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Software is Political


I recently attended the inaugural Free and Open Source Software Yearly (FOSSY) conference where I gave a talk in the XMPP track. Though my talk was just a brief technical overview of the XMPP protocol, I also gave some quick ending remarks about why I think it’s the correct choice to use as a universal standardized chat protocol. The closing remarks were written about the XMPP protocol in particular, but they are also a reflection on free and open source software more generally. This post is an adapted form of that closing statement. If you’d like to see the original talk instead, it can be found on the Internet Archive.

Closing Remarks

Before we end, I’d like to take a little detour and make a brief observation on our role and our responsibilities as open source developers, advocates, and users. It may sound, at first, like I’ve veered off the tracks, but bear with me and it will all come back around to Open Source and XMPP in the end.

I recently read Becky Chamber’s “A Psalm for the Wild-Built”. Among the many beautiful and healing observations in the book, one phrase, stood out to me. It was possibly said in jest to make folks like us laugh, and maybe cry in equal measure. It was little more than a brief description of the main character’s mobile phone, but it resonated with me in a powerful way and I hope it will for you too:

“A reliable device, built to last a lifetime, as all computers were.”

Of course, this is clearly not how computers are designed today. Most of the time, I wouldn’t even go so far as to apply the adjective “reliable” to any of the software I use, open source or otherwise. But Utopian thinking isn’t about showing us where we are, or even portraying the world as it could be: it’s about inspiring us to apply our progressive ideals to create change.

Writing software is an inherently political act. While others choose to form hierarchical corporations that restrict access to the products of their workers labor, we choose to share our work freely and build cooperatively with others. That’s why we’re here at FOSSY. Being here is a statement of our values. Even the small, personal project thrown up on a code hosting website and built for no one but the author puts that person in a position of political power: when others use the software, the authors choices affect them. Whether its the choice to support or not support a screen reader, or the choice to use or not use a large framework that will only run on the latest-and-greatest (read: “expensive, unattainable for many”) machines. The author may not have made these choices consciously, but, over time, their effects will be felt by many never the less.

Therefore our primary responsibility as open source developers isn’t to shareholders or board members, or just to our current users and contributors: it’s to all the people who will use it tomorrow (and tomorrow, and tomorrow). Proprietary software stops working when the company behind it goes out of business, or when the operating system or architecture it was designed for becomes to expensive to maintain and starts affecting the bottom line, or when the VC money dries up. Meanwhile, the open source project, even once abandoned, can be updated and re-built a generation from now. It can be made more inclusive, it can be made more reliable, it can be made more portable. Unlike its closed-source alternatives, it’s repairable. When we chose to use or build closed-source software we are choosing convenience over repairability. It’s an understandable and powerful draw, whether we’re a user or a developer. However, when we choose to provide our software freely and build it cooperatively, we are choosing to support the future, and to reject convenience culture and disposable software.

It may be that you disagree with me and think that all software should be, as your license likely states, “provided as-is” without any responsibility on the part of the developer, and that’s fine. However you feel though, by writing the software you are sending a message to many people. Whether you like it or not, some will interpret it one way, some will interpret it another. The next time you open your laptop I hope you’ll think about what message you intend to send, and how it will be perceived. This is the essence of communication.

This is why I choose to use XMPP over the many proprietary or venture capital funded alternatives that come and go every day. However, as someone reminded me in the bar last night, being open source is itself necessary, but not sufficient. Our software will last far longer than its proprietary, or open-source but VC funded counterparts, and the decisions we make will reach much further into the future than even the largest companies can ever hope to achieve. Take pride in that, and build your software to reflect your values: build it to last.

Thank you for your time, and enjoy the rest of the XMPP track, and the rest of the conference.

Special Thanks

Unfortunately I was running over time and ended up skipping the Q&A portion and my last few slides. Unrealized by me at the time, this included a thank you to the organization that sponsored me to be there: Cheogram. Cheogram is a bridge between the XMPP network and the telephone network, allowing you to send text messages and make calls from any XMPP client. They also run the phone company where you can get a phone number or SIM card and associate it with your XMPP account without doing all the work of setting it up yourself. If you end up using them, please consider using my registration code so we can both get a free month, and thanks again to Cheogram for sending me to the conference!

For one free month, my referral code for is BC6ZHFMA

Special thanks to Cheogram! Special thanks to!