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The Joy of Slow Computing


Well-meaning people have, for a good many years now, been forming a “consciousness” about where their food comes from, who produces it, and how. This gets tedious. But it’s also sensible, given how important food is in our lives. Computers, it would seem, deserve similar attention. They are constant companions; they shape our experience. Many of us entrust to them not only the results of our life’s work, but the time we spend carrying it out. Perhaps they’re worthy of a similar tedium, too.

A couple of winters ago, after a decade of MacBooks, I put myself at the mercy of this supposition. I bought a newly obsolete laptop PC, a MacBook Air knockoff. I cleared the hard drive, replacing the obligatory Windows with Ubuntu, a free-and-open operating system managed by a U.K.-based company and a large network of volunteers. It’s one of the more user-friendly variants of Linux, which first appeared in 1991 when a student at the University of Helsinki wrote his own version of a then-popular operating system invented at AT&T in the 1970s. He released it under the GNU General Public License, which made it legally available for the world to use and modify. Linux now runs many of the Internet’s servers, most supercomputers, and the mobile operating system Android. Despite its scale, the original amateurism of Linux is alive and well; once, when a student was helping me set up my computer for a lecture at his college, he told me that he’d helped design Ubuntu’s icons.

I couldn’t afford for my new consciousness to become a huge time-suck. I had work to do, and collaborators who wouldn’t put up with weird .odt and .ogg file-types. I had to install some extra utilities on the command-line to get the touchpad and my printer to work properly. There were moments when I feared that with a single click or an “rm -f” command I would break everything. But it never happened. Within hours, Ubuntu was working about as smoothly as Mac OS ever had—which is to say, with occasional hiccups, both unexpected and chronic. The same vague “system program problem detected” error message comes up every time I turn on the computer; every program has a slightly different relationship with my printer. The free-and-open software for complex tasks, like vector graphics and video editing, is still catching up with features the commercial versions had years ago. But it’s surprising how little this all bothers me.


I do most of my writing in Emacs, a program first developed in the mid-’70s that runs on a text-only terminal screen. (Try it: In Mac OS, open the Terminal and type “emacs,” and then Enter.) Like produce grown the old-fashioned way, Emacs lends a convincing illusion of connection and continuity with the past. It requires knowledge of ancient keystrokes involving Control-x and Alt-x. There are no fonts or wizards. But it displays multiple files side-by-side and plays Tetris. To get the formatting I need, I write in Markdown, a simple set of rules whose architects have included the late Aaron Swartz and a Berkeley philosophy professor. *This* gives me italics, for instance, and [here’s](url) how to indicate a link. With a few lines of code borrowed from the Internet, I taught my ever-extendable Emacs to convert its text files to the Word docs that my editors require. Anthropologist Christopher M. Kelty, in his study of the free-software movement, Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software, called creating these sorts of Emacs scripts “one of the joys of my avocational life.”

The software I use now lacks the veneer of flawlessness that Apple products provide; it is quite clearly a work in progress, forever under construction by programmers who notice a need and share their fixes with everyone. But early on, I noticed that the glitches started to feel different than they used to. Stuff that would have driven me crazy on a MacBook didn’t upset me anymore. No longer could I curse some abstract corporation somewhere. As in Slow Food—with its unhygienic soil, disorderly farmers’ markets, and inconvenient seasons—the annoyances of Slow Computing have become pleasures. With community-made software, there’s no one to blame but us, the community. We’re not perfect, but we’re working on it. I gave away my MacBook.

My cloud resides in a co-location center in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, on a server owned by May First/People Link, a democratic membership organization to which I belong. When I was first deciding whether to join, I went to visit May First’s founders, Jamie McClelland and Alfredo Lopez, at their office in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where we spent a few hours discussing our technological preferences and life stories. I learned that they pay a premium to keep the servers in the city, rather than in some far-off rural data center; it’s important for them to have physical access in case something goes haywire. They like to keep the data close.

I joined May First about a year after the Edward Snowden leaks, when it became clearer how the NSA had deputized corporate cloud services for blanket surveillance. I’m not sure if I do anything especially worth spying on, but I decided to opt out. The May First team has a record of resistance to snooping law enforcement agencies; over the phone, McClelland told me about the security system they’d built around the servers, which relays its data outside U.S. borders. After that, we chatted about our travel plans for the coming months, in case they’d overlap. Try doing that with the folks who run your Gmail.

Now my calendars, contacts, and backup files all sync with a free-and-open program called ownCloud, which McClelland maintains on the May First servers. None of that information about me churns through Google anymore. OwnCloud is like an adolescent lovechild of Dropbox, Google Drive, Google Calendar, and Google Contacts—plus whatever other apps people create as plug-ins. A hobby of mine is trolling programmers on Twitter to get them to make more.

My new cloud mostly works. For a while the client on my laptop was hanging and had to be restarted pretty regularly, but thankfully the latest version stopped that. And trying to sync contacts crashes Thunderbird, my free-and-open mail program; this appears to be the fault of a plug-in, or maybe it’s me. When I have a spare moment, I work on fixing it. (I should get better about filing bug reports.) I’ll figure it out eventually, or someone else in the vast and geeky community will. We always do.

Such hope, however, should not be mistaken for a cure-all. Like fair trade coffee, the farmers’ market, and the neighborhood credit union, my commitments to Emacs and May First involve a certain self-righteousness. The impact on macroeconomic realities is limited. “Goldman Sachs doesn’t care if you’re raising chickens,” political theorist Jodi Dean has remarked. Eric Schmidt doesn’t care if I’m using Emacs. But I care, and I like it. And I do feel that it matters.

There is a habit in tech culture of saying that the latest app is “democratizing” whatever it happens to do. This is lovely, but best not to confuse it with actual democracy. Democracy is about participation with control, freedom with accountability, privacy with transparency. Tech companies tend to pick and choose from that list rather inventively. We’re expected to participate in their networks without having control over how they work. We’re transparent about every detail of our lives with them, while they’re private about what they do with it. Free-and-open software, however, operates on a different time-scale. Since nobody owns it, it’s harder to become fabulously wealthy from it. People make these programs because they need them, not because they think they can manipulate someone to want them. It’s slower. Instead of relying on rich kids in a Googleplex somewhere, Slow Computing works best when we’re employing people nearby, like Jamie McClelland, to adapt open tools to local needs. He’s my farmer; May First is my CSA.

As a reporter, I occasionally need email encryption to communicate with my sources. Some of them won’t reply to me without it. When I decided I couldn’t put off learning to use it any longer, I stopped by Sudo Room, a member-run hackerspace near where I was then staying in Oakland, and started searching for tutorials (on DuckDuckGo, a search engine that is less surveillance-inclined than Google). Online primers got me some of the way, but I also had to bother the friendly hackers around me with questions—first big-picture ones about how it all worked, then more fine-grained queries as I set up my cryptographic keys. After an hour or two, I was good to go.

Encrypting email isn’t hard once you’ve got the hang of it, and the more we support each other in doing this kind of thing, the easier it becomes. But it’s mostly inaccessible to people not willing to do a little Slow Computing. The free-and-open PGP technique I learned that day was what Edward Snowden used to contact Laura Poitras. Shouldn’t that be an essential trick of online citizenship? Among all our speedy gizmos, we let ourselves ignore what should be the basics.

Still, Slow is far from perfect. If NSA spooks want to read your mail, they can install a keylogger, or steal your hard drive. Open-source software development depends on some big-bad corporate benefactors, and there are real usability benefits to embracing the dismal conformity of monopolistic operating systems. To those interested in some consciousness-raising about the machines with which we spend so much of our lives, I wholeheartedly, evangelistically recommend a bit of Slow Computing. But I’m not sure how much more it is than an act of piety.