I became the third owner of the six year-old laptop this summer. I brought it home, carefully wiped it clean of all the stickers, the printed warnings and the dirt; it runs happily and quietly now in the middle of my little apartment, day and night.
It is a source of joy, a quiet, peaceful gleaming expression of love. A computer? Can one ever be?
This one is, to me, because with it I have climbed to the mountaintop of my computing landscape.
I started climbing when on the computer I installed the Debian GNU/Linux operating system. After many years of knowing Debian, coming to use it felt like a privilege. The program is a masterpiece of understatement, and the contrast with Ubuntu, which I have used for a long time and which is based on Debian, jumped to my face.
Ubuntu, the sleek, thoughtfully-interfaced youngster; Debian, the utterly modest, simple clockwork giant… I found the sight of the elegant construction, fitting inside and taking care of the little machine, to be simply marvelous. Here was to a third kind of beauty in software: Not that of a simple, focused, resource-sparing program; Not of a clean, crisp and fluid interface; Rather, the beauty of the multitude of pieces coming together in an orderly, tidy and functional fashion. Debian’s mission seems to be to Just Work. It does it Well and Beautifully.
Words were failing me as I played within the elegant construction, contemplating all of the marvels made available to me… a modern, secure web browser running less than two minutes away from powering up. A CD read&write drive that works, with software to run it; software to edit maps, to transcode videos, to chat, to draw, to write, to share; tidy menus and automatic updates for them all.
I had always perceived software freedom as a race, a permanent battle for existence, and one that we were slowly losing. But beyond market share, network effects and all the mean technical and legal tactics, in front of that little computer I realized suddenly how much there was left: how much would never need to be re-written, because it works, and it empowers the users, and it’s compatible with everything else. I thought of all the components written already, up from the little core utilities like cp and mv and echo, all the protocols and formats, all the layers of abstraction, that were finished for good and ready to be built upon. The loving work of two entire generations of programmers fitting elegantly on a single CD and an Internet connection.
I was searching for words, and those of Eben Moglen were in my head; it struck me then that I was standing on the shoulders of giants.
Yes, the breeze up there, and the perspective! Turning this old computer on, I feel like I am stepping in the library of Alexandria, suddenly able to appreciate its construction and the depth of its contents. It is an emotional, intimate, humbling and joyful feeling.
Using the snippy software center, I installed Tor. Running the program (through its little graphical interface Vidalia) makes my computer part of the Tor network, which anonymises communications on the Internet. Now, my computer is one among several thousand nodes run by volunteers, which relay information from one to another, not knowing the recipients and unable to comprehend what they are transmitting.
On the edge of the network, ordinary people communicate. People like you and me read and write freely; they install the Tor Browser Bundle and they are only two clicks away from being able to exchange information without surveillance. In China they can read news which contain the keyword Tibet; in Iran they can discuss about political protests; in Mexico they can write about drug cartels without their life ending in horror; in Thailand they can hold political views without being jailed. Everywhere, they can browse the web without feeding the great corporate databases that are auctioned off to unscrupulous organisations.
A tiny part of that traffic transits through the laptop in my apartment. I acknowledge that some of it is reprehensible. I know that some of it is of immense human value — so immense that several totalitarian regimes have my IP address blacklisted now. I take joy in knowing that most of it is ordinary — youtube videos of cats and emails with pictures of the latest baby in the family.
In a process so streamlined that not even the fan can be heard, so well designed that only a few clicks were needed to set it up, my laptop encrypts, decrypts, relays information, from unknown sources to unknown recipients, contributing minutely to a better world, on the table on which I take my meals. This is my mountaintop.
All I hear all year round about the Internet and computing in general seems to relate to things made for distraction. Broadband providers behave like the Internet was their television network. My government thinks Internet is a city in which it will re-mold the unpleasant parts. Many journalists and most of my work colleagues mistake it for Mark Zuckerberg’s or Eric Schmidt’s private toy.
When I think of Internet and computing, I think of the mountaintop in my apartment… the purest machine I know, peacefully carrying unknown tokens of meaning day and night, connecting souls. That’s the word — it’s a soul machine.