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Consumption choices and software freedom in Silicon Valley

What follows is an excerpt from a recent private exchange that I am sharing with the express permission of my correspondent. The topic is about practical adherence to principles in the midst of an indifferent or uncooperative community.

The quoted/indented text is from the person I am responding to.

I am a software engineer working for a variety of silicon valley startups, which are typically highly paid positions that are filled with social rituals and social signaling. Personally, I find it very satisfying to see through these for what they are and not believe them too deeply, though I must say that outwardly I’m fairly compliant when at work because I really, really enjoy the salary, which at least partially I believe is due to my ability to network and fit in.

I offer the above to provide some additional context to my question. Now onto it:

I am a person who is deeply interested in personal privacy and liberty, and I abhor the modern commercialization/data collection of the internet and technology. I have a personal cycle that I have repeated many times, which is very embarrassing.

Like my peers, I am often issued (or reimbursed for) a modern macbook pro, and of course I get the flagship latest model iPhone because of the ability for these devices to “talk to each other” and create emergent properties that having a macbook + an android would not have.

However, perhaps once per year I end up getting frustrated at the delta between my personal values and the technology that I’m working with, so I sell my iPhone and my macbook and I get an older, more modestly priced, used Thinkpad and a pixel android device which I put grapheneOS on, and try to adhere to the linux lifestyle. I feel at ease, and the world is again a very good and happy place for me to compute. I should also note that during these phases, tech tends to have a much more minimal role in my life, and I spend far less time thinking about new technology, as these habits completely remove the consumption “hobby” of it all. Objectively, my quality of life improves.

Then, I start seeing my peers using shiny new apple technology, or the latest iphone, and realize that they are spending so much less time focused on maintaining their technology stack and just doing “productive” things with much greater ease, and I start to become aware of the friction of using linux devices and free software in a hyper modern / consumerist based social group and I end up switching back, at great expense to myself, and often at the ridicule of others who say “I told you so” and so on.

I would /greatly/ appreciate any advice you have for me, or suggestions for how to excavate some clarity and insight from this mess. It is obvious that I need to drop the crap and go back to free software, but in practice it is not so easy.

Freedom seldom is the most convenient choice. Not just for software, but life in general. Think about an ideal democracy, for example: every citizen has the responsibility to be informed about what is happening in order to contribute to good policy-making. It requires a lot of work from everyone to keep a democracy healthy. Whereas systems of government that do not involve broad-based participation have fewer requirements on what a person must do: if there is a problem, it is “the government” that will fix it, not all of us together. Tyranny can be highly convenient for a lot of people.

When we opt in to free software, we do it because we care about the freedom of it. We want, for instance, not to be subject to the telemetering of a proprietary software provider. Freedom does not come for free. It requires sacrifices on our part. This is not to justify transient constraints with the accessibility of free software (e.g. lack of good documentation), but to emphasise the trade-off between freedom and convenience.

You operate in a milieu that embeds—and champions—the culture of convenience in tech. The idea that we should throw away our iThings after 1-2 years of usage is normal there. Trying to argue that there is no inherent technical reason for this pace of change will make you stand out as irregular or even a weirdo. Not because you are wrong per se, but simply due to the collective narrative that is prevalent there, which you already hinted at with your reference to social rituals/signaling.

A note on the word “normal” that I used. It refers to something that happens with regularity but also to what is desired to happen. When someone tells you to “act normal”, what they really mean is that you should conform with whatever set of values the predominant group adheres to.

The key, then, is not to find free software that is hyper convenient but to settle on a balance between freedom and convenience that is practical and sustainable for you. It is a matter of how you feel about it and what your outlook is. This means that you have to (i) tolerate whatever awkwardness exists in the usage of free software and (ii) do what is expected of you without going to the extreme of consumerism. Put differently, do not think in terms of absolutes: try to move towards freedom, with the recognition that it will be unlikely to go all the way.

On the topic of embarrassment. It may be because you have not yet figured how to guard against the subtle bullying of “I told you so” that you are exposed to. Sure, they may not be beating you up, but constant pressure to conform still has the effect of denying you agency. The answer to this is to stand firm in your choices. You can only do so when you have clarity as to the “why” you are pursuing such a course of action. If somebody asks you in earnest what’s so special about software freedom, you will have to give a persuasive answer. If not, then you simply look strange and others will continue to pressure you.

To figure out the “why” of free software, you must try to sort out your priorities in life and resolve whatever tensions therein. You have to reach a point where you are not apologetic of what you choose/do. If you find yourself in a mode of behaviour where you are always sorry for doing this or that, then you have yet to achieve the requisite clarity of mind as to the “why” you are doing it.

Right now, free software appears to many as the bastion of computer geeks/nerds. For people like you, this stereotype is stigmatising and inconvenient, because it highlights technicalities over universal values. It is up to you to conduct yourself in an affirmative way that dispels this stigma and shows that you can be “productive” without having to resort to frivolous spending.

Those granted, you can already tell that your social environment frames and conditions your actions. Do not expect anyone to show sympathy with your cause. You will find detractors or, generally, be faced with apathy. What matters is whether you choose to continue making the choices you consider right. This depends on whether you can overcome the feelings of embarrassment and are able to let your deeds do the talking.

Should we be optimistic, given what we know about Silicon Valley? Perhaps not, though we ought to remember that decent people exist everywhere. Just as you are pressured to behave in a certain way, so is everybody else. We cannot expect ideal conditions and dealings with angels. All we have to work with is imperfect human beings within the equally imperfect institutional arrangements they have set up. We have to start from somewhere and work towards enacting reform, one small step at a time. Courage is contagious.