The convenience of mainstream digital infrastructures for communication comes at a significant price. Google, Facebook, Microsoft Office, Dropbox, Slack, Zoom: data stored and shared among corporate servers in far-flung places, turning individual identity and attention into commodities for sale. Often cheap and sometimes even free to use, these platforms come with fixed and pre-given architectures, promising ease of access in exchange for the willingness to give up autonomy in design. Words like “Zoom” slip into vernacular parlance as nouns and verbs, commercial products coming to stand entirely for particular kinds of experience, in the way that every mechanical duplication was once a “Xerox,” every soda once a “Coke.”
Such monocultural arrangements are fundamentally inconsistent with endeavors in ecological design, with efforts to address the structural and institutional foundations of the ecological crisis. The means through which we think and work are encoded in whatever world we seek to build. Conversations with open technology advocate Don Blair of the Edge Collective brought home the possibility of developing digital infrastructure that could nurture both autonomy and conviviality. Open access publisher Punctum Books attuned us to the deep resonance between open access scholarly publishing and open source digital infrastructure. They put us in touch with cloud68, an open source software company based in Tirana, Albania, and committed to an IndieWeb ethos that would safeguard digital sovereignty and plurality. The good folks at cloud68 are responsible for the construction of our collective’s online platform.
Each of the essential elements of this platform is an open source technology, a specific instance that has been tinkered with in a manner that suits our needs and can also contribute toward the ongoing collective development of those technologies. Our website was built by sfida.pro on Wordpress. Our “commons” runs on a chat messaging application called Mattermost, an open-source alternative to Slack. Most of our other communication channels are hosted on a Discourse forum, which we also rely on as an event management system in lieu of Facebook. Our seminars and other video meetings take place on an open-source webinar application called BigBlueButton. We rely on Nextcloud as a file-sharing system, collaborating on documents via the online office suite OnlyOffice. For email, we use ProtonMail.
There is something exhilarating about piecing these instances together to meet the evolving needs that we have imagined for ourselves, but this has been an improvisational and often sticky process. Things have often gone in unexpected directions, and our plans have had to change in response. Be forewarned: we may well find ourselves together in technical impasses where things don’t work as promised or intended. But these are infrastructures that have grown in a patchwork manner out of communities of mutual interest, rather than as vehicles of a seamless and market-gobbling enterprise. We think it’s worth the likely trouble, more in the spirit of what we seek to encourage in ecology and design. If you have ideas about what else we should try, please let us know and let’s give it a shot.