We complain about giants such as Google, Apple and Microsoft owning our technology, but how many of us take the time to explore the alternatives. As David Jackson argues, they are simple to adopt and free in every sense.
We’ve all benefited from the incredible advances in personal computing technology over the last 30 years, but serious concerns remain about the impact of technology on individual privacy, freedom and equality.
When I listen to these concerns, often shared on platforms provided by the RSA, the conclusion often seems to be that Big Tech, regulators and legislators need to do more to deal with these issues, and fix the problems that we feel so passionately about. The implication always seems to be that we, as users of technology, have little choice or agency over what we choose and that we are in the hands of the big technology players who need to up their game.
In fact, there is a whole world of technology choices that completely bypass Big Tech companies and their shareholders. This world is referred to as free and open source software (FOSS) and its values align perfectly (indeed beautifully) with our shared values in the RSA. Despite this, and despite the airtime and column inches given over to concerns about technology, there will be readers of this article – supporters and Fellows of the RSA – who have never heard of it.
The Internet is full of information for those who want to learn more detail about FOSS, but it will be sufficient for this article to understand that FOSS includes a choice of operating systems (think MS Windows or Mac OS, the basic platforms you see when you start your computer) and software applications (think Word, Photoshop, or Excel).
Why do I feel so passionately that FOSS supports our shared values and that we in the RSA have a duty to champion it? Because it offers an entirely viable alternative to supporting the Big Tech companies, and one that empowers us to control our own data, understand how the technology works, and pool our efforts to continually improve it for the betterment of mankind. Here are the benefits.
It is completely, totally, one hundred percent free
To use this software legally you require exactly no money. For this simple reason alone, and our shared commitment to equality of access and opportunity across the world, FOSS is highly relevant to any discussion about technology use in the world that we want to build. Anybody with access to even a basic computer, the kind you can buy second-hand for under £100, can have a complete system that will never require money to run or upgrade.
Its source code is visible and editable
This means that all the concerns we have about what an application or system might be doing in terms of data harvesting or data sharing are removed as we can see exactly what is happening. Traditional proprietary software is put together in such a way that you can never actually see what is happening in the code. This is the equivalent of buying a cake without being allowed to see the ingredients. With open source, you not only see the ingredients but also the recipe.
It prioritises independence
Rather than relying on and trusting Google, Apple or Microsoft for cloud services, I use a free application called NextCloud to keep my own data in my own cloud. Ever wonder where your cloud data is held? I know exactly where mine is held and have complete control over it. We choose to give our data to Big Tech – we don’t have to.
It is the ultimate crowd sourced project
Everything from the operating system to the applications is developed by teams – often of volunteers – collaborating on products for the benefit of anybody who wants to use them.
It supports lifelong learning and skills relating to technology by letting us see exactly how technology works
We may think that we are seeing a new generation of ‘digital natives’ who are confident users of technology and apps, but how many of them actually understand what is happening behind the scenes and how these technologies work? It is entirely possible for our use of technology and dependence on it to increase as our understanding of it decreases.
It provides a level playing field
I have been asked to provide this article as a Microsoft Word document. No problem. My free and open source Libre Office application allows me to do this. I have yet to come across any file format that I can’t edit in free and open source software. Thanks to the ongoing work of a global network of volunteers, free open source software projects are compatible with mainstream Big Tech solutions, which means that I can collaborate with people who are still using Microsoft Windows or Mac OS without them ever suspecting that I am using something different.
I could go on, but hopefully just these few points will help you to see that whether our priority is equality, transparency, innovation, collaboration or education, the RSA and the FOSS movement are the most natural of bedfellows.
What if we don’t do this?
If we choose not to educate ourselves about these alternatives, and don’t actively support their use, we are effectively submitting to the very Big Tech landscape that we rail against. If it makes us feel better, we can continue to write articles and books about the dangers of power being in the hands of the few, the shadowy world of data sharing, in-built discrimination and exploitative practices. But as long as we are doing that on our MacBooks and Surface Pros, using Gmail and posting links on Twitter, we are feeding the very beast we are demonising. We can have a different future, but we need to choose it and support those who are giving their time and energy to make it happen.
David Jackson is a management consultant, member of the Decent Work and Productivity Research Centre at Manchester Metropolitan University, and a Fellow of the RSA.
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I submitted this article before the Elon Musk takeover of Twitter and decisions by lots of Twitter users to explore the open source Mastodon instead. Mastodon is another fantastic example of free open source software that anybody interested in using social media, but with privacy or ethical concerns, should explore.