August 6, 2023

RIP Bram Moolenaar, technology isn’t neutral

Bram Moolenaar passed away on 3 August 2023. He has never been involved in our project, but has had a big influence on my civiltech and free software activist path.

When you work on tech, one of the tool you are probably using the most regularly is your text editor. you use it to change configurations, to develop new features, to document stuff. Finding the right tool that works for you is like finding the right instrument for a musician: it’s most probably not what makes the biggest difference, but we’re going to spend hours and days choosing and finetuning it.

There are plenty of great options, but my editor of choice is vim. It’s one of the first opensource project I discovered and probably the one I’ve been using for the longest. vim is a highly influential and widely used text editor that holds a special place in the hearts of developers and programmers around the world. It was created by Bram Moolenaar in the early 1990s and he (and a lot of contributors) are still improving it.

But what made him so influential for me was a tiny line when you open the editor (without the name of the file you want to edit, something you don’t do much):

“Help poor children in Uganda!” is not most of us are expecting as the welcome message on a tech tool. when you read the detail (: help iccf) this is what you get.

When I saw it first, I was a still a student, and fully buying the mantra that technology is neutral, that what we build hasn’t any ethical concern; that any tool can be used for good or bad, it’s how it’s used that defines that, not us, the builders.

Bram was the probably one of the first, with this single line, that convinced me it’s a fallacy. That as makers, we have a moral responsibility on what we build, and we have a responsibility to make things that “do the right thing”. Most tools can be used to do bad things, at least make it clear we consider it as misuse. Pretty much every time I see a tech solution that claim they are neutral, I am reminded it means we are very likely not value aligned.

There are other software that are used everywhere that have related statements, like sqlite (that is used by pretty much any computer or phone)

May you do good and not evil
May you find forgiveness for yourself and forgive others
May you share freely, never taking more than you give.

or json used to have “shall be used for Good, not for Evil”, as JSLint does (and is seems it was an issue for IBM lawyers, so the author added “I give permission for IBM, its customers, partners, and minions to use JSLint for evil” ๐Ÿ˜‰

Many years later, we are working in the civil tech field, trying to build software to help NGOs, progressive political parties and trade unions, and to build it so by default it protect the privacy of their supporters, is opensource so everyone can contribute and where with all design decisions, we wonder if it’s the right thing to implement.

Anyway, someone I have never met passed away, and that moved me more than I thought. Technology does it sometimes, because, behind the tech, there are humans.

and ICCF is a tiny organisation with a very outdated looking website that is probably a clear sign that all the donations go to the projects they support.

Bank:ING bank, the Netherlands
IBAN:NL95 INGB 0004 5487 74
Beneficiary:Stichting ICCF Holland, Amersfoort