users will have a free software program that extends their Emacs in ways which improve their computing experience.

I could pull Denote off of GitHub and develop it without ever listening to anyone. It would still be free, but its tangible benefits would be fewer, as I would be limiting its scope to the patterns of interaction that only make sense in my workflow.

Freedom and diversity go hand-in-hand. We empower people to express their individuality. The cumulative effect is a richer corpus of shared resources, from which we can all draw from to elevate our experience.

Yes, there are well-known problems with Microsoft. As they are with every mega-corporation or plutocrat. We have legal-institutional arrangements that enable the rise of such platform-owners, “platformarchs” as I call them, who control the very foundations of entire industries. To reform those, we need to get involved in politics. It is not pretty, I know all too well, but it is the only way we have to campaign for thoroughgoing changes. But the impression I get from many of the hacker types out there is the sentiment encapsulated in the phrase “let’s keep politics out of this”. You can have a purely technical discussion, sure, though you cannot expect to have others be your voice when you yourself remain silent: politics will run its course and you will be left there trying to come up with some half-measure that does more harm to yourself than the status quo.

Removing Emacs packages from GitHub will not undermine the oligopolies of this world, nor will it disturb the symbiotic relationship those entities have with each state apparatus around the planet. Unless there is a movement that pushes for such reforms in shared spaces, city halls, and parliaments, us technical folks will be sitting here trying to work out the possibilities of a free society in our inconsequential thought experiments.

Taking a step back, I am not convinced that withdrawing into our bubble is morally good, let alone helpful at the social scale. For example, I learnt about free software through the GNU Image Manipulation Program. The GNU IMP is available on non-free platforms (as is Emacs, by the way), meaning that your average computer user, like me from the early 2010s, can be introduced to a community that works for one aspect of freedom. If the GNU IMP was only available on Linux, I would have never heard of it and, probably, never had that impetus to explore alternatives.

Oh, I mentioned Linux… Have you checked who contributes to the kernel we are using? Yes, some of those dreaded corporate actors are there. If we keep applying the logic of withdrawal, the only viable option is to banish computers from our life altogether. And then we continue applying the same reasoning to everything we use or consume… You get the idea. I have no plan to do this and will instead continue to couch my decision-making in terms of practicality and of working toward lofty goals with the understanding that the complexities of this world limit my viable options.

Withdrawal is a luxury. We have a well-known figure, the pioneer of free software whom I respect for that, Richard Stallman, who prides on not using loyalty cards, phones, and the like, but then admits that in those cases where those items are beneficial or unavoidable he has someone else take the hit on his behalf (for an introduction: I do not see how using what effectively is a meat shield to roll over the problem to another person does any good to society at-large or fixes the underlying issue.

We can make the same arguments for why would someone cure their illness with medication when big pharma is doing all these horrible deeds. Or why even pay a decent person/company with cash when central banking and the financial system at-large is responsible for all sorts of troubles in our world. Why be the citizen of a country that wages wars abroad? And so on. The point is that we live in a morally grey reality in which we have to make compromises. We cannot escape into a pure world and remain insulated from everything that is happening around us. There are ways to go about acquiring the simulacrum of purity, like using somebody else’s phone, though I find those of dubious value.

If we want to change the world, we have to participate in the process of its remaking. Politics is a collective effort. It is not about me, you, or any one maintaining a perfect record of not using this or that “injustice”.

Furthermore, the focus on the individual’s performance has the unintended side-effect of comparing everyone to a godly standard. We thus witness controversies on social media because person X is not as moral as an angel or because they said something dumb when they were a teenager. In the process, we lose sight of the bigger picture, of the structures involved and the conditions those create. This decontextualisation makes us apolitical in our thinking, but it does not make society apolitical as such. It just means that those who do get involved in politics are the relatively few with an agenda (and this usually is not in our interest).

So, no, I do not think that moving off of GitHub fixes the well-known issues we have in our societies. My projects will degrade in quality, my contributions will not reach as many people, potentially liberating them in some way, and, above all, it will not be part of a concerted plan for political reform. Same idea for my presence on YouTube. I am not there to show my love for the platform, but because I can reach more people. I detest clickbait, dislike the tricks and gimmicks we find aplenty there, but still have something I want the “uninitiated” to be exposed to, be it my Emacs videos, philosophy, or even what I share about my life at the hut. They are not much, but they may inspire someone out there to do something good.

I do not claim to hold the moral high ground. This goal is of no import to me, as I think of the collective magnitudes: how to work towards open spaces with institutions that codify values germane to freedom.