Ever heard of "Ubuntu"? According to the NURG (New Users Resource Guide), it's three things: 1) an operating system for your computer, 2) an ethos and 3) a very large collaborative project. Why would you want to replace the operating system on your computer? Why partake in a very large collaborative project? And how can something like open source software generate a community? I recently sat down with Randall Ross, currently the "Buzz Generator" and Community Manager for the Ubuntu Vancouver Local Community (or "LoCo"). He's also an IT executive.
TJ: the open source software community is fascinating to me. It's so interesting, the dichotomy that seems to be happening in the digital age. On the one hand, there are people spending their time creating viruses. Or playing video games. Or watching porn. Not that porn or video games are bad in and of themselves, but it's very easy to think that the digital world is taking us in that direction: selfishness. Me first. Me now.
Randall: I see it as polarizing people. It's really separating the world into consumers and creators. I look at the way people use computers, especially people who aren't necessarily techno-literate, they're really at the mercy of the designers of the systems.
I’ll get into discussions with people on what Ubuntu is, and I usually say "what happens when you turn on your computer" and they'll walk me through it, and eventually the process ends with "and I'm looking at my desktop and there's a website open, and it's this" and I say "who decided what that process was? Who decided what browser you were using to get to that website? What links are on that website? Who chose those?" And more and more, the second you interact with your technology, you’re being channeled to a certain destination.
So that's the most profound part of this project: you can actually be in control of it. You can have a voice. Even if you can't do it yourself, you can say to someone "I don't like the way that computer does that. I would like it changed." And that's profound because you can't do that with any non-free operating system. You can't even do that with most free operating systems, because the road to participation is so long, so winding. And this project is nearly a direct entry. You can get to the founder of the project in a very short period of time. And the community processes are very well established and very well governed and very friendly to newcomers.
TJ: So why is that a deliberate element of the way Ubuntu is set up?
Randall: I believe the founder, Mark Shuttleworth, was and is a firm believer in digital equality. Ubuntu means "humanity to others," it means "our shared humanity" - "we're all in this together," loosely translated, and that philosophy really permeates every aspect of the project.
TJ: Do you have any sense of why that's a guiding philosophy of his?
Randall: My sense is that his upbringing in South Africa is a factor. He grew up in the Apartheid era, he was probably witnessing firsthand the segregation, the inhumanity of a lot of situations, and being in Africa as well, being exposed to different tribal issues. So I think it's just in his blood to erase tribalism, to erase divisions between people, and this is a really good way to do that. Get everybody working together, collaborating on something of extreme influence and that's of extreme value to all of humanity. So that's why he invested his millions of dollars in this project.
TJ: So what's the goal?
Randall: The goal is to have a free operating system that anyone in the world can use for any purpose, and modify, adapt, reuse, share, give away, so that humanity is not tied to a few elite technology firms who can essentially control the message that people receive and control how they receive that message, inventing a sort of digital landlord-ism. More and more, we’re sort of being turned into tenants. We don't buy our technology, we rent our technology. We're not allowed to open our technology, we're not allowed to tinker with it. There are terms like "jailbreak" - people who take a proprietary device and modify the operating system are called "jailbreakers." Where did that come from? People who share software or music are called "pirates." There's this whole near criminalization of the act of sharing.
TJ: Or actual criminalization.
Randall: Exactly. So this runs directly counter to that. Sharing is encouraged. Sharing is expected. And if you contribute to this project, your work will be shared and you will receive the benefit of everyone else's work being shared as well.
If you take this whole notion of free operating system and free software projected out a decade or two - we're not going to keep having to write the same code over and over and over like is done in the proprietary world. The same code gets written numerous times by different companies. They're all writing the same code, and keeping it secret, and not sharing it with anyone, just renting it out. We've been doing that now for twenty, thirty or more years of proprietary software. Once the code is written, and it's out in the open, it can be reused, we don't have to keep writing it, we can get on with our lives and do other things with that freedom and intellect. So I think that's very liberating too.
It's almost as if you could compare it to when mathematics was discovered, or algebra. If, when algebra was discovered, it was proprietary algebra, people would have to continually invent mathematics, over and over and over, and we could never get on with the world of designing bridges and building things, we'd have to first invent the math every time. So we've got so much of the world that's wrapped around programming and reinventing the wheel over and over. So this gets rid of that. Now you write the code, it's written, it's out there, everyone can use it. Everyone can reuse it, remix it. It's like math. No one owns it. No one owns math. So I think that's also a very profound change.
TJ: There are a lot of opportunities to volunteer with Ubuntu - what do you think is driving people to do that?
Randall: The philosophy of equality and collaborating together and building something better together resonates with a lot of people.
TJ: Which also is an alternative to endless consuming.
Randall: Exactly. So the creator types are drawn to Ubuntu. There are a lot of creators out there, I do think it's just a part of people's DNA, it hasn’t been given a chance to really be used and this is a really good way to use it. It's low hanging fruit, to use that old cliche. It's easy to get into.
You can apply a number of different talents to this project. One of the misconceptions we get, people say "well, I'm not a programmer. I don't think I would be useful to your group and your project." And I say "Frankly, we probably have enough programmers. There's a bigger need for talent in translating Ubuntu into hundreds of languages it needs to be translated into every release. We need designers, we need artists, we need people who can draw, people who can envision new ways to interact with a screen, people who can design user experiences, people who like, perhaps, music, audio, to create really interesting sound effects, different things like that. It's not just about programming.
TJ: So what do you think people get out of it, once they become part of the community?
Randall: I think they gain a sense of belonging. You get that sense "I'm in this, and have other people that I'm doing this with" and that's gratifying. It's just a feeling that you belong to something bigger.
They like to express themselves, and this is a form of expression. This is a way to show what you can do. There's a lot of gratification in that. It's a way to show off and have fun in the process.
You can meet your neighbours, who you had no idea were into the stuff you're into.
You can tap a community of people who can help you and share their knowledge with you and vice versa to improve your experience using computers, or just to help you online, or however you need to be helped.
I've also come across people who volunteer for the project because they're looking to amplify a specific skill. They're looking to enter the workforce, perhaps as a technical writer, so there's an opportunity with Ubuntu to maybe write some technical documentation, which can be used as part of a portfolio, which can help get them employed down the road. It's a great "no barrier to entry" way to work. There's no job interview. You just show up, roll up your sleeves and do it.
TJ: I think there's also the fact that to be part of something bigger is a need that goes back to prehistory in our species and has really been suppressed in the last fifty or a hundred years.
Randall: It has, it's been institutionalized. You can get involved in something bigger as long as that something bigger is registered and incorporated and regulated, and as long as it's part of this formal infrastructure that's been pre-decided. But if you're getting involved in something that's not part of that… that's a whole different story. That's kind of weird. So we get the disoriented gaze or stare, but once people get involved and see what it is from the inside and do their own research and go online and they find out about how the project started, they find out how we're governed, they quickly gain a sense of "hey, this is legit, there's no catch, there's no puppeteer here, it's all out in the open."And everything around the project is done in the open. The code is open source, so you can inspect it. That's the very definition of open source software, but the process and the mechanisms to get to that code are also open, you can see how that works, you can see the machine that creates the code, you can see the machine that governs the community and all of those mechanics are also in plain view.
TJ: So what do you think the effect is of people being involved in something like this, and what do you think the future of all this is?
Randall: Currently, people who get involved in this feel empowered. They start to feel like they're contributing, like they can make a difference, so it's very gratifying and empowering that way.
How will this go? If everyone starts participating in it, I think it's highly disruptive. I think it will change the model of production for a lot of different industries, not just the computer industry. If you look at the stock market, look at the largest capitalized companies that trade on public exchanges, chances are the top two or three are technology and more specifically software/internet companies. They're the top companies in the world right now, that's where all the money is flowing. So if you're part of a project that's somehow changing or altering that flow, that can have a very profound impact on the world, because all of a sudden the flow of money doesn't go that way, it goes a different way.
TJ: And it changes at least some people from consumers to creators.
Randall: People can become creators, people can get involved, people can shape their own destiny to some extent, and at that point in time there's no more us and them, there's only us.
TJ: And that's a revolutionary point of view, in a very friendly way.
Randall: It's not pointing the finger back at the person and saying "hey, dumb user, you just have to get with the program, you just have to learn that's the way it is, that's the way it's gonna be"
TJ: It's also not saying "let's destroy the system,” it's saying "let's work together and improve it."
Randall: Let's work together and let's build a system.
TJ: And create a sense of ownership that we all participate in.
Randall: So that's a really profound thing, and very disruptive, but not disruptive in a negative way. People hear "disruptive technology" and they instantly think something bad's going to happen. This is a very positive disruption. One could almost say this is a form of digital transition. This is building a parallel digital society and living in it and not being subjected to the traditional rules of digital societies and being disempowered and all of that other stuff.