One nice Californian day, Johannes Ernst, a German-born entrepreneur and technologist, who lives in Silicon Valley with his family, decided that he didn’t like where technology was taking the world and that he needed to do his part to nudge it into a different direction. So Indie Computing Corp. was born. Its mission:
Here it is in his own words:
- Q: Just what about where technology is taking us don’t you like?
Tech is turning the world into a two-class society. In the emerging ruling class, we have the big internet platforms and data aggregators like Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon. They — actually, not the companies, but a very small set of top executives at each of those companies — now determine what is happening on the internet, and more and more so what’s happening in the larger world. From how we communicate with our friends and families, to who we communicate with, to what information we see and don’t see, and when, to what products we buy, what political options we hold, and so forth.
- And then there is everybody else. More than 99.9% of humanity, who are at the receiving end of this. If a company has a billion users, as those internet platforms have, your input as a user on what they do and don’t do and how they do it is quite literally zero. It’s not like they are democracies in which the populace can vote the bums out! Instead, they optimize what they do for their own benefits (like a trillion dollar market capitalization) while keeping their “users” as perpetual sharecroppers on their digital land holdings.
- Q: But isn’t that just how the world is?
It is totally amazing to me that many, maybe even most people, somehow cannot imagine a present, or a future in which we are not at the mercy of some digital overlord. If would have been interesting to be around a thousand years ago to see how many peasants could imagine living free of their feudal overloads and getting to vote on their leaders. But we can in a political sense, as has been proven, and there is no reason, in my view, why this should not also be true about technology.
- It does involve work, however, by many, many people, over a long time. The big internet companies have several trillion dollars in aggregate market value, still growing all the time. We can use this gigantic number as proxy for just how many working hours of how many people it will take to change the world into something just as technologically wonderful, but more equitable and more fair. Actually, by empowering more people, and more diverse people with more diverse skills and opinions than a handful of Silicon Valley execs, I think not only can we make the world more equitable but also much more technologically wonderful.
- Q: What can you or your company conceivably do about that?
Every one of us has to start somewhere in what hopefully will become a global barnraising effort, and we decided we are starting with an existence proof for the kind of products that embodies the value we want to see in technology: it needs to be proven that they can be built, that they can be supported, that they are profitable enough so they can stay around, that customers will buy them, and be happy with using them.
- This is why we built UBOSbox Nextcloud. If you are not familiar with it, UBOSbox Nextcloud has features that are similar to Google Drive, or Dropbox: it lets you upload files and share them with other people. But the key difference to those products is that you upload and share your files on physical hardware that you own: your data is in the place where you put it, and nowhere else, and nobody has access to it other than you and whoever you, and you alone, choose to make it available to. Contrast this with Google Drive or Dropbox: once you have uploaded your file, you have no idea where it is, who gets access to it, and even if you ever see it again! (Because, and it has happened, those guys can kick you off their service any time they so choose, and you have no ability to challenge this decision. Most medieval overlords weren’t as powerful as that!)
- This product also shows another pattern for the types of technology products we all want to see: its parts come from different projects and companies, and by working together with each other, instead of against each other, we can deliver more value more ethically than the typical closed cloud products: the hardware is off-the-shelf; it runs Linux, which is a gigantic collaborative effort on its own; the application is Nextcloud, which is developed, as open-source, by our friends at Nextcloud GmbH and their community; and our contribution is to assemble the pieces into a supportable product, and through UBOS and UBOS Live, make it usable and maintainable for the non-technical user over the long term.
- Of course, this product with features like file sharing, calendaring, address book management, video conferencing etc covers only a very small part of all the activities we do on-line. But if we can demonstrate that a user empowering product like this can be successful in the consumer market, that we as empowered customers can gain back control over some of our electronic data, then we can all start suspending our scepticism and instead start believing that we can re-assert control over our on-line lives and don’t need to submit to the overlords. And I hope at that time “everybody” joins in the party.
- Q: So this is why you called your company Indie Computing?
Yes. Indie Computing, as in "indie" music (great music produced independent of the big record labels) or "indie" food, "indie" art, and so forth.
- Q: How can we help?
There are several things everybody can do, starting with thinking hard about whether you are okay with a very small class of technology executives having as much control over your life, and the life of your children, as they do. Also, consider that on present trends, tomorrow they will have more control. If you are fine with that, have a nice day.
- But if you are not fine with that, the next step is to systematically look for products that don’t have a power-hungry overlord behind them, and buy those instead, next time you acquire some technology. Such as using UBOSbox Nextcloud in your home, instead of shipping off your files to somebody’s castle in the clouds. And there are many other projects with similar values than hours, much of it developed as open-source. Seek them out! That may be a bit more complicated, or cost a bit more, but how much is digital self-determination worth to you?
- I’d also like to encourage other developers and vendors of products with these kinds of values to start collaborating with each other more. We certainly would love to! For one, we should all do a better job at communicating to the market what I’m talking about here, which is that better products without overlords are possible, and they exist, and here are some examples. And then putting together specific solutions for the market that have components from multiple vendors, as we did with UBOSbox Nextcloud: we only have a chance to make an impact on the market if we join forces. That doesn’t require rolling everybody up into the same company — in fact, that would be counter-productive as it would be the next overlord in the making — but more to collaborate, in a decentralized fashion, open-source style, on more than just code. (If that sounds like you, please do reach out.)
- Q: So if everything goes amazingly with Indie Computing, where will you take this? Raise boat loads of venture capital, and sell the company to the highest bidder like everybody else?
Nope. The underlying reason for why tech overlords have emerged in the first place is the prevailing single-minded goal of tech entrepreneurs to quickly get rich and powerful, and the customer is just a tool to get there. Our values are the other way around: we aim to do what’s right for the customer, and if we do that, I’m sure that customer will be happy to reward us.
- Venture capital, these days, is largely incompatible with this attitude, so we are not planning to raise any. It’s more appealing to me anyway to spend my time with customers instead of venture capitalists! Of course, that means we can’t give products away below cost like many VC-backed startsup do. We also don’t do things behind the customer’s back, and that means we don’t do selling personal data or putting ads on the products either!
- Instead, we need to charge the prices for our products that allow us to be profitable, and customers understand that. It’s time for tech to go back to good old-fashioned business principles: treat your customers with respect, then they will respect you, and both will be happier. We bet that it can be made to work in tech, too.
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