The fundamental technologies of the internet are highly decentralised and resilient to shocks. Email, for example, is designed to send messages across multiple hops until it reaches it’s destination, with the potential for retrying and routing around outages. However, in practice most of us use a few centralised services, with Gmail supplying email services to about 1.5 billion people worldwide. This causes (at least) three major problems:
Even in the best case scenario, the next few decades will be characterised by increasing shocks to our systems as climate change hits us with more unpredictable weather events. We need systems that can be flexible in the face of shock, degrading to a lower level of service rather than dropping out. We also need the skills to adapt and repair our systems to held in local areas, so that we can resolve problems without having to wait for a fix from corporate HQ.
Web hosting is often said to occur in “the cloud”, but the cloud is actually just racks of computers in data centers, powered by electricity. Globally, this contributes to about 2% of the world’s carbon emissions, comparable to air travel. This is being addressed by some companies, but most companies don’t run their own data centers, and so resort to carbon offsets instead of real change.
The big tech monopolies that have cornered most of our digital lives, like Meta (Facebook), Google, Apple and Amazon, have access to so much data about us that they can engage in Surveillance Capitalism, using everything they know about us to predict and influence our choices to an extent that is almost impossible for “main street” businesses to compete with. The costs of this include record profits, growing wealth inequality, and inhumane labour conditions.
Luckily, we’re at a moment when a lot of people realise these problems, and the dominance of some of the existing tech giants is looking very shaky. Facebook has become a morass of sponsored content that is losing users rapidly, and twitter is a libertarian dumpster fire. Meanwhile, legislators are starting to have some success with laws mandating user privacy, right to repair, and data interoperability.
There’s never been a better time to blunt the edge of big tech, and there are a huge suite of tools waiting to be used. All the tried-and-true technologies of the internet are free and open source, we have web-servers, databases, email servers, wikis, blog engines, chat programs and many more, all free and open source. We also have new breeds of local first and federated software that allows communities to retain control of their data and processes, while still taking part in global conversations.
It’s in this context that I’d like to announce Merri-bek Tech. We’re forming a local non-profit for our local neighbourhood, that will supply these free and open tools to local organisations and individuals.
We’re not a project from the city council, but the area covered by Merri-bek City Council provides a convenient set of ready boundaries for us to define what “local” means to us. Bordered by two creeks, the City of Merri-bek provides a real world grounding that we can all see, which helps ground our digital lives more in real life. While obviously our technologies don’t become less useful just because someone is on the east bank of Merri Creek, in order for us to remain local, we’d rather see sister organisations spring up neighbouring areas like Darebin and Moonee Valley, and we’re happy to share the recipe book of this organisation with them to help make that happen.
While Merri-bek Tech is being started by some experienced technologists, part of our mission is to build local skills. As such, the cornerstone of our process will be three-month-long volunteer “sprints”. If you’re interested in learning how the digital infrastructure of the internet works, even if you have no prior experience, you can join one of these sprints with a cohort of volunteers. We’ll provide structure, mentoring, and you’ll have a chance to learn some skills and push forward a local technology project.
We currently have some community software that we’ve set up, that we’re hosting in a corporate data-center in Sydney. Our plan, is to move to using local server racks physically located in Merri-bek for all our primary services, with “cloud” data centers only used as an additional backup or cache. We also want these servers to be powered 100% by local renewable energy. This is both ambitious enough to be interesting, but also entirely achievable, and we hope to have our first example of that setup next year.
I’m glad you asked. Here’s how you can get involved. We need the following:
- Expressions of interest from people wanting to do our first volunteer sprint
- Experienced technologists to join our mentor group, able to field questions from our volunteers
- Several more committee members, willing to help steward this organisation towards it’s vision
There’s plenty of room to get involved in this project without any particular technology skills. In particular, our highly values-based nature means we want some responsible stewards in the organisation representing community interests. If you think you might be interested, please drop me a line.
For more information, be sure to read through the Merri-bek Tech Documentation.