12 October 2023

The Democracy Laptop

Quasi-Normalcy names a dream I share.

You know what, fuck it, I don’t want some frivolous, artisanal, lighter-than-air computer with no customizability, no upgradeability, no reparability, no ports, and a lifetime of maybe 3 years if you’re lucky. I want a fucking great BEAST of a computer that’s designed to last a minimum of 50 years, with ports up the wazoo and optional drives for every kind of media! I want modular components that you can drop in a bog for a year, dry them off, and have them still work fine! I want them to make a noise like “ker-chunk!” when you slide them into place! I want a switch that you pull to turn it on! And I don’t want software that constantly forces you to get a pointless, cosmetic “upgrade” every few months either! I want durability! I want longevity! I want satisfying haptics! I want Silicon Valley to go fuck itself!

Damm straight. I want a computer designed and built for the ages, meant to deliver a lifetime of use. The Honda Cub, the Leatherman Multitool, the Fender Stratocaster of computers.

This is of a piece with my dream that tech platforms should be democratically accountable public utilities. So I have thought for a long time about an Office Of Reference Computing which releases a new Democracy Laptop once every ten years. For the rest of the decade, the design stays unchanged save for necessary bug fixes. As much as possible it employs open standards; when it cannot it sets an open standard. The ORC are the opposite of Agile, engineering with the kind of flinty deliberateness and caution they use at NASA.

The hardware is designed to be durable, reliable, inexpensive, and easy to maintain. There are maybe a few variations — the smaller one, the bigger one, maybe an extra-nerdy one that is more hackable — but they are interoperable, use as many of the same parts as possible. The ORC manufactures an initial run of maybe thirty million of them, and sells them at cost ... that is to say, projected per-unit cost to manufacture in year four, so they initially sell at a loss, to seed the ecosystem. Of course every schoolkid gets one.

The operating system & core applications are designed to be stable, secure, and wicked fast on the hardware rather than cutting-edge. They are released open source and use file formats legible as plaintext as much as possible. Encryption and other privacy measures are baked in from top to bottom. The UX design focuses on accessibility, coherence, patterns which they hope other applications will steal, and a nice steady learning curve which makes them easy to pick up but also worth digging into.

The ORC maintains an application agora which makes it easy to publish open-source software components, datasets, and complete applications. A user can download whatever they wish. One can make money on stuff released to the agora — a Democracy Laptop watches what software it runs for how long, and tallies up a hashed report to the ORC so they can say, “hey, Ms. Developer, 1000 people each spent 10 hours with your tool this month, so here’s 10,000 pennies for your trouble”. Of course to be eligible for that, someone at the ORC is going to look at that tool, to make sure it isn’t breaking things.

Those pennies, plus the cost to design & develop and tool the construction of Democracy Laptops, come from the public purse. I like Georgist taxes but I bet you have even better ideas, don’t you?

11 October 2023

At last, a noble lie

I am fascinated by Fareed Zakaria’s short interview on CNN with Palestinian National Initiative leader Mustafa Barghouti shortly after the surprising Hamas strikes in Israel on 7 October 2023. There is a lot going on in it.

I confess objections to many particulars. It was early enough that one had to be cautious about trusting any particular report, but it was already unmistakable that Hamas had committed atrocities and Barghouti was too coy about admitting that. In the quote I want to focus on below, I am salty that there is no maybe about Hamas’ refusal to recognize Israel — they are fundamentally committed to destroying Israel. I could grumble more, but I do not want to, because Barghouti also clearly expressed a lot more hard truth and moral clarity than I am accustomed to seeing on teevee. I found it refreshing to see a thoughtful voice speaking for Palestinian liberation on mainstream anglophone political media at all. I was tickled to see Zakaria disoriented but willing to give Barghouti space to say something substantive.

And starting at 1:10, I found one bit of rhetorical slight-of-hand thrilling

This situation that has evolved is a direct result of the continuation of the longest occupation in modern history: Israeli occupation of Palestinian land since 1967. This is 56 years of occupation that has transformed into a system of apartheid, a much worse apartheid than what prevailed in South Africa. Yes, maybe Hamas did not recognize Israel, but the PLO did, and the Palestinian Authority did. What did they get? Nothing.

Barghouti here and throughout the interview makes the cause of Palestinian liberation entirely a question of Israel’s occupation of Gaza & the West Bank and the repression of Palestinians there. I want to focus on that, too. The occupation is indeed an unjust and brutal apartheid regime. Like countless principled observers on all sides have done for decades, I call for a two-state solution of a fully sovereign Palestinian state in Gaza & the West Bank, with Israel returned its pre-1967 Green Line borders.

Barghouti implies that this has always been the heart of the cause. He does not directly lie in making that implication, but he frames the story to mislead anyone who does not know the history, which of course reflects most of the CNN audience. Yes, the Palestine Liberation Organization did recognize Israel ... as part of the Oslo Accords in 1993, three decades after their founding in 1964 ... which was three years before the occupation, under a charter which clearly states the PLO’s commitment to a Palestinian state comprised of the whole of British Mandate Palestine: not just Gaza and the West Bank but also all of what was then and is now Israel.

Ordinarily this kind of legendermain annoys me. I hate how propagandists on all sides have made it maddeningly hard to understand even the most basic bare facts of history. But this myth is terrific. If a Palestinian movement wants to pursue a two state solution by pretending that it was the righteous dream of the Palestine Liberation Organization, in solidarity I will gladly pretend to forget the truth.