In October of 2018, I was hired to work at information technology services at SIUe, where I also studied. I worked there until early this year. I worked part time and met many good people there and learned how the university works and is organized. The job was well-suited for students because we usually have some free time to do our studies. I worked at the help desk answering calls for a while before I eventually moved to a labs and classrooms technician position. The duties of the labs and classrooms student workers were essentially to do anything technology-related that needed done in the labs and classrooms. This included taking inventory for all the items, imaging computers, assisting professors and students if something broke during class time, setting up projectors, conference areas, replacing hardware, and responding to support calls. It was a good first job for learning common workplace skills.
Learning About Free Software
Everyone that is passionate about free/libre software has a story. Most students and teachers working with computers have never even heard about free software, even in computer science courses. It’s one of the biggest social issues people are completely ignorant about. Part of that is because the ideas are misunderstood because “open source” has replaced free software in the classroom and workplace. Another reason is programmers don’t get into programming because they want to grapple with the ethical implications of computing. What I’m saying is the kind of person who studies programming oftentimes is uninterested in ethics. Obviously this isn’t true for every programmer out there, but the point I’m making is this: If you have any values at all, everything you do either moves you closer to your values, farther away from them, or is neutral. Whether you like it or not, this implies an ethical dimension to everything, including computing.
When I took my job at ITS, I had never heard about free software. I still used GNU/Linux though. And I had heard of open source at the time. I knew who Linus Torvalds was, but had never heard of Richard Stallman until one day at the help desk my coworker told me about a disagreement between Linus Torvalds and Richard Stallman. I wasn’t given any details besides that. We probably got on the subject after talking about Linus or Linux. Anyway, this piqued my interest. So when I returned home that day, I researched about it and found the Free Software Foundation. I remembered watching a Computerphile video about free software months prior, but the ideas didn’t stick. I only completely understood after watching some of Richard Stallman’s lectures. After listening to Stallman explain free software from the ground up and seeing examples of how proprietary software is used to mistreat users, and my own past experiences, his ideas about how computing should be rang true for me. Stallman’s ideas gave me a whole new model to understand software. Everything came together and past experiences with proprietary software suddenly made more sense. I acquired an ethical framework for computing overnight.
Adjusting to my new understanding of free software was a gradual, effortful process. Over the course of several months, I slowly stopped using proprietary applications I had been using and moved over to free software instead. Nearly 100% of my job was working with proprietary software though. If I had refused to use proprietary Windows or fix Windows machines at my job, I would most certainly have been let go for refusing to do the work. The whole university IT department wasn’t going to change the way they did things because I didn’t want to use the proprietary software. In my personal life, I was using almost exclusively free software. I was struggling very hard to do so in my classes and to promote free software. Yet at my job, I was being completely inconsistent. I was going around all day working on and fixing Windows machines. I was supporting proprietary software on university computers, sometimes imaging entire classrooms of 30 computers with Windows. I knew that Windows was an evil platform, and I was installing it. Every week I went in to work, I became increasingly bothered by what I was participating in while trying to advocate for the opposite outside of work. Outside of ITS, avoiding proprietary software while completing my coursework took up so much of my time. I was falling behind on assignments, so I asked for reduced hours at ITS.
I found that even with reduced hours, I could not get all my work done. I was already extremely demotivated from jumping through hoops no other students had to jump through emailing professors back and forth to avoid the proprietary software my courses were pushing on me while still trying to complete assignments. But I also had the feeling that I couldn’t go on every day supporting Windows machines and Microsoft software. It wasn’t just Windows either. There were multiple proprietary systems that we had to interact with. It started really getting to me. It did take a long time, but eventually I couldn’t avoid the feeling that I was doing a harm to the world. I gave my 2 weeks notice and then resigned from my position at ITS in early 2020. The larger reason I resigned was due to the proprietary software. But a smaller part of it was that I needed more time to focus on studies. So it wasn’t a decision based purely on ethics.
Some readers are going to think resigning (partially) over ethical reasons was a mistake because some other student would just take my place and the job would be done anyway. But I don’t find that convincing. For one, even if someone else took my place, at least it wouldn’t be me. Leave someone else to cross that line. It’s too psychologically burdensome for me to work with proprietary software knowing I’m doing the world a harm. It’s likely that whoever would take my place would not know about free software and would not feel so bothered by the work they are doing because of that. Also, this kind of thinking is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If everyone thinks this way, then everyone will reason that they should just accept the injustice because someone else will if they don’t. That’s a good way of keeping giant evil corporations like Microsoft in power. Microsoft prefers you to think that way. I’m not saying it’s necessarily untrue. Maybe someone has already taken my place. But I’m saying to keep in mind that it’s self-fulfilling. That kind of thinking is exactly the kind that discourages challenging existing power structures.
Another objection readers might have to me leaving my job over free software is that even if I find another job where I don’t have to use any proprietary software, I might be contributing to other social harms. In other words, it’s hard to find a place to work that is without ethical problems. I can’t deny this is true. Some people work at jobs where they have to use Windows, but they have kids to take care of. If they don’t go in to work, they might not be able to support their family. I’m not trying to suggest everyone should do what I did. I’m definitely not trying to take the moral high ground compared to those people. I’m just explaining why I did what I did. But there are less “nuclear” options for people who can’t quit their job. Spread the word about free software to friends, family, and coworkers. Set an example for others by being a mindful consumer. For example, don’t buy home assistants with proprietary software such as the Amazon Alexa or Google Home. Don’t buy “smart” devices like smart tv’s, smart fridges, smart lightbulbs, etc. These are small sacrifices consumers can make right now. With collective effort, we can create a large market for ethical tech and eliminate the market for unethical tech if only enough of us refuse to buy it. If the relatively small sacrifices aren’t made now, the sacrifices required in the future to turn the tide will be much, much greater. Living without proprietary software is already far more inconvenient than most people will accept. And it’s only going to get worse unless we reject proprietary products today.
That was my short call to action. If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading. If you find my ideas valuable, then please consider making a donation. Details are on my about page.