#Mozfest pt 1: The politics of making the future

We attended Mozfest this weekend – and as we still do not even have anything web-related to show (hopefully next year) – we were there to gain inspiration and really push our thinking forward.

The Mozilla Festival is a radically “open” geek paradise, where hundreds of people from around the world came to co-create and share ideas and tools, including online media, gaming, educational tools.

Photo of Joi Ito by Flickr user Paul_Clarke used on a CC license

We left really challenged to build a truly open community (which we will get to in our second post), but we also left with some lingering disquiet with blindspots in the “politics” of the community.

This post is intended to be a contribution to the “writeable” society and intended to start a conversation, so please read on and let us know what you think.

Joi Ito’s speech to the plenary was a provocation – reminding people that there are massive forces and powers opposed to openness and making. You can watch it here (skip to 25:40).

We know that Mozilla’s interest and core business is building software for what it calls the “open web” – this is an eternal, powerful rallying cry.

But what about a sustainable web? (We use the word, already abused in corporate circles, for lack of a better term). No question that in policy terms, Mozilla stands for net freedom and defending the infrastructure(s) that will sustain the open web.

But there is another sustainability, which has to do with the physical resources we use and related human impacts. And Joi was very adamant that Mozfest represents a political, fight-pumping pushback against the throw-away society – he said “this is a conspiracy of amazing people who are trying to overthrow the traditional society of consumerism.”

We were just about to raise our fists in the air too, but… Did we miss the punchline?

Yes, DIY culture and making have revolutionary potential, but to make and to write we rely on hardware and energy, we rely on finite resources.

Software is one of the more invisible elements in the accelerating “throw-away” cycle of production, consumption and discarding of electronics. Issues like CPU resource use, compatibility, support for older versions – these all have real human and environmental impacts.

In circulating during the three days, we did not stumble upon conversations about this kind of sustainability.

Obviously at an event where rapid innovation (“fuck it, ship it”) is the central driving force,  these questions could be deemed a buzzkill – but surely an eye for sustainability tradeoffs could become one of the many “ninjaskills” of the future?

And there are so many inspiring education initiatives that focus on teaching coding skills – Coder Dojo, Code Club, and Apps for Good to name a few. Our question is: how can we avoid training a voracious corps of writers, makers and coders whose “no limits” attitude also unquestioningly applies to finite natural resources?

Perhaps it is still possible to inject what Brazilian technologist André Lemos called in 2001 “development of a critical thought and disquiet in relation to that which they sell us as the newest, best thing, that will just rot in front of us…”



9 Responses to “#Mozfest pt 1: The politics of making the future”

  1. I was attempting to leap to MozFest’s defenence here and mention the bits of “open sustainability improves environmental sustainability” about the place but have realised there was not much.

    The MET office being one.

    And Building Cardboard Arcades with @ssyed & @kahodesu ( A third of the way down on http://mozillafestival.org/demoparty/ ) being the other (although their blurb doesn’t make it obvious). That set up used reused PC’s from Access Space ( http://www.access-space.org ) were the efficiency and just build what you need elements of FLOSS are the only reasons we can survive.

    With the whole world now waiting for $40 tablets, the environmental impact of all this is getting scary. There is already a growing mending movement and environmental tech thing happening, is there a forum for shouting about how FLOSS can reduce our environmental impact? if not shall we make one.

    • Thanks Martyn – too bad we didn’t get a chance to talk. Access Space has been on our radar screen for a while. Perhaps we can schedule a visit in the new year?

      On the growing green movement in tech, so far not enough attention is paid to the roll software plays in the “throw away” tech culture. Agree that there should be the kind of forum that you mention! (More in our response to Michelle below.)

  2. Tony Roberts says:

    I guess the other sustainability question for coders is the environmental logic of
    writing ever more bloated software creating demand for ever more powerful machines
    and hence upgrades.

    The first spreadsheet package I taught at university came on a single 5.25inch floppy
    Now the same basic functionality requires gigabytes. Why is code so bloated? Is this inevitable?
    If coders didn’t bloat our need for ever-greater processing power and storage capacity
    could the replacement cycle be extended. In a sense it is like the environmental
    priority order of reduce-reuse-recycle. Let’s do what we can to reduce demand for
    fast kit in the first place

    • We would love to reduce the voracious demand for newer and faster kit, that will “rot in front of us”. But perhaps there is a tension between innovation and doing cool stuff, pushing things forward, and your vision of “slender” code? This needs to be debated more widely!

      • Mark Young says:

        I’ve just come across this article through the Great Recovery Project and just wanted to chime in on software & sustainability – having read a recent WSJ article about datacenters, I was pretty shocked to hear that globally they require the equivalent of 30 nuclear power stations!
        I work with software engineers and I often feel there is a disconnect between what they create, and what pollution is created by the power stations powering their code. I use CAD for my product designs and I’m now trying to record the kWh I use whilst designing and rendering. How many software engineers at mozilla would know what kWh they use on a project? And do they understand the impact of their code on the machines running them?

        I’m glad the hardware industry started looking at performance per watt. Until all computers are running on renewable energy, we need the software industry to be aware of it too!

      • Alex says:

        I work with both software and hardware and agree with what Mark says – a lot of pure software engineers are (perhaps understandably given the pace of progress in previous years) not as careful about resource use and tend to have an overoptimistic and cornucopian attitude to resources in general.

        there also is too strong an attitude to “keep progress and revenue streams” constantly going hence planned obsolesence and deliberate bloat, and in some countries / cultures a feeling that the best way to solve a problem is to “throw money/resources at it”, thus “keeping the free market going”. I’ve noticed this attitude as much on the FOSS scene as with proprietary projects.

        And with hardware you do need to “kill the buzz” sometimes for the greater good After all most engineers wouldn’t normally work on live circuits energised to 230V or 400V to save time (even if it means business disruption) and if it is inevitable many precautions are taken!

        Alex

  3. Thanks for this very thoughtful post, Janet! You’re right that sustainability was left on the margins at Mozfest. There are some implicit values around how openness leads to better environmental practices (old machines given extra years running Linux, opening up the apps market to prevent vendor lock in and subsequently planned obsolescence, etc.).

    But you’re right that these issues should be more baked into activities not only at Mozfest, but with the larger open web + learn to code communities.

    Do you have examples of how to work in these topics for next year? Practices, organizations, tools that might help make these values more visible and part of what’s being made?

    Thanks again and keen to hear what you think!

    • Hi Michelle,

      We’d love to talk to more about this with you (therestartproject@gmail.com). To start, sustainability could be mentioned more specifically by your speakers, but I also think it would be good to really seek out people pioneering in this area for the program next year. (Also, by then we will have 18 months of insights into the way software can negatively influence consumer behavior which we could share.)

      To point to another effort by a software company to promote discussions about design and sustainability, have you heard of Autodesk’s sustainability workshop?
      http://sustainabilityworkshop.autodesk.com – obviously they are focusing on industrial design but there could be some great lessons there for software development too.

      Hope that helps start the discussion…

  4. We’ve suggested our first session for Mozfest 2013, which largely is a response to this discussion. Please vote for it! http://sessions.mozillafestival.org/proposals/making-software-that-wont-suck-the-worlds-resources/

    Watch this space, we are suggesting one more, which is more “hands-on”.

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