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.