20 May 2015

Openness in Tech

Although I am not planning to implement WebDAV access to txtdir1 anytime soon, I’d like to think of this as a future milestone. This should enable sync for any device. Theoretically. See, I went searching for iOS apps with WebDAV support (and found an impressive online spreadsheet) but very few of these have WebDAV support. At the same time, almost all have sync to Dropbox, which I think speaks to a fundamental problem with modern software development.

Before I go any further, I should point out that talking about anything official on the internet is like talking about official human rights — it’s ultimately a contradiction with the inherent nature of the thing. The internet, as an inherently international construct, can have no real overarching governing body. (Even the W3C has its forked off collaborator/competitor, the WHATWG.) The presence of any true authority would lead to an infinite regression of appeals to higher authority. At some point we just need to admit that co-operation is all we have.

That said, we should at least make an effort towards open standards. WebDAV is defined in RFC 4918. I had to look up exactly what “RFC” means. Request for Comments. It’s the internet analogy to peer-reviewed publications. Or maybe it is peer-reviewed publications. The internet becomes more strange the more you think about it. In contrast, the Dropbox API is not a published as a RFC. Dropbox is a private company.

Since Dropbox syncs a folder of files from your computer to a kind of Dropbox platonic ideal of your files in the sky, I think it’s easy for people to think that Dropbox’s servers are simply a whole bunch of folders; there’s Marianne’s folder, and Piotr’s folder, etc. But it’s not like this. Digital data can be thought of in several different abstracted ways — the words we use to identify data, the contents of that data, the way the data connects to other data to form a coherent structure — and Dropbox divides these things up in order to distribute files across their scalable infrastructure.

By no means am I criticising their model. But it is just that: their model. When developers build things that only work with Dropbox, they put their complete faith in the continuation of this model.

Now, I’m not blind to the direction of the world economy. I understand that the huge companies that control most of the public-facing internet will continue to strengthen this control, and the likelihood of some cultural reversal is slim. (At the same time, we know that as economic systems decrease in equality they become more volatile.) I’m not thinking about this from a business perspective; my championing of open-source software derives from a humanitarian interest: as the pace of technological “advancement” increases, the shift in power relations will be in favour of those controlling the technology. We can see the way this works with government support offices shifting their primary method of contact to online — when those least likely to have online access are those who most likely need the support.

Every day people make concessions about what they consider ethical in exchange for free and easy technology. They commit more of their life experience (and I don’t mean the record of life experience) to Facebook in exchange for the illusion of free and easy social connection. They exchange all the details of their own personal and professional correspondence (and those of whomever they correspond with) to Google for free and easy email. I feel these are shrewd economic decisions on the part of huge companies to gain something much more valuable that what they sell, but I’m not condemning people’s trade-off here. I’m saying that to these companies, the trade-off is only economically attractive when the users are economically attractive, that is, in this equation poor people are not valuable. The more power we give huge companies in controlling technology, the further away we push the poor.

If we want to hold onto the belief that technology can rectify economic inequality, that new technology developed in richer countries and exported to poorer countries can offer a shortcut to keeping pace, then we should be supporting openness. The alternative is a further slide into inequality. I mentioned this to Jessica and this was her reply:

I think developers lack empathy. They support what they would use because everyone else is also using it, or they should be.

Ultimately this is a question of what a developer should do, and can therefore be short-circuited with Silicon Valley libertarianism. The newer generation of technologists (of which I’m definitely a part) tend towards embracing the “self-made man” myth. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the internet, a huge collaborative open-source project built by incalculable hours of volunteer labour. It strokes the ego for a start-up founder to kid themselves that they “built themselves from nothing” rather than stood upon the shoulders of giants and held up some new flashy thing. But the point I’m trying to make is not against erroneous start-up mentality or even that a developer should implement WebDAV support before Dropbox, it’s just that we should think about it a bit more.

  1. Now defunct plaintext pubnix https://txtdir.net