Heirloom Computing, the Peace War, and an Anarchist Computer
Welcome to a journey of heirloom computing, open source movements, anarchic tech, and more. All inspired by three things I've read!
If you do enjoy it and want more, then I recommend you subscribe/log in to see the whole article.
The most recent thing I read was an article that proposed advanced technology should not exist in an anarchist society.
Their basis is that the world's current incarnation of technological production relies extensively on exploitation and toxic waste and huge scales of production that aren't feasible to replicate autonomously.
There are many valid points raised by that proposal, but I fundamentally disagree with the notion that advanced tech should be abandoned.
I grew up with sci-fi, and whilst I don't believe that tech is the saviour for many of our problems, I do believe tech can be used for great effect.
For one thing, my queer liberation was founded on internet connectivity and tech. I can't condone giving that up, even if we develop an accepting society.
Regardless of the high-philosophy of hypothetical utopias, we live in a world where tech is now abundant and weaselling its way into every corner of contemporary US life.
There's no stuffing computers back into the non-existence, not when it has hooked the minds of so many and become ubiquitous.
Nowadays, your digital estate – the collection of all your traces of digital interaction – provides an intimate view into your life and times.
What happens to all your data and digital estate once you die? Shall it be preserved in a cloud for a scant few decades (whilst the cloud still runs), locked away, wasting the world's resources?
What if computer systems lasted a century, and were not compulsively "upgraded" every year or few?
Enter the heirloom computer, a device to pass down to friends and family. It, too, is an idea I recently read about.
An heirloom computer could store memories and stories and information from your life, passed along to the people who care about your legacy. A digital garden, tended by people who enjoy that pursuit, added on by generations of caretakers.
Heirloom computers can only exist with free and open hardware, though.
It's no secret that I'm a huge fan of free and open source movements. Information should be freer than it currently is. Thus, my interest has been intent upon RISC-V as it has taken root in industry.
RISC-V is the start of an open source hardware movement, transforming an industry which has been slow to adopt open information.
If you look at consumer computers, you'll find a duopoly of Intel and AMD for x86 CPUs. If you're a tech geek like I am, you might even recognise ARM – both from phones, and especially now that Apple has its ARM based M1 laptops.
Yet ARM is closed source. Licensing ARM chips comes at a steep cost, in an industry that already has some of the steepest barriers to entry the world has to offer.
Those steep barriers to entry are also tangled up with a global scale of production and exploitation. How could we build an heirloom computer without complex logistics chains and "artisanal" [slave] labour?
Well for one, we can recycle what's already abundant in our modern world. It's too late to stop the harm that's already been done.
Scavenging supplies isn't a new concept. I read a significant amount of sci-fi when I was young. One that stuck with me in particular was "The Peace War" by Vernor Vinge.
In it, there's a technologically suppressed society ruled by an authoritarian state, which maintains the monopoly on violence thanks to technology called "bobbles."
There is a loose resistance in the form of tinkerers: people who continue to hold onto and progress knowledge despite the state's crackdown on technology.
I recommend it as an excellent read in classic sci-fi, which bears the caveats typical of classic sci-fi. It's got some problematic parts including racism, linear story-lines, and played out tropes.
Yet "The Peace War" influenced me in ways I've never before unpacked.
It taught me that learning is a personal responsibility, and that knowledge is stored in people and not just books.
Furthermore, it instilled in me the ideal of safeguarding humanity's collective knowledge by becoming a living repository that shares teachings to bring other people up to speed.
Some might think that university and schooling is the best path towards sharing knowledge in large volumes. I'm less inclined to think that.
University did a good job of catching me up to speed with a lot of subjects – to begin with.
After covering the general education and the foundational skills of more established fields, though?
It did not sustain long. Newer fields are riddled with spotty understanding, outdated knowledge, and recitations of confusing history. Fields like computing and electricity are difficult moving targets to learn about.
University is mainly a path to industry, with "on-the-job training" being the main method of progressing thereafter. Academia is another route, but it offers its own flaws.
I'd love to see universities be supplanted – with what, I don't yet know.
In the past, I've written about my journey pursuing an engineering degree with night classes. I'm still not sure if it's worth the investment:
As it stands now, I'm unsure if I'll finish school before I hit financial independence. What then might I do with an engineering degree afterwards? I suspect I'll "retire" to a life of productive play instead.
It would be incredibly fulfilling for me to achieve some of my big dreams, such as building my polyam compound, giving back to my communities, leading a minimalist lifestyle, and experimenting with science/tech in my home lab.
With all these points in mind, let's finally embark on this winding journey. Let's begin by looking at a simple story of a computer:
Vignette of an Anarchist Computer
Tapping the power button floods the old, cobbled system with a stream of electric fields. What use shall the anarchist's computer have today?
Perhaps the operator will browse the lengthy notes and recipes for some of the best bread they've ever broken with comrades?
Or they'll do some writing, perhaps journaling or fiction or net forum posts?
Not today, instead they're programming a microcontroller for a new CNC machine. They're transforming the complex package of semiconductors into a new tool which can produce even more machine parts, provided they source enough recycled metal materials.
Another day they may instead be playing games to relax whilst listening to music, and another day still they may be using the computer to store and view digital photos and videos. Making digital collections of memories that help tell their life's tale.
Some days are spent on the global net hunting down talks and papers about the latest process they're trying to replicate in their community fab, and then finally posting a blog entry about their own experience to help others avoid their mistakes.
Piece by piece, the computer fails. Yet that's the nature of engineered systems: nothing lasts forever. Instead, you design for swift, recoverable failures and replaceable parts.
Thus the cobbled machine grows even more cobbled. Decades old tech may be replaced with much newer tech with backwards compatible adaptors.
The mouse and keyboard get hung up in favour of a capacitive touchscreen for a few years, and only get broken out when the touchscreen is on the fritz.
The anarchist's heirloom computer may not be the centrepiece of daily life, but it is a powerful tool.
With it they may revisit the bonds of life and relationships and history. They may design new things, automate tedious processes, and play with novel things. Most of all, they may share and communicate and grow.
Computers and Complex Technology in an Anarchist Society
The bleeding edge of consumer technology requires both widespread exploitation and incredibly detailed expert work to pull off effectively.
That makes it problematic to replicate in an ideal world – who is going to risk their life doing mining and refining other toilsome tasks?
What anarchist is going to have the hundreds of complicated machines in a sterile clean room ready for transforming silicon wafers into circuits?
Are neighbours going to tolerate the waste of production? The toxic chemicals used in producing tech?
This is the core of the issue with tech: right now, a reasonable person can say that the bleeding edge looks to be more harm than good.
After all, what do we get out of advanced tech? Better medical imaging machines, queer liberation through global communication, and environmentally damaging space travel?
Some may weigh the balance of benefit and cost and decide that tech is too much harm.
Yet what if we chose a different form of tech?
What if we chose intentionally larger packages, larger devices, slower speeds, and community scale fabrication efforts? What if software was simpler? What if we embraced such minimalism and frugal tech?
What if instead of perpetuating the status quo of exploitative manufacturing, we innovated new sustainable techniques? We could have low-profit, time intensive manufacturing providing our digital building blocks.
Maybe the future will continue seeing us use silicon-based computers, maybe it won't. There's a world of photonics, and there's old-fashioned vacuum tubes. Maybe atomic 3-d printers will allow for interesting mechanical computers.
There are unexplored areas of computer engineering and material engineering that are not pursued because society collectively does not yet value sustainability and alternatives when silicon is sufficient.
I'm a technology-loving optimist. Ultimately this is my disagreement with anti-tech anarchism – we do not live in an ideal world, and tech may help us achieve a post-scarcity society.
Technological innovation may solve the very same problems that technology creates; I do not think we should throw in the towel at the first iteration of tech being problematic.
There are plenty of books that explore technology and human needs, including "Walkaway" for actual anarchism based on 3d printers and recycling machines, the Bobiverse for post-scarcity transhumanism, and the Murderbot Diaries.
Another reason why I think advanced tech can persist in an anarchic society is because of communities like open source contributors, and amateur radio enthusiasts (hams).
There are countless people out there who want to see their fields prosper, without profit motives. They're rare, but there's enough of them to form communities across the world.
I refer to such people as tinkerers and hackers, passionate people who foster innovation and community adoption. I'll discuss open innovation later in the article.
Ham radio offers an interesting glimpse into what tech could look like in an anarchic society. Hams form decentralised and resilient communication networks and communities.
There could be a handful of hams in local communities, who are essentially go-to experts for the field of radio and communication. They share their knowledge with anyone who is interested, and carry on traditions across generations.
Hams also may organise local "field day" events, where they highlight their role within their communities by carrying out a widespread demonstration:
Field Day is ham radio's open house. Every June, more than 40,000 hams throughout North America set up temporary transmitting stations in public places to demonstrate ham radio's science, skill and service to our communities and our nation. It combines public service, emergency preparedness, community outreach, and technical skills all in a single event.
– ARRL Field Day
Field day could be just as big a centrepiece of the year as harvest time, or other community events.
Ham enthusiasts also set up and run repeater stations, making long-distance communication more accessible for community members. In a hypothetical better world, a handful of enthusiasts could end up maintaining the systems that allow for global communication.
However, ham radio presently exists within a tightly regulated state-controlled club that governs what frequencies are allowed, what certifications you need to participate, your conduct on the air, etc.
Hams are also often privileged older people. You're not allowed to swear thanks to self-policing, and to join you must register in a searchable database with little right to privacy.
Whilst ham radio is interesting to examine, it's not a good example of what anarchist tech could persist as.
Ultimately, my point is thus: if we're willing to accept longer R&D cycles, weaker devices, and open innovation standards, then sustainable anarchic tech is feasible.
We already see lots of cooperative people willing to learn about the world and technology that connects us, we just need to give more people the leisure time to engage in it.
Instead of being anti-tech, we should focus on the true underlying issues: being anti-exploitation.
The Heirloom Computer That Lasts A Century
Nobody is building computers that will last a century. Not yet, leastways.
Yet the rampant consumerism of computing leads me to wonder "What if we had something more sustainable?"
As mentioned in the introduction, this article greatly inspired me:
The 100 Year Computer is a lengthy article, but here are relevant points I want to focus on:
Software bloats as the industry progresses, getting more complicated and loaded with "features." Sometimes the new features come at the cost of old features, and these incremental improvements must be constantly evaluated whether they're worth the losses and costs.
Such software bloat goes against the Unix philosophy:
Software should be small and simple. A simple tool that does one thing well is probably better here than a complex tool trying to do too much.
– The 100 Year Computer
This one-stop-shop approach to software bloat is likely a byproduct of the "SaaS transformation" that companies are waking up to. Software as a Service (SaaS) allows companies to get steady revenue streams in exchange for continual maintenance and feature requests.
There's a bit of rent-seeking and consumerism involved in SaaS. There's also a lot of things that really shouldn't be SaaS that businesses try to force into becoming subscription cash cows.
There's all these problems, but there's one overwhelming problem: software these days is becoming always online, internet-first. It's embracing a single point of failure, which is liable for catastrophic issues if the internet has issues.
We can look at the foolishness that is "Internet of Things" consumer devices to see how centralising software into short-lived companies is a mistake. These devices were primarily internet-first, connected to a "cloud" maintained only by a small company which would frequently disappear after only a few short years.
This is where the heirloom computer comes in: it's designed to be offline first. Losing a network connection is not catastrophic – indeed, it's actually normal operation. Software continues to run because everything the programs need to run is bundled right there with it.
There's less attack surface being offline first, because in case you haven't heard, the internet is a wild battleground of security threats. I'm not a fan of having so much connectivity between all the devices in the world, because it turns out that a few bad actors have global reach.
Being offline first also aligns with the ideals of autonomy and decentralisation. A central online cloud is ripe for governments to exploit, gaining access to many people's private data more easily.
Heirloom computers have decentralised and unstructured data. You can easily envision them being used to store what's relevant to a collective: recipes, stories, games, software tools.
It can also be a digital garden, something enjoyed by a few caretakers across generations. It can flourish with art and music, or perhaps be a workhorse of community industry.
However, as it stands right now, the heirloom computer is more a dream than a reality. To make it real, enough people need to want it to make it happen.
Even then, there's obstacles in the meantime: planned obsolescence, diminished right to repair freedoms, and closed standards.
Because we need to extend, repair and replace parts, a 100-year lifespan computer cannot be a black box. It’s design must be open. It must use open protocols and buses. Whatever we build today will be retrocomputing tomorrow at best.
– The 100 Year Computer
This is one of the reasons why RISC-V's open source adoption is worth tracking. Custom (proprietary) chips won't be in production for very long, not in the grand tapestry of history.
Yet with an open source chip, we could produce them on demand at any point in the future – provided the manufacturing capability is there. More on this later.
I consider there to be two parts to heirloom computing: the digital estate, and the heirloom experience itself.
The digital estate is the data and software stored by the computer. Precious things or useful tools. Metadata about users. The historical record of someone's life.
The heirloom experience is everything surrounding the device. The tactile feel of setting up with the device, using it, knowing that it's the same system generations before you used.
Have you used a grandparent's typewriter before? Or a parent's writing desk? Such human experiences are poignant. I cherish my connections to "stuff," personally.
Now that we have a basic understanding of what heirloom computing may entail, let's look at what that first part of what heirloom computer is safeguarding: digital estates.
Digital Estates and the Heirloom Computer
Digital estates hold a personal place in my heart.
I dread the day the lights go out on my dead mother's blog, severing yet another echo of her powerful voice from my family. Even though the archives remain in scattered pieces, like on archive.org.
I've also seen the remains of other notable women in my community be lost to fragmented secondary archives, which are confusing messes of preservation. I recently saw someone trying to gather those secondary sources into a cohesive picture, with much effort.
Our tech-driven lives in the US are not prepared for the fact that data outlives users and creators. Our digital estates are not configured in a way that allows graceful maintenance or transfer or collation.
Instead of passing on digital estates to inheritors, they are scattered to the wind to rot in clouds and on old personal drives.
Digital estates are a tragedy of entropy. Nothing lasts in this world without maintenance, without repetition. Books must be reprinted, hard drives must be copied and replaced.
Yet books have relatively reliable archival standards, as noted on xkcd:
It's hard to improve on the lifespan of books and print documents. I still have things my mother wrote decades ago, whereas the digital documents have faded with dead drives and lost devices between moves.
Books can tolerate decades of oversight, stored away somewhere. Digital drives cannot usually do so. You need to periodically test drives, copy data onto new media, and so on.
However, heirloom computing may have an edge over books: drives are fungible and much more information dense than books.
Fungible means that any drive for data storage is just as good as another one – the same cannot be said for books. A single book cannot replace any other single book, since they can be completely different writings. When a book dies – through use, rot, misplacing, or fires – it cannot easily be replaced or duplicated. You have to go through the effort of procuring a new copy, and all margin notes are lost.
You can also store entire libraries within one digital drive, at this point in time. That density might be key to maintaining digital estates across generations: with lots of redundancy, off-site backups, networked mirrors, and so forth.
Hence why I love the "digital garden" metaphor so much. Without a caretaker tending to the garden, it will soon wilt and fall fallow. Better to entrust the digital estate to people who will make it flourish instead.
As I mentioned earlier, digital estates hold a personal place for me: I grew up with digital gardens and lots of documents from my family. For example, we had a household server where we shared photos and videos.
Where normal people would have a home videos collection in a closet or garage somewhere, we had the internal file server.
We also hosted widgets on that internal server, such as the controls to the ranch's entry gate, cameras, and automatic lights. We also had an internal website for things like recipes.
I have memories of browsing recipes, and showing the site to guests when we were hanging around in the kitchen.
These days I live in my own household, instead of someone else's. So I keep a digital garden of my own, and I'm building up my digital estate with projects like my writing and this blog.
I'll discuss my personal digital garden later on, in the member's only section of this article.
A Note About Heirlooms and Found Families
I'm queer, so it should not surprise anyone that I value my chosen family more than my birth family. An heirloom computer need not be based around the traditional family unit.
Heirlooms can be passed along to any designated successor who will cherish them.
Which is a good thing too, since there's no guarantee that younger family members would wish to keep such heirlooms in a traditional family. Not when they take up space and scarce attention.
Not to mention, what about us queers who are intent on ending our bloodlines? We shall have no children to continue us, to inherit our stuff.
Once you break free of the confines of thinking in terms of pure familial heirloom continuity, it's wonderful. You can build whatever family structure you so desire, and it will reshape itself through history.
RISC-V, FPGAs, Tinkerers, and University
The promise of RISC-V is to explode the walled gardens and cathedrals made around silicon. To allow open source ideals to permeate the old-fashioned industry, allowing for smaller teams to build bigger projects.
You don't currently see hardware startups like you see tech startups. Those tech startups run off the backs of open source software. Yet our future could easily hold such possibilities.
Where's the open source hardware equivalent of someone running WordPress on their home server? The lean startup built atop virtual machines and Elasticsearch and Django and other tech stacks?
In short, where are the hardware tinkerers and hobbyists and entrepreneurs?
You currently don't find many folks tinkering with integrated circuits in their garages – just a handful:
Likewise, there are a few hobbyists working on soft cores (CPUs) using FPGAs (field programmable gate arrays).
FPGAs are hard to describe unless you're steeped in computer engineering. The short answer is that they're hardware ("gate arrays") that can be configured using software tools ("field programmable").
FPGAs are wonderful for prototyping and general design. You can test an idea with real hardware, without needing to go through the expense of manufacturing silicon ASICs (application-specific integrated circuits).
I like FPGAs, and I think they (or something similar to them) can serve as the basis for a lot of hardware tinkering in the future. If FPGA creators embrace open innovation.