Please see the disclaimer.
Epistemic Status: Confident, terrified, and enraged.
Are you a programmer? Or a manager over programmers? Or an executive with programmers somewhere below you?
If so, do you like free society?
Then stop what you’re doing and feel ashamed.
Because you are building the chains that will enslave your loved ones.
Because what you’re doing is destroying free society and bringing back feudalism.
If you’re tech-aware, you’re probably noticing a bunch of trends, all in the same direction: serfdom. Digital serfdom.
If you’re not tech-aware, well, let me fill you in.
Mostly accurate serfdom speedrun: serfs were people who were basically slaves to lords/nobles. They had a bit more freedom than actual slaves, but only a bit.
How modern? Well…
And in a nutshell, that’s serfdom: in exchange for access to societal necessities, serfs can’t own any property and are locked into one-sided contracts that enriches someone else and impoverishes them.
A social contract can count as a one-sided contract.
So what is digital serfdom? It happens when, in exchange for access to digital societal necessities, people can’t own any digital property and are locked into one-sided contracts that enriches someone else and impoverishes them.
Yes, the only change is the twice addition of the word “digital.” This is because the list of “societal necessities” has changed since Medieval times and now.
The list in Medieval times might have looked like this:
The list today might look like this:
- And an address!
- Identification, which can be lost.
- Bank account.
- In some cases, an email address.
- A credit or debit card because cash is being phased out.
- A working cell phone.
- Access to the Internet for some of the above.
Yes, access to the Internet is nigh a necessity; without it, there are entities you cannot interact with at all. An example is the Social Security Administration if you don’t have access to transportation to get to an SSA office.
Five of those things are digital: bank account, email address, credit/debit card, cell phone, and access to the Internet.
Yes, a bank account is digital. Your money in a bank account is a number in a computer somewhere in your bank, not actual cash.
We might also add social media and messaging app accounts for communication.
I include social media because some critical entities only communicate through social media.
Imagine that you are homeless. It doesn’t matter how it happened, just that it happened. (Maybe someone you trusted betrayed you, or maybe your house burned down; it could still happen if you’re intelligent.) Now, imagine your phone gets soaked because it rained, and you don’t have shelter.
What have you lost? Everything.
Do you have money? Well, you need a bank account, and you had better hope that you can access it without an app.
A duopoly on access to society. That’s digital feudalism.
What Could Have Been
It wasn’t supposed to be this way! Computers were supposed to help us! They were supposed to be a “bicycle for the mind.”
That charming phrase is underselling it.
Computers could have automated everything that was automatable. They could have removed work that humans are bad at to leave us to do the things we are good at.
We could have had faithful user agents that obeyed us!
What Actually Is
They could have automated lights. Oh, they did, but you have to agree that you don’t own the lights anymore.
Bots Over Humans
Okay, so things were automated, and the peasants got serfed. Surely, we are still able to do the things we’re good at, right?
Ha! Not a chance!
Humans know that the Python programming language and the pandas library are related to software, not animals, so they use bots to ban people from advertising courses for them in the name of animal cruelty, or something.
Law enforcement sometimes needs to post violent content for public information, so they have bots ban it.
Humans are better customers than bots, so they have bots check if you’re a human.
Even worse, you may buy stuff from companies, but they act like they are renting that stuff to you.
Google demands the right to delete apps from your phone.
HP demands the right to brick your printer if you use third-party ink.
BMW tried to make you rent part of your own car.
Your $400 baby monitor needs a subscription.
Bitwarden and other password managers won’t let you export passkeys because it keeps you locked in.
XBox won’t let you use “unauthorized” third-party controllers, which can make accessibility impossible.
Patent trolls buy up patents just to get money from true innovators.
Device makers will make devices that hide your medical info from you so that you can be charged $200 to get it back.
And the manufacturer of your trains disables them if a third party repairs them.
And that’s not to mention all of the advertising they are pushing, even perhaps on stuff you bought!
Facebook/Meta used opt-out behavioral advertising in the EU after promising to make it opt-in.
They also declared war on adblockers.
It’s so bad that you have to develop the skill of ignoring stuff.
Microsoft even advertises their AI product in an OS you paid for.
And you’ll see ads in a smart TV that you bought!
Or in a hijacked domain.
It gets worse. There are links above about companies spying on you. Turns out, companies will sell that data and ignore your requests for privacy.
Remember the Facebook behavioral advertising I mentioned above? That needs surveillance to work.
Oh, and they allowed hackers access to your DNA, too.
Google added a “privacy button” and then ignored it.
Mastercard gets fees from your purchases and sells your data.
If you use Google Maps, Google forces you to allow all of their products to track location. And they tricked you into allowing it, too.
Likewise, Google and Facebook combine privacy policies so that all of your data can be used by all of their “services.”
Amazon Alexa spies on your other devices.
And companies won’t just passively spy on you; they’ll fleece you.
Audible cheats you and authors to keep a monopoly position.
Uber and Lyft cheated drivers.
AI companies are trying to cheat a regulatory moat into existence.
Scammers will steal from you if you download the wrong app.
Landlords may have used software to raise rents.
Experian will let thieves steal your Experian account.
And on a personal note, Chromium made itself my default browser without asking, just because I opened it.
Venture capital will prop up bad startups until competitors are mercked.
Remember the Google “topics” thing I mentioned above? Google uses that to keep a moat.
Amazon, Google, and Apple colluded to boot a social media platform from the web.
Companies will turn a blind eye to DMCA and copyright abuse.
They made tools that allowed pictures of girls to be turned sensual, without consent.
But it’s not enough for our noxious industry.
Companies appeal to your baser self to keep you addicted.
They do it in other ways too.
Recommendation engines try to keep you engaged. And trapped. By hacking your mind.
And it’s not just companies that are doing this. Governments are too.
They’ll happily freeze bank accounts of the “wrong” protesters.
They’ll happily allow companies to spy because they’ll buy the data.
They use a database that can be tainted, and they planned to do so even before Apple announced it.
Free and Open Source Software
Think Free and Open Source Software will save us? Think again.
Microsoft puts up scary warnings for Firefox.
Companies kill open source tools for their products.
Google tried and failed to add attestation, a thoroughly evil attempt to control what software you can run, into Chrome. They even had employees demanding that people aquiesce. And they still added it into Android apps.
And then there’s just plain negligence leading to bugs.
And we haven’t even talked about dark patterns yet!
How did we get here?
We got here because of you!
You worked for these companies. You made the software that did all of this.
“But I’m just a programmer; I can’t say no. I got bills to pay.”
That’s just the Yuppie-Nuremberg Defense, and I guarantee you that it will not fly with future generations. Nor will it fly with your loved ones once they realize that they are trapped.
“But I’m just a manager…”
Yeah, and you told your programmers what to do, right? You’re the one who gave the “order,” right?
“But I’m just an executive; I don’t know what happens on the front lines.”
Then you’re negligent. Also, you’re the one who sets the business model, right? If your business model encourages this, then maybe YOU ARE THE ONE MOST AT FAULT!
“But I’m not even a programmer. I’m a system administrator.”
Yeah, and who will run the machines without you?
I have gotten recruiting emails from a FAANG company, trying to get me to apply to data center job. I categorically refused because my job would literally be to keep that terrible software running.
“But I’m an HR person at one of those companies.”
Yeah, and your job is to keep programmers at those companies, and without programmers, there would be no digital feudalism, right?
“But I work in accounting…”
“But I work in
<insert job here>.”
It’s all the same thing!
Your company keeps you employed for a reason! They keep you employed doing whatever you do because it supports the mission of enriching the company (and its controllers) at the expense of society.
There are more than 100 links above, and link by link, you built a chain.
You may think that you’re not responsible; after all, you can only touch one link.
But if everyone thinks that and each individually forges a link, then everyone forges the chain together.
The end result is the same: your loved ones are prisoners.
You may think that your loved ones are not; after all, you may teach them to avoid the chain links that you made.
But again, there are more than 100 links above, and that was just two months of watching for things on Hacker News.
Have you taught your loved ones about all of those links? Could you, even if you wanted to?
You and the guys in that company you hate? You’re a chain-forging team.
You, and all of you, are effectively saying to the rest of society, “screw you, got mine.”
Shame on you!
“But even though I’m a programmer, I don’t even work on that code.”
That may be true, but that doesn’t mean you don’t help the company build digital feudalism.
Everything you do helps with that.
Don’t believe me? I’ll show you with real-world examples.
Let’s start with some famous names in computer science.
Yes, I’m going to name names. Also, I’m going to focus on those that others respect.
Ken Thompson built Unix, codesigned UTF-8, worked on regular expressions, and did lots of other stuff.
And he helped build Go programming language, which Google uses to let young, dumb programmers build digital chains faster.
Rob Pike worked on Plan 9 and UTF-8. He also helped build Go.
And ironically, their work to make Unix for us is now moot because their own former employer, Google, is using Unix to build phones and laptops that serve their maker instead of their users.
People hold them in high esteem; I hope later generations see their true legacy: of showing us what could have been and taking it away.
So yes, even “innocuous” things like a programming language enable your overlords.
And nearly everyone is guilty!
Walter Bright, a programmer I admire and have interacted with directly on Hacker News, wrote software for Facebook, so they could make chains faster.
John Carmack worked for Facebook.
Anders Hejlsberg works for Microsoft on C# and TypeScript.
D. Richard Hipp worked for General Dynamics on contract with the US Navy.
Paul Graham built a business that builds startups.
Bill Joy turned into a venture capitalist.
Leslie Lamport works for Microsoft.
Chris Lattner worked for Google, Apple, and Tesla, and now works in “AI.”
Bram Moolenaar worked for Google.
Charles Petzold worked for Microsoft.
Simon Peyton Jones worked for Microsoft.
Dennis Ritchie did not publish some research at the behest of the NSA.
Joel Spolsky worked for Microsoft.
Guy L. Steele, Jr. worked for Oracle.
Why did I focus a lot on where people worked? Because they often build tools for other developers, and those tools then enable other developers to build chains.
But there is another side effect: these companies have monopolized the best minds in our industry, and they do that on purpose; they want to starve the rest of the industry of the best talent.
And these respected programmers let them do it.
Naming names is risky. To do it against respected people is sacrilege.
So I know this post will burn bridges. A lot of bridges. It will burn bridges that don’t exist yet. It will burn so much that I may become a pariah in the only industry where I could make use of my only talent.
That does not matter anymore.
All that matters is that I do my part to stop or slow this terrible and tragic tide.
So what is my legacy?
It’s not good, either.
I entered the US Air Force Academy with the intention of becoming an officer. Fortunately, I failed.
I applied to work at Google and interviewed with the intention of working there. Fortunately, I failed.
I cannot comment if they do now or if they did when I was there, but just think of who might run a supercomputer, and there is a chance that SchedMD might support them.
I did not quit SchedMD immediately after an incident that caused me to think that SchedMD did not have their customers’ interests in mind.
In addition, I’ve fixed bugs in my software for Google.
Yes, even that is bad.
Earlier, I agreed with Drew DeVault that we are complicit in our employers' deeds, but even that is sugarcoated.
As a FOSS project maintainer, I am complicit in the deeds of any company that I help to use my software.
When an employee of Google contacts me about a bug in my
bc, which is
used in Android, I become complicit if I help.
So, Elliott Hughes, I’m sorry, but I can’t fix any more bugs for Google or the Android Open Source Project.
I don’t like it either! I mean, I like you as far as we’ve interacted on GitHub. And I’d certainly sit and chat in person.
But I must refuse to help anymore. And that goes for everything.
I wasn’t always picky; when I worked in the industry, I might have done work that helped organizations that are building digital serfdom.
Now? I will refuse a client if they are part of the problem. I will be a “lowly” bus driver instead. Or something else.
I will not be part of the problem; I will only be part of the solution.
I hope that, if nothing else, people remember that about me.
So what are you to do?
You must do the same thing I am doing: take individual action.
First, encrypt everything. It’s your ethical duty to do so.
Second, find a job that does not make digital chain links. If there’s nowhere to do that, change industries.
But okay, I still am a bit of a hypocrite.
I’m a programmer at heart, and the root of that tree goes deeper than Jangles.
So despite my best efforts, I’ve always come back to programming.
But this time…this is different.
How so? Well, I’m going to gather data and act on it.
I invite all executives and/or employees of companies that are not part of the problem to contact me.
Give me your best pitch about why you are not part of the problem.
Companies funded by venture capital need not contact me; remember, investment is part of the problem.
“Growth at all costs” will cost all of your principles, eventually.
If I believe you, and I will do heavy research, I’ll put your company’s name in an upcoming blog post, as well as why I think your company is good.
You’ll get free marketing, for both potential clients and potential hires, and I’ll get an idea of how much of our industry is actually good.
But…if I cannot find enough good companies, I will quit programming for good.
Because if chaining my loved ones is the only way I can make money as a programmer, I’ll just stop.
I might even delete that 10,000 hour repo if the temptation is too strong.
Why would I do that? Surely, there is something good I can do, right?
Well, I make developer tools, and if my clients build chains, I would be enabling them to do that, just like the people I called out above.
So I will just say no.
You should too; it’s time for tech to say no.
In fact, instead of saying “screw you, got mine!” to regular people, we should say it to our overlords.
We should step back, admit what we are doing, come to a gentlemen’s agreement with those other people in that company you hate, and all decide to stop being part of the problem.
Because the fewer people that are willing to make links, the less links there are.
In addition, the fewer people that are willing to make links, the lower the quality of the programmers that companies will use to make links, and then the links will be lower quality, too.
With few enough links, the chain cannot work, and the worse the links are, the more easily the chain is broken.
Yes, it will suck, and yes, it will be hard, and yes, you’ll probably take a cut to your lifestyle.
But do you really want to live in a socially cooled world, a world of digital feudalism and chains?
You cannot live in ignorance now that you’ve read this post. So what are you going to do about it?
Are you going to break your link?