Chris Miller


When Kev Quirk asked me to put together short bio for the Fosstodon staff page, The final sentence I wrote was, “I’m especially interested in FOSS for creative pursuits.”

Those eight words cover an awful lot of ground. I realize that in my many years of writing that I have never explored what, exactly, FOSS is to me, and how it fits into my existence. Come along, then, dear reader, on this journey of discovery.

FOSS is really about Ketchup

Many years ago, I found a recipe from 1850 for tomato ketchup, or catsup as they called it. It was fascinating, because while I knew that Heinz didn’t create ketchup, I never really thought about making my own. By that time, I have been brewing my own beer and roasting my own coffee, so trying something like this was right up my alley. I took a Saturday, followed the instructions, and the next day I had a rich and complex condiment that eminantly superior to anything I could buy in a store. I shared it with people, and they loved it. It was an eye-opening experience for everyone involved.

It turns out that when Heinz needed to make ketchup shelf-stable, they had to add a lot of vinegar to keep it from going off. But that made it too sour, so they had to add sugar to balance it. What came out was sort-of like the original, enough to ship, but lacked the richness of the original. Lower quality for mass production. I think you can see where I am heading here.

A Brief and Myopic History

I learned to code in the late 1990’s, when a lot of the Web was new. It was an amazing time. We took our jobs and made it a craft, often as a reaction to large corporations trying to turn coders into assembly line workers. Many of us manifested a deep passion for the quality of our work, and that passion was often at odds with the need to ship product.

Layer into this the GNU/Free Software movement, which was an amazing-but-fraught effort to try to keep the power of computer in the hands of the user. So many slogans (“Information wants to be free,” etc) trumpeted the tune to which we marched. You had the software licenses rise in order to legally keep the code free. Creative Commons was born to do the same in the face of overly restrictive copyright law and simple-but-shady maneuvering from the larger corporation to try to own public domain works.

For me, the evolution went from code to creative works to the realization that the DIY ethic was far more empowering and interesting to me than consumption of whatever the Corporations were willing to put into my hands. The podcasting community what hugely influential in my life. The energy of rolling your own podcatcher to the evolution of community directories to tools to mix audio and share files easily: it was amazing. It was energizing. I was so lucky to be a part of it.

DIY became a major part of my life. This is when I began to brew beer, because it was better than the mass-produced stuff, and I could share it. All of these things…it was all about making things with your own hands (or working with a small group) and sharing them with the world, often for donations. No one was getting rich, but for most of us, that was never the point in the first place.

Eventually the carpetbagger and colonizing corporations got into the game and the game changed. It was no longer as fun, no longer as interesting. There was a level of competition that hadn’t existed before that was off-putting to me. I didn’t want another job, I wanted to make cool stuff and share it.

And that’s why I like FOSS.

Making Cool (and Useful) Stuff and Sharing It

The FOSS movement, for all it’s evolutions, conflicts, and messiness over the years, has always been a source of inspiration for me. There is an alchemy of idealism and pure hacker bloodymindedness, a sort of punk ethos, that I think still resonates at the core of the movement. Sure, we’ver all grown up, we can speak business now, but underneath we thumb our noses (or flip the bird) and any corporation that tries to tell us what to do. Because the power isn’t theirs…it’s ours.

And it’s not just about writing code, either. Maybe that’s where it began, but now it’s so much more. And that’s really cool. That’s where the artists find an onramp into the our world. That’s when the creatives that do not flip bits as a life choice infuse and build up what has come before, taking the tools and making them far more than the sum of their parts. Software without a person to use it is dead. To come to life, it needs that soul to make something grand of it.

That the world I want to live in. My wife and I actually have a motto for our relationship: “Live together and make cool stuff.” FOSS is a just a part, but a very important part, of that. I’m grateful for all the people working on their passion projects, working to keep a community alive in the face of corporate titans who would seek to limit it, even if those very corporations could not function without the software the movement creates. FOSS has gone from an ideal to the bedrock of the internet, and while many of us feel the jagged edges of our shattered idealism most keenly these days when billionaire CEOs do terrible things, underneath there is still a flame that whispers, “Screw you. I’ll do it my way.”

I’m here for that fire.

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