Update: I have begun aggregating these posts at projectreclaim.net.
Lately I have been feeling increasingly uneasy about the state of my digital affairs. I am a leader on a number of open source software projects that pride themselves on, among other things, their ability to enable users to “own their own data”. Moreover, I am trained as a philosopher, and have spent a pretty fair amount of time reading and thinking carefully about the nature of data and our relationships with it. If anyone is in a position to develop and advocate for good models of digital independence, I am.
Yet, when I look around my digital world, I see instance after instance where I am, to a greater or lesser extent, completely reliant on the good will of commercial entities and their propietary systems. To wit:
- My Twitter account is a big part of my online identity
- The last five years of my private correspondence, personal and professional, is in Gmail
- I use Dropbox for syncing documents between devices (like my blog_sandbox.txt file, where I’m writing this post!)
- I use Picasa Web Albums to back up and share photos
- I have a Mozy account to back up the rest of my important files
- Until recently, I had an iPhone. I still use a Mac
- I use Remember The Milk for task management
- I store source code for all my projects in Github
Some of these are products; some are services. Some are free; some of them I pay for. And – for sure – some of the companies behind the products and services listed above are more evil than others. So I don’t want to pretend that my reliance on each of them is equally bad. But each item on this list plays a crucial role in my digital life, and each one of them operates in a way that is beyond my control, both literally (I can’t modify the source code) and more figuratively (questions about ownership, exportability, transportability are icky).
I’m planning to extricate myself.
In order to make it sound a bit fancier, I’m giving my project a name: Project Reclaim. ‘Reclaim’ because it’s a manifestation of my desire to fight the inertia that leads us to give up control over our computing experiences, my desire to reclaim control and ownership. ‘Project’ because this will be hard, and ongoing. And why give it a name at all? I’m hoping that, by being public about it – putting my experiences in a series of blog posts and tweets under a common tag – that I’ll be able to hold myself accountable, and hopefully guide others who are hoping to reclaim their lives a bit as well.
In short, Project Reclaim is the process of weaning oneself off of digital platforms that are closed source and/or under the control of others.
How will Project Reclaim actually work?
- Assess the situation I’ll first need a way of figuring out which systems and platforms are worth moving away from, what their replacements should be, and in what order I should effect the transition. I’ve got a few rules of thumb.
- Open source is better than closed source. I write open-source software for a living. I believe that, on balance, it makes better software. And I believe that using software where one has access to the source code is a necessary component of maximizing one’s digital autonomy. Thus: if the third-party system I’m currently using is also a benefactor of open-source communities (like, say, wordpress.com), it makes it less urgent to move away. And, when selecting replacements, select open source if at all possible.
- Paying is better than getting something for free This might seem like a contrast to the previous rule, but I don’t think it is. When you use a free service, somebody’s paying the bills. Usually that means targeted advertising – think Facebook and Gmail. Paying service fees, on the other hand, and agreeing to the contract that comes with it, generally has the effect of making the relationship more transparent. Of course, this is far from absolute, but it seems reasonable in a broad sense. Plus, I like to support developers and services that are truly valuable.
- Go for the low-hanging fruit In cases like email, there are well-established, straightforward (though not necessarily easy…ugh) ways of fending for yourself. No need to invent the wheel. On the other hand, some of the areas where alternatives are less obvious – social networking-type data springs to mind – also happen to be areas where I have some expertise and leverage. So, in those cases, it might be worth innovating.
- Get the important stuff first My email history is more important to me than my Twitter history; the convenience of Github is more valuable to me than the convenience of Dropbox. Plan the Reclaim accordingly.
- Get the vulnerable stuff first Recent statements by Twitter have made me think that the way I interact with the services is more subject to change in the upcoming months than, say, the way I interact with Gmail. That’s frightening. The more profit-hungry the company is – and, thus, the more disinclined to have the customer’s freedoms in mind – the more urgent it is to pull yourself out.
Clearly, some of these considerations are at odds with each other. But they give a rough framework for deciding whether, when, and how to carry out the mission of Project Reclaim.
- Make the switch Here’s where the action happens: I do what I need to do to move myself to the replacement.
- Write about it This weekend I spent an afternoon on the problem of Twitter, and I ran into a ton of technical problems that remain unresolved. I imagine that there will be similar hurdles for each part of the project. I’m hoping that, by writing about the problems (and, where they exist, the solutions) I can help other people to take some of the same steps themselves, or even to spur someone really smart to come up with better solutions than the ones that currently exist.
What I expect from myself
My goal, ultimately, is to move away from third-party, closed-source services and platforms altogether. It might take some time. So I’ll make some interim goals: by the end of 2011, I’m hoping to have my email moved, my microblogging federated, my own backup system on my own server space, and my computer running an open-source OS.
Even if I manage to meet this goal, there’s a very real sense in which Project Reclaim will necessarily be an exercise in futility. I’ll always have to buy server space, and who’s to say that Amazon or Slicehost won’t go berserk tomorrow? I’ll always have to connect to the internet, which leaves me perpetually at the mercy of the ISPs, who are IMO more evil than all of the other service providers put together. It’s a depressing state of affairs: the kind of autonomy I want might be impossible given the way that the economy works. I take some solace in the fact that philosophers have spilled much ink over the problem of free will without coming up with a clear formulation of exactly what kind of autonomy would be worth arguing for. At least I’m not alone in my delusion.
That said, it’s a fight that I feel I have a responsibility to fight. If I’m going to continue to argue for the use and development of open source software, I have to start putting my money where my mouth is. And so, to me, Project Reclaim is less about my being a paragon of virtue, and more about my wanting to sleep a bit better at night.
Do I think that everyone should do this? People should prefer open solutions to closed ones, all things being equal. But generally, all things are not equal. Most people don’t have the time to write their own software, to run their own servers. For those people, decisions about their digital life are (rightly, I think) made more on the basis of aesthetics and convenience than lofty concepts like Autonomy and Ownership. But there are a few considerations that are perhaps relevant for the kinds of people who read my blog:
- Open source developers who tout the importance of data ownership and other such freedoms have a special responsibility to model best behavior in these areas.
- Academics, more than anyone, should be sensitive to the dangers of leaving the crucial pieces of one’s online self in the hands of corporate entities. That’s true for personal artifacts like email, but perhaps doubly so for scholarly work that ought to be part of a public trust.
- Educators, like open source developers, should model best practices, encouraging students to take control over their digital identities.
So, while I wouldn’t belabor the point for the average Joe, I do think that people who consider themselves members of one of these groups – as most people reading my blog probably do – that they should think carefully about their relationship with the tools and services that enable their digital existence.
Great post and a worthy initiative.
As you know, I write and tweet frequently about just these issues. I believe one necessary criterion for the Web to be truly social, as opposed to social networking occurring primarily within tightly-controlled and closed silos on the Web, is for users to be in control of their identity, privacy, and data. Since I don’t want to spam your blog with article links to my blog, I’ll simply link to this article of mine which contains at the end a listing of my pertinent ruminations on this topic.
The Web is Not (yet) Social
Good luck with Project Reclaim!
I’m very much in agreement with you that educators generally, and Digital Humanists in particular, bear a special responsibility for leading the way towards non-commercial forms of communication that allow us to retain control over our own data. Thanks for leading the way here; I’m hoping that where you go, others will follow.
Good luck with the effort!!
Jeff – Reading your posts and tweets has been a consistent source of good information (as well as inspiration) regarding the future of the web. [Readers – I encourage you to check out the article that Jeff links to, as well as the many others he’s written on related topics.]
Matt – Thanks. In my view, the people who have the greatest responsibility to lead the way are those who have the requisite abilities and those whose work puts them in a position to be role models on this kind of subject. I fall into both of those categories, which is why I feel bound to do something. Certain stripes of digital humanities practitioner would clearly fall into these categories as well.
koolhead17 – Thanks!
There seem to be two slightly different concerns at work in this post.
(1) Websites (or in general, 3rd party networked services) are given “private” information which they may or may not use in manners I personally approve of. Moreover, terms-of-service for use and distribution of this information often changes without user consent, and in ways that serve the site rather than the user.
(2) Information provided to sites gets locked into a “walled garden” and becomes difficult for users to reuse to their own ends, even when it is created by that user. Information so walled up may become inaccessible if the site closes, changes terms, becomes locked behind a pay-wall, fails because of bugs, etc.
I understand both concerns, but (2) is actually of greater personal concern to me. As a personal choice, I generally freely publish all information I create (including, e.g. mirroring snapshots of my Facebook page to my own website, now that they’ve partially broken their walled garden). My life is “world-readable”. But that is my choice, and people SHOULD retain the right to keep private what they want private (which probably means not revealing information in the first place on such a voluntary basis, out of minor convenience). Btw. See Eben Moglen’s wonderful talk about a year ago at NYU on “Freedom in the Cloud” which touches on many of these issues.
Mostly I’ve led my digital life according to the principles Boone advocates. I have no interest in Twitter. My GMail is all downloaded via POP3 to a local machine, and backed up to servers I control from there. I use Picasa, but simply as a publication mechanism for pictures that I keep on local harddisk. My FB pages are snapshotted and published on my personal domain. My SMS messages on my Android phone are all forwarded to GMail by a neat app, and from there obviously subject to the same local copies and backup as other emails.
One BIG problem I still have is with GChat, which is convenient, but is not provided via POP3, despite the general integration into GMail. This upsets me, since there is no easy way I know of to save local copies of those chat transcripts. I would HUGELY appreciate it if someone could point me to a tool to archive those chat sessions… and save me the need to write a screen-scraping utility that manually extracted such things (I could write it, but getting it working and debugged would be decidedly non-trivial effort). Google SHOULD simply provide some simple checkbox for “download chats” or “forward chats as email”… which they DO for GDocs (though that reminds me that I haven’t exported everything there either, at least not for a long time… making that more automatic would be nice too, like on a cron script).
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You didn’t list Gowalla/Foursquare above, but you easily could have. Here’s an interesting alternative.
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David – Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment. I agree that your (1) and (2) are separate issues, though related in important ways. This is especially true of social data such as what we create in spaces like Twitter, which loses much of its value and life if it’s tightly siloed.
Re: GChat. It’s annoying that Gmail doesn’t make those logs accessible by IMAP or POP3. Have you thought about switching clients? Software like Adium (for Mac) or Pidgin or others can connect to GChat (which runs on the Jabber protocol, I think). That software has its own built-in transcripting. Not quite as nice as having them in the same search pile as your emails, but free and open source.
Matt – I didn’t list Gowalla/Foursquare above because they don’t really have any value to me and I’ll probably just stop using them altogether. But you’re right that they fall into a similar category. Thanks for the Ushahidi link – I hadn’t heard of it before, but it looks cool. There might be the potential for tie-in with other niche social networking software (ahem).
@Boone: Unfortunately, choosing a local chat client really doesn’t go very far towards solving my GChat problem. On my several Linux machines, I do often use Empathy or Pidgin for chats (i.e. over GChat’s protocol), and those do logging, of course. But those create local logs on each machine, and are not unified when I switch machines (yes, I know about rsync, diff, etc., but there would be work in synchronization).
Moreover, I use a variety of other machines, over which I have varying degrees of control (but all have a web browser). On my Windows 7 work laptop where I am not free to install software, I still wish to chat sometimes. I mainly use an OSX laptop for personal or consulting things, where I could install a local chat client (though haven’t), but then I would still have a strictly local log that isn’t synchronized with other machines on which I might continue the same conversations. I also frequently chat on my Android phone (with Google’s app for that, specifically); that doesn’t save logs at all, but again even if some 3rd party app did, the synchronization issue would remain.
Finding a tool to pull out the data from GChat (on a scheduled/repeatable basis) would be a great boon to “Project Reclaim”… which might mean I need to write it, if I ever find time.
David – Thanks for the clarification.
I was reading a blog post recently about the benefits of using
screenfor IRC: running your main client on an always-on machine (maybe your server) and then using screen to access it from whatever client machine you’re using. That way, you never miss pings and keywords.
Obviously you can’t do precisely the same thing with chat, but I wonder if you could do something along similar lines. Use a remote server as the primary connection to the chat network (all the logging happens there), and then use local clients to connect to the networks through the bridge.
I don’t really know anything about chat protocols and clients. Maybe someone has already done something like this?
Interesting idea about ‘screen’. It’s certainly a great tool–one that I use every day, but in my case only for work tasks. I could certainly run some more clients on servers I control, and rely on SSH+screen (which is pretty universal to every machine I might work on… even in principle Android with ConnectBot).
Or likewise, VNC would let me run graphic applications on some fixed server, and connect from various locations (albeit, a bit less responsively and reliably than I’d like).
Still, in the particular case of GChat, I think the easiest and most flexible approach remains data extraction. I’ve written quite a few tools to do web-scraping of various sorts, and I’m pretty sure GMail’s Chat screen would be ameniable to this. I put off writing the damn tool myself half because I keep hoping Google will do the obvious right thing (which they mostly do; most of my data they touch is not too difficult to obtain copies of for local storage). The other half, of course, is just laziness and a free-rider hope that someone else has or will do it for me, and make the tool available as FLOSS.
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Boone, this is inspiring. I came to this via Stephen Downes’ post and am delighted to have happened across your site. As a fellow philosopher-by-training, Openness evangelist and educator, I too feel uneasy.
It’s time to do something about it.
Thanks for the inspiration! 😀
A very thought provoking article. I am both an Academic & Educator and you are right to see them separately although the two are inter-related.
If I consider first my role as an Academic as this is probably likely to be the most closed aspect of my work. Much of my academic research (especially funded research) is often by definition “private” between funder and researcher. The publication of papers from such research is still largely a closed experience. However this closed approach does mean that data pertaining to the research is solely hosted and managed by the institution and as such third party ownership is actually not too much of a problem. (maybe the only benefit of closed research!)
In contrast to this I have also worked on a couple of Open Education research projects where the sharing of the outputs in an open form have been a requirement & benefit to the work.
As an Educator I have similar experiences of content ownership. My institution has a fairly open approach to sharing learning resources both externally and internally but we manage our own repository system & host our own VLE content. However we also use Google services for document sharing & secondary email system (we have a primary exchange email as well). Again here we have a mixed experience.
Similarly in my own personal environment I have a mixed approach. Some private data (which i own) and lots of public data which is hosted by third parties.
My personal perspective is that if I am to be “open” I am less likely to be able to control my data ownership. Afterall even if I hosted my own images, instead of using flickr, and people download those images under a CC license – that’s all control of that image now sacrificed. Surely to be “open” means at some point you relinquish ownership of data (whether that be relinquished at point of hosting or at point of retrieval).
I certainly support your sentiments that we should support open software as much as possible but I am not yet convinced that by “owning” my own data (initially anyway) there is any major benefit. You may feel a little bit more comfortable that your data is not being used for commercial exploitation, but this could still happen if you hosted all of your data but made it openly available.
The data I need to own I do own (e.g material that has commercial or private value), is “owned” by me (as in I host that data) and that any material I am happy to be open currently resides in private & third party spaces.
I will certainly follow your project with interest as I am particularly interested to see at what level it is possible to maintain openess whilst controlling data ownership.
Forgot to mention that I got here via Doug Belshaw. (see above).
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I’m making initial baby steps down the reclaim path, and started with reducing my internet footprint in general. Deleting accounts on various services left right and centre. There’ll be far less to keep track of, to migrate, to archive, if it doesn’t exist in the first place.
Hey you kids, get off my lawn.
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