Alice wants to send an email to Bob. Alice's address is email@example.com, while Bob's is firstname.lastname@example.org. In our world they can easily do it, but imagine a parallel universe in which Alice cannot send it because her domain is amail.com while Bob's is bmail.com. In order to communicate, Alice would need to sign up in bmail.com provider or Bob should sign up in amail.com services. Otherwise they could not communicate. It sounds crazy, doesn't it? Why couldn't amail.com talk to bmail.com, you could ask? It would not make sense.
Now imagine a world in which Alice wants to send an instantaneous message to Bob. Alice uses an app called Asap and Bob uses another called Belegram. Unfortunately, Asap and Belegram cannot talk to each other so, unless Alice installs Belegram or Bob downloads Wasap they cannot communicate. This also sounds crazy, doesn't it? What an absurd parallel world! But wait! This sounds quite familiar!
It is perfectly reasonable that different companies like amail or bmail exist. It is also understandable that many messaging apps like Asap and Belegram appear. They provide variety, competition, different choices to appeal to different people. But why in the world wouldn't talk to each other? We live in a world artificially separated in countries, entities delimited by imaginary lines, but even they, sometimes, talk to each other. Why are messaging apps are even more isolated than countries?
The reason is related to the phenomenon called "the winner takes all". If you build a communication platform and you don't allow other platforms to communicate with you, two very different things can happen. First, and most probable, you will never succeed so you disappear from the market. But, if by any chance of fortune, you appear on the market first, or one of the firsts, or if being billionare you buy the most popular platform already working, then you can easily aglutinate and control most of the users of the world.
You may think "but people would never accept such a thing!" Yet they do. A self locking phenomenon occurs here. Imagine a new set of platforms is developed and made available. First of all: will you notice they are there? Will they have the resources of paying for expensive ads? Will they be announced at other platforms that don't want to lose their users? And second: even if some users notice, and they install such new software, they will end having a contact list that rarely will surpass five users, if they are lucky. These enthusiasts can try to convince others, but most people will not see a point in changing to another service that feels like a field of crickets and tumbleweeds.
Some users will be convinced, though, and they will give it a try, just to discover that such apps have not a fancy design, that they lack features they have on their usual apps, or even that it has some bugs. Of course, their usual services are backed by thousands of paid developers and designers, while these alternative and ugly imitators are the product of some "geek people playing in their free time".
But somehow these alternative choices keep insisting. They seem to claim that they, unless the others, respect your freedom. Freedom? Am I not using all these apps for free? No, the alternative people will answer, not freedom as in free beer: freedom as liberty. Ah, they say, but I send from my apps whatever I like. I have not suffered any kind of censorship. No, the others answer, it is more subtle than that: freedom to audit your code, freedom to not being spied, freedom to... wait a minute, why would I want to read some code? why should I care to be spied? I don't have nothing to be ashamed of, and I want the police to be able to do their job finding criminals. No, they answer, it is even subtler than that, it is just that... But at this point nobody is listening anymore. Who wants to spend such a time and energy in these ultrasubtle matters? They are happy sharing memes and pictures with friends and family. Life is too short to worry about these what if scenarios or about such creepy issues. Use this yourself and chat with your other nerd mates and leave us alone. Alone, what an irony! Leave us together, they should have said!
For two weeks, I have been exploring the world of XMPP and Matrix, which are two protocols for instant messaging. Since I am not an expert, and not trying to become one, I will write many technical mistakes, like for example callingthem protocols or saying that they are for messaging. I am sure they are designed for more things than instant messaging and I am also sure that they have an awful collection of technical terms to distinguish an infinite array of subtle differences. I don't care. I understand experts need terminology, but we the users don't want to know about it. To me, they are protocols to send messages, just that.
A word worth learning is federation. The ability to talk between different providers by using the same protocol is called federation, just like a federation of states talk to each other to pursue a general good while each retains its own idiosyncrasies. E-mail is federated, while messaging is usually not. Enter Matrix and XMPP, which are two choices to have messages the same federated way we have email. As a software developer, you could build your own client, which is a software that is able to understand and use the protocol in order to talk to other people. Or you can run an instance, so that you host a node in such networking web. But these are technicalities of little importance to a user like me.
Let's say I want to use XMPP. How can I obtain an address to start sending messages? Like there is amail.com or wmail.org we also find providers that can give you an address. Will they give this for free? Most of them yes, but wait! Again free? Free as in free beer, gratis? Should I trust them? Will I have to run my own service because I cannot trust anyone? Should I be paying for just sending a few irrelevant messages with friends? Why should I trust this geek XMPP provider while at the same time shitting on those big companies providing free services as well?
Let's say I signed for a xmpp service, for free, gratis. Just to explore. Then I discovered a new thing. When you sign up for Asap, you also have the app to already start sending messages. This app is the "client". But here in the XMPP world I had the address but there was no app ready to use. So I had to find one. On mobile, an app called Conversations was available not only on popular app markets, but also in f-droid.org. Neat! And once installed I saw that they offer (paid) accounts as well. Not for now, but good to know, and since it is a federated thing I can use the address I got for free in the app. Cool! Is this what they mean by freedom? Let's see!
First cold fact: even importing contacts from my list, nobody known to me is using XMPP so I cannot chat with anyone. So, not surrendering, I discover that there are chat rooms, public places to go and share messages. Maybe there are private groups as well, who knows. Once in some of them I start noticing they call these groups MUC, as multi user chat. OK, but I really hate jargon when you don't know if you are talking to an expert or not. It is very frequently used as a tribal signal. You use the jargon, and you understand it, ergo you belong. This reminds me of most math teachers who punish their students because the say "triangle with two same sides and one not equal" instead of "isosceles". These teachers are complete idiots. They confuse math with jargon, and they try to make a career out of it. And they, of course, make students hate this kind of pseudomath which in fact is just jargon. Jargon can be useful for college math (but never indispensable) but using it against children? Damn. Same for other things.
As I want to chat with my newly installed client I start writing some opinions here and there. I also discover that my Linux distribution, xubuntu, also has a pre-installed XMPP client called Pidgin. So I introduce my username and password and I now can use XMPP on the computer. Great! I start to receive my first responses. Many of them are so rude! What a welcome! Since I am new in those tribes, the room lord frequently appears to mark its territory, with the accomplice silence of the rest of users. Of course these rude room-lords are properly called administrators or moderators or things like that, but man, what a way to welcome a newcomer! It reminded me some movies of the Far West, when you entered the bar, with the piano out of tune playing ragtime, the ladies watching from upstairs, the swinging door still squeaking, a deafening silence... Fortunately, some nice users popped here and there, and not all room-lords were so dark.
Another curious thing is that rooms seemed to be ordered by topic, so God forbid you to talk about something off-topic. "There is a room for that!". Even off-topic is a topic now! As if most interesting things in life would not come from the boundaries of the so called topics. The same happens with sciences: physics, chemistry, geology... or inside them: astronomy, solid-state, organic... These departments can be useful, but only if you never forget that they are pure convention, and that the interaction between them and the whole natural world is the true endeavour of science. So I learn that even if you go to the Far West of freedom messages, idiocy is everywhere. And also lack of real freedom.
There are two types of geeks: those who really understand things and those who like trying fancy new things because they look like in the movies, even if they don't really understand what are they doing. I am on this second group. And geeks from the first group rapidly notice the difference. Oh, no, they think, another dumb lost in our territory. Why do they even try? But dumbness has one thing: that you don't care about what others think, so I decided to explore different clients, especially command line one so as to be even closer to movies, and also because some mysterious things started to happen in the clients I was using (except Conversations which always worked perfectly). For example, messages that I sent or received while using the mobile (Conversations app) but while being offline at the computer, never arrived to the computer when I launched the desktop programs. What a weird thing! This would be unacceptable in the world of Asap or Belegram! I asked, again the dumb man crossing the swinging door. Almost nobody cared to answer. Some people threw some jargon at me, how nice. I replied with naive clarity, which seems not to be so welcome in these lands of forced cold-coolness. Some people replied nicely, but also ambiguously, which made me wonder if I was the only one losing messages in limbo. I still don't know. Then, when going to a place called github where the experts say expert things and improve their code, I find that the jargon word for that was MAM. Message Archive Management or something like that. So I go back to some rooms and ask: do you support MAM? Oh, they thought, let's reply since it must be one of ours. NO, some client-rooms say. We plan to support this somewhere in the future. What a cool way to say "yes, we are all losing our offline messages in limbo". Maybe they don't suffer this because they all run servers that are all the time running, which raises many environmental flags.
Others replied: yes, we support it, but not in this version you are using. Oh, but my version is the very last LTS version. (I am throwing jargon at you as a joke: LTS means Long Term Support, so that you have a stable operating system instead of the new of the newest with many bugs). So are you saying that my up-to-date distribution brings me an already old-fashioned version of your software? Am I dreaming? No, and there is more. They reply that I, yes, you are actually reading this, I, me, a nobody, should contact the operating system channel (!) in order to ask them (!!) to include a newer version of it. Wow! How important I must be!
There were other choices: use flatpak. Sorry, flatwhat? OK, I google it, oh sorry, I startpage it, oh sorry, I duckduck it, oh sorry, I p2ppunksearchwhatthefuck it... is that right now? OK, so I manage to learn what flatpak is and I install it, but oh, now I don't have encryption enabled. They say they have not included this the flatpak, but they will. I of course understand them: they develop free software, but this does not necessarily mean free support. They are not paid for this, so I find awesome that they even have done something already. I really appreciate their work, but we must remain critical about the actual result and about the human approach to it.
This list goes on and on. Many clients that are extremely difficult to install to avoid losing messages, or other nasty complications. I wonder: why not joining forces and developing less clients that could be more reliable? At least for a while.!
Anyway, there are good news after that. After trying many clients (not all of them of course) I found that both Dino and Gajim work OK, but not with the versions offered by the current operating system repositories (as of 20/11/20). I needed to upgrade the programs by other means, which is not nice for someone using the latest distribution version, always within long term support (stable) terms. Is XMPP ready to be proposed as a reliable alternative today, then? I am not sure. Maybe yes, but someone should convince me of it.
So using Dino and Gajim at the computer and Conversations at the mobile I was having a working environment. I could communicate with encryption and without losing messages. OK, but with who, and communicate about what? For a whole week all the content I exchanged was about the software. Meta content as best. But I want non-technical content as well. I found some groups, like the Environment one, (email@example.com) with a very friendly room-lord that allows off and cross topics. But not much more. It must be that I have not searched for long enough, but I have already devoted a lot of time by now.
Then I found a very interesting guy, Arne, who is the creator of a site called monocles.de, which is a (meta)search engine, meaning it aggregates results of other search engines while not tracking you. He also provides xmpp addresses and cloud and email! Check it at https://monocles.de/ocean/ Why am I sharing this? Because I found, to my amazement, that the whole thing is running with solar power, but not only that: the solar station is right there at the very same roof! This is the kind of content that I like.
This raises the issue of how polluting are servers. Servers are used everywhere to provide communications between clients. And they provide quite a service! Let's say that A wants to exchange messages with B. But A is not online all the time, and neither is B. However, the server S is always online (best case scenario), so A can send a message to S and go to sleep. When B wakes, S will send the message to B and that's it. So convenient. But wait... do we really need a machine running all the time?
This does not sound quite environment-friendly, or even ethical. These server machines are emitting CO2 all the time. So isn't it nice to have such machines powered by a "clean" energy? I say "clean" because even solar and other renewables also have their issues. As with other things, it is a scale of greys between black and white. But we must not fall into the black or white trap. Going a bit further to the white side is worth it, even if being still at a quite dark grey.
Arne kindly provided me with a nice XMPP address, cloud and e-mail services, so I am helping trying them and giving feedback. I would not mind paying to use such a service, or another similar one who had a closer location to mine. But will this provider succeed in the market? Who knows. I wish it will. And we need many more like it.
I also tried Matrix, through a client called Element. I think the most famous Matrix client was called Riot some time ago when I was trying to make r0oT (see blog post 5) work. Maybe someone wanted a less revolutionary name, I don't know. I preferred Riot (the name I mean). It works out of the box and it is evident from the beginning that they have more people working on it than in XMPP, or so it seems. From a technical perspective, it seems more polished and more apt for a new user. But then I learned that, while each XMPP server hosts its own content, each matrix server hosts a lot of redundant information. This is subtle. Redundancy can be a good and a bad thing. It is good because if one server fails, the others may not fail and the whole thing can keep running smoothly. From some perspective, this is a winner approach.
But it is not my perspective. XMPP servers are much more lightweight, and even if it does not have the robustness of redundancy, it can be very reliable if it has a good backup system. So if a server goes down for some time some things are not working for a while (so what? are we so mad that we cannot wait for anything?) but they can be easily restored. And of course, being lighter, it consumes way less energy, which means XMPP is right now much more environmentfriendly than matrix. To me this is a decissive point. Both protocols are awesome, both open source, both full of people working for better and more free communications... But from what I have learned, I prefer XMPP in terms of simplicity, lightweight and low emissions. Of course I may be wrong and someone could make my opinion change.
Aside from the technical aspects, I also found little content that was not technical. Some interesting groups but very silent. Some room-lords as well... quite a similar experience to XMPP.
There were many more experiences there. Finding interesting mail lists about amazing projects like gemini, which made me discover gopher as well. They are "alternative internets" based on simple plain text and a strong focus on content, although ironically, most of the content I found was meta again, that is, content about the container. Also found a group of Gaians, very nice vegan people, extremely rude guys, amazing projects and a plethora of mind blowing activities that could be the end of your offline life if you would sell your soul to it.
There is a last technical thing worth mentioning. It was the use of Tox and Jami. Both Peer-to-Peer (P2P) protocols. P2P means that if A wants to send a message to B, instead of using a server S as a bridge, A just sends the message directly to B. But what if B is not online? Well, you must wait. What if, by the time B comes online, you are already offline? Well, you will need to wait until both are online at the same time. The messages are not lost: they simply must wait for the connection to be made between the two. This may sound very inconvenient, but they don't need a server running and polluting all the time. They are also free to communicate without the control of the server, which can be a nice or a not-nice player. Even if the server is not unfriendly, governments can easily target them to control the information flowing through them. For example, reading the messages if unencrypted, or blocking the servers so that they can isolate people within a country from communication with the rest of the world. With P2P no one knows that you are communicating with somebody. Well, I am sure the extremely clever people from government agencies can peak into some communications, but I think it would be extremely harder for them to do it.
To me, using Tox or Jami is like using a walkie-talkie with a friend instead of using a mobile phone. But without the distance limit or the eavesdropping of unencrypted radio waves. Just amazing. I plan to use P2P messages a lot.
I already knew Jami, which I used during the first covid lockdown with friends for video calls and it worked perfectly well. Tox is new to me. For chat, it looks better than Jami because you can have group chats! But the behaviour of these groups feels quite buggy for now. But what a great start! Communications without servers! And I don't care about the waiting thing. In fact, I consider that, far from being a limitation, it is a feature. The less you are exposed to immediacy, the healthier you will stay. And I don't say this in a paternal way. No, I call this topic because it is directly related to the topic of freedom. Let's finish this long post with some thinking about freedom and some conclusions.
After two weeks of online adventures that felt like exploring Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Web, did I gain more freedom? Short answer: no, but I gained more individual power.
The most noticeable effect was that, since I invested so much time exploring, learning tech-things, which is a thing that generates in me a lot of dopamine, I became way dumber than I was. Lots of new things, things that look exciting, promising features, hypes, new interactions... this is dopamine's Disneyland. I could easily spend a whole day with little food and almost no sleep. Without touching a book or doing hard thinking at all. Tech-world can seem hard, but in fact is anything but hard-thinking. Some clever people has written some code, but that's the end of intelligence there. The rest is trying to sort out obstacles more due to a pathological lack of pedagogy permeating this world than the challenge of a really difficult problem.
So when I woke up from this voyage, I tried to read a book and experienced a lot of difficulty focusing on it. My brain was expecting more new things, and wanted the dopamine with it. Wanted more new users, more news, more and more... And boy, if you want dopamine forever, you may have it, because the number of fascinating new things never ends in such a world. Never. You can spend a hundred lives in front of your computer and never stop being amazed. This is really a rivetting thing, but also a very dangerous one.
Not only you lose your mental health with it due to an overdose of dopamine that renders your brain impatient, devoid of motivation, with its effort-reward circuits completely corrupted, but also leaves your body in a state of shame. Not to mention the state of your spirit, since nothing will harm your mindfulness more than a constant exposure to dopamine.
I understand the approach of building a more freedom respecting tools for communication, but I also see it as a way of saying: we don't want the drugs offered by big corporations, so let's build our own.
At the end of the day, the word freedom keeps appearing and everyone (me included) is using it as a container in which to fill whatever meaning interests them more. As I have already written in my blog post #3, we have lost the ancient meaning of freedom, which is by far the most interesting of it. The current meaning (not the free as gratis but the free as freedom) is a synonym of power. Try building a sentence with freedom and change the word by power. It will mean the same. So what is the point of having such a word if we already had another, and a powerful one, pun intended?
In the ancient sense, freedom is not about what you can do, but about what you want. More specifically, it is about whether what you want is what you really want. It is about asking whethere your thoughts and volitions are really determined by you, or at least whether they drive you against yourself or not. Are your actions the product of manipulation? Do you consider yourself as a manipulated being? Are you aware that the less manipulated you think you are the more manipulated you actually are? Etc.
If we had a truly freedom software, it could be a single line of code like echoing: don't use software at all! This is of course (half) a joke. But now being serious, a free software should not just be about your power of communication (the modern meaning of the word), to be free from corporations services, but also about your truly ancient-meaning freedom, like to be free of yourself! This would mean facilitating abstention from the software itself, avoiding all the mechanisms of dopamine generation that are the ones that really slave you. I feel sorry for those that, raising the flag of freedom against the tyranny of Twitter, they build a Twitter clone like GNUsocial or Mastodon where they can "freely" continue vomiting hate and haste or other forms of manipulation/addiction.
These two weeks have been an exploration of a world that is focused on individual powered technology, which is great, and I have found many aspects of it that can be relevant to fight environmental pollution. But I have not found a trace of ancient freedom. I mainly found tech-addicts, which is to say tech-slaves, self-recognized or not. And I have seen how I was on the verge to become one as well. Most people won't agree with me in this (I don't care), but it is pointless to fight a dictionary word. If they want to call this freedom, so be it. I still prefer to use freedom for the ancient meaning and translating accordingly when I hear the modern meaning is used. No problem. But why not calling it individual power software instead of free software?
It is very clear to me that what it does is regaining the power of communications to the individual users, but it is not doing a single step to regain its critical thinking, to regain its healthy dopamine levels, to think more about what is important... In short, freeing yourself from corporation services does not make you free: it makes you more powerful, but power can be used in ancient-free and in ancient-nonfree ways. Where is such problem addressed? I think it is not even being recognized as such, from what I know, which is, admittedly, very little.
It has been, in all, a worthy experience. But now I must come back to the offline world, where I can stay away from these connectivity-dopamine traps. There are also many offline-dopamine traps out there, like love, for example! I will write about this one day, for now keep it as a provocation. To me, technology is great as a user if I can set it up fast and use it so as I have MORE time to do other things like on/offline thinking or off/online CONTENT. If this software needs more user time-investment, then it is a bad start, perhaps even less freeing than using a corporation medium where you focus on for example climate action.
To gain individual power for software use is a war worth fighting for, but, to me, only if you have already: 1) gone vegan and stopped thinking the world is ours 2) divested your money from non-ethical banks 3) minimized your consumption and waste to the minimum 4) then I see it is time to fight corporations on a software level! If you are fighting in 4) without having fought in 1), 2) and 3), then maybe you should reconsider your priorities.
Notice that even neoliberal people use the terms "liberal" (from libre), which out from the US means "don't regulate markets so companies can behave as violently as they want", or "free market" which of course addresses the "freedom" (=power) to do whatever they want.
When we don't care about what words mean they become empty so that everyone fills the content they prefer.
We could imagine a world where people were free of corporation-based internet and at the same time complete slaves of their own products. There are two related but different fights for freedom. Let's fight for both!