At the very beginning of this blog I mentioned that I might not only talk about technical topics but also about political or philosophical ones. Until now I successfully managed to avoid that but over three years later this is the first article about such a topic.
It is though directly related to me being part of the KDE community and my work on KDE software. In the last few weeks I noticed a rise in political activism in KDE what I see critical. The climax was two days ago an official endorsement of the Global Climate Strike on KDE's social media accounts. Why this straw broke the camel's back and how if at all I think KDE can be political, I will expand upon in the following.
Let us first dive into some current political activism in KDE and why I see it as damaging to the community.
Grasping at Plastic Straws
Talking about straws there is a discussion ongoing already since July on the member mailing list of the KDE e.V. (that is the legal body representing the KDE community in official matters) about an environment responsibility policy for KDE.
I would not feel comfortable bringing this discussion in detail to the public without prior consent of the KDE e.V. board or the people involved so please excuse me that I won't expand on it much more. But what I can say is that the current draft still reads like the law book of a cult covering every little aspect of its members' lives.
For example people are supposed to have QR Codes on their business cards so that other people can scan these instead of having to hand over – and by that wasting – a paper card. I am not sure if the battery power used for scanning a QR code with a smart phone offsets the energy involved to produce a single business card but it would be an uninteresting thing to calculate for sure.
In all fairness the draft would likely go through several further iterations smoothing out lots of the weird and extreme demands before having a chance of becoming a policy but that we even have to spend time discussing such nonsensical ideas is difficult to comprehend.
Especially if one thinks of how little impact this will make with the 5 to 100 nerds going to a KDE event each time.
This reminds one of the discussion about plastic in the ocean often exemplified in the media by plastic straws we use in drinks and so on. But even without knowing any numbers it should be obvious to anybody that plastic straws can not be a huge polluter to our environment in comparison to all the other packaging private persons and the industry use up on a daily basis. Still the general public and even politicians like to concentrate on straws instead of real issues.
Why do we talk about plastic straws and not other packaging or fishing gear? Because the first is easy to understand. We all know what it is and how it looks. We have an image of it in our heads. The straw is a symbol.
One could think it does not matter if all the details are right, symbols are more important. There needs to be something easy to grasp so people can rally behind it. By this logic also the Global Climate Strike (or any other strike) is a symbol to generate alertness and all kind of internal conflict that the loss of detail induces is justifiable by that. So all good?
Not really. KDE's primary objective is and must stay free software. This is what unites us in KDE independent of our other believes, opinions or socioeconomic and cultural background. Using KDE as a platform to grow interest into other maybe also important but unrelated topics through political symbolism will erode this base on what the community stands.
On Twitter besides evoking people that call themselves Don Trumpeone and Anarcho-Taoist we have the marketing lead of KDE telling another user and self-proclaimed "KDE fan" that he should not use our software anymore because the user has the wrong opinion about climate change.
Personally I also think that the user's opinion about climate change is wrong but I would never tell him that he should not use free software anymore because of this. These reactions are divisive to the core and it was already the outcome only few hours after the original endorsement was published.
The conflicts this activism creates are the one thing. On the other side I just do not want to believe you have to use simplified symbols to gain people's interest in political topics, I do not want to believe that even today we can not make the world better without shouting at each other and hating people for their different opinions.
I think the modern tools we have nowadays could allow us to be better in this regard. But more about such tools and what role KDE could play here at the end of this article.
Before that another topic I want to strive quickly because it is getting on my nerves: the constant reminder of a handful of people at KDE events, in particular Akademy, to use inclusive language like addressing a group of women and men as "people" or "humans" instead of "guys".
I get it! Tech is not diverse, there are a lot more men than women and you want to change that for whatever reason you see fit. Personally I don't see an issue per se. I think most women just like to do different things, that sexes are different in this respect. But on the other side modern gender science also has some interesting arguments worth considering. And putting some resources into outreach programs might still be a good idea. After all especially in young years men and women are influenced by their peers and such programs could counterbalance.
But whatever your opinion is, stop trying to shove it everyone else in the face by telling them they should not use the word "guys" which is totally common in the above context. Especially don't do it when the person you think about lecturing is at the moment holding a talk about free software in front of hundreds of people. It is annoying for the people in the audience and quite frankly rude to the presenter to disrupt his talk.
My own theory is that this speech regulation is just another form of elitism to differentiate the money and cultural rich from the poor. At least it reminds me of French being the language of the nobles some hundred years ago and I have yet to meet the child of a working class family that does not find this inclusive language utter nonsense.
When we are talking about speech regulations I want to also quickly address the resignations of Richard Stallman since it happened recently and some people in KDE showed their support of that rather openly.
From what I read the media twisted his words on what he had to resign for in the end. On the other side it was reported by multiple credible sources that he also showed some unprofessional behavior in the past in regards to women. Then again does this already warrant his expulsion? Or that he published some questionable statements in his blog years ago? On the other side do his overall behavior and antics not hinder the spread of free and open source software overall?
So we can see that it is complicated. Also neither did I know him personally nor did I ever read his blog. When judging one way or the other it would be good if more people admitted this to themselves and would just say "I do not know". That said there are certain things to keep in mind regardless of how well one knows the circumstances when we talk about accusations of bad thoughts or behavior.
People should be given the opportunity to express their opinions freely and without fear of repercussions and they should be allowed to change their opinions again if they got convinced they were wrong. This holds also or even more true for people in power. Otherwise they might hide their real opinions and form policies with hidden agendas. Or we just get opportunists without opinions. Also not ideal.
If a person in an official position is hindering the progress of open source for certain reasons then this person should be replaced. But for these reasons and not because of something unrelated he said on an internal mailing list or on a personal blog years ago that got read probably only by a handful of people. And of course one should give this person the chance to better himself before demanding his resignation.
At last ask yourself who benefits from a call for resignation. Maybe the people's motives are pure, but own interest might be involved as well. Especially when a company asks for it. Most companies are still there first of all for their own profits. On the other side do not drift into conspiracy theories, just be wary and give the criticized person the benefit of the doubt.
After criticizing some of the current damaging activism in KDE I want to give some ideas what political goals our community actually could unite around besides the promotion of free and open source software. I will keep this part short but if there is interest in some of these ideas future articles could go deeper.
I believe the number one skill to learn in the future besides reading and writing will be to code. And with that I don't only mean learning the formal rules of some programming language but to think in logical steps, test own hypotheses and find the right level of abstraction to understand and solve a problem.
This is not only a program for the western world. It can give rise to the living standards and social conditions of people in any culture.
KDE with contributors from all around the world and with different levels of coding knowledge is in a prime position to promote code literacy everywhere and to help governments and schools in achieving it.
How modern technology and in particular the web has changed our understanding of how politicians should interact with the public and how the public should influence the political discourse and its decision-making is a wide and interesting field.
And it does not stop at public institutions. Also private entities, in particular companies in quasi-monopolistic positions, must open up to the public discourse in reasonable ways.
In any case free and open source software is for me the foundation on what other ideas can grow in this area. If the public does not have access to the code the government or the platform holder uses for its open government program there will be only minimal and one-sided innovation.
KDE is in a unique position of providing free software, having this software been deployed in municipal governments already and being independent of any commercial or governmental influence. How about we reach out to one of the NGOs doing work in this important field already and see what opportunities there are?
Effective Public Discourse
This is somewhat related to open government but also to the overall topic on how we want to communicate with each other in the community and with the outside.
Again how and where we share thoughts and discuss topics has been changed dramatically with modern information technology. But sometimes when looking through discussions on Facebook or Twitter one could think for the worse.
I believe though there is no real change to us, just a rise in supply of opportunities to express ourselves. It covers the earlier unfulfilled demand. But this does not mean that already all possibilities have been exhausted and we can not improve any more on the current state.
I think the technology for effective ways of sharing thoughts, discussing ideas and finding consent is not yet fully developed. There are likely better ways and KDE with a legal body, an online community of individuals and many other official and private stakeholders has all the right reasons to look for and promote new technical solutions for fostering civil discourse and finding common ground.
Progressive Solutions Instead of Divisive Activism
The quintessence is neither that the KDE community should keep out of all political topics besides free software nor that it may only be active in one of the three areas I circumscribed above. For example I would very much support work on environmental friendly technology in KDE which would then also justify some political engagement.
But there must be work on such technology first and then the political engagement grounded on that, not the other way around. I am sure if people come forward with specific solutions instead of general opinions there will be no divisiveness afterwards.
And that is the overarching theme when I think of KDE. I joined the community also because it always felt like a collective of diverse people from all around the world being interested in creating pragmatic yet proper free software solutions for everyone no matter their race, gender, social background or political opinions to improve their own daily life, their education or their income. I hope we find ways to apply this down-to-earth technical mentality also to whatever related political goals we strive for in the future.