Ethical computing?

I’m in a computer quandary — a classic modern dilemma that pits the right thing to do squarely against what’s easy. The genius of consumer capitalism lies in making it ridiculously easy to do whatever i believe will make me happier. (It’s debatable whether it actually will or not, but that’s not capitalism’s concern.) So whatever i want, or think i want, is just a credit-card-click away, and the system cleverly hides every potentially unpleasant aspect of my purchase behind a smokescreen of advertising and distance. Is my widget made by slave labour in a Far East sweatshop? The packaging won’t tell me. Is it full of chemicals that have poisoned people and ruined environments? The seller isn’t saying, and those environments are far, far away. Is it even full of cancer-causing chemicals that will compromise my own health down the line? I’ll never know, until it’s too late, because nothing must interfere with the sanctity, and the thoughtless spontaneity, of the moment of purchase.

Which underlays my current dilemma. You see, for years i have been buying only used computing equipment, both on environmental grounds and not wanting to feed an industry built on quick obsolescence. And because i have long despised the Windows operating system (Microsoft has equalled Big Brother to me for a decade, and a clumsy, barely competent Big Bro at that), i always installed Ubuntu, a free Linux operating system that i have really come to like. Did i mention it’s free?

However, for the last two years i’ve been having a seemingly endless stream of low-grade computer problems. I’ve spent untold hours installing Ubuntu on four different laptops, on tweaking it just the way i like it, on diagnosing an obscure RAM defect, on tweaking it some more, on installing and uninstalling various software….

Finally i had things working well with a 15” Thinkpad laptop as my main machine, and a 10” HP netbook as a portable, both running software to synchronize the working files with an encrypted backup copy in the cloud. But a 10” screen isn’t really effective as a working machine, so i gave it to a friend and on eBay a bought a used, 12-inch-screen “ultraportable” Thinkpad. And spent a bunch more hours installing Ubuntu and tweaking it the way i like it.

And then the thing died, exactly 30 days after i bought it. Annoyingly, it didn’t go out with the flash of light and puff of smoke that would have said this thing is d-e-a-d; don’t even think about repairing it. No, the fan just seized, apparently — a $30 part, except the computer repair guy told me over the phone that it’s an hour’s disassembly to get to the fan, and an hour to put it back again. A $150 bill, with no guarantee that the fan is the problem.

I was furious. What do you do with a dead used laptop? There was no store i could bring it back to. I was on holiday and didn’t have my other machine so i couldn’t even go on-line to complain to the eBay guy who sold it to me. BIG inconvenience. In all my free off-line hours i began mulling over how much time i’d spent on computers — not time doing my work on them, but time acquiring them and setting them up and tweaking and debugging and slogging through obscure menus and trying out software and so on. As a tool, it was as though i spent as much time working on the tool, keeping it sharp, as it were, as i did with the tool, doing the work i wanted to get done.

Long story short, after a couple of weeks of computerless frustration, i bought a brand new Apple MacBook Air. I know Macs, i use them at the office, and they just work. Nothing flashy, no tinker-fest required (though if this experience taught me anything it’s that i do love to tinker — it’s a prime procrastination technique, for one thing). They just work. Which is what i wanted, so buying one seemed to make sense.

A month later came the news that Apple is now the biggest corporation in the world. And, working with the Mac for a month, i began to see why that is : it’s because Apple is a closed system, and the company has figured out a way to make money off every aspect of that system. You get apps from the Mac App Store (for money). You play music through iTunes, and then you’re locked into iTunes. You want an mp3 player, you have to buy an iPod to be able to sync it. All the app developers pay Apple to sell their apps. It all works, and works well, as long as you stay with Apple. But your whole computing life is fenced in by Apple, and they’re making a pretty good profit off you. And they have, piled up somewhere, a heapload of personal information about you.

Which is the polar opposite of the computing environment i’ve come from: open-format and open-source. Ubuntu is free, created by a small team of paid workers and a huge international pool of volunteers. Its giant roster of software is mostly free and it runs on almost any PC computer, so there’s a competitive market and the machines are significantly cheaper than Apple’s. It brings affordable computing to much of the world in a grand, worldwide cooperative project that i see as a textbook example for the way humanity should approach its global problems — and they’re pretty much all global now.

Information is like air these days — we all need to breathe it. But a computer operating system is necessary to breathe that air, and as such it should not be a proprietary corporate possession. This is an exact parallel to the food situation, with Monsanto and its evil ilk doing everything they can to privatize and own food that they alone can grow and sell to us. But i strongly believe that for common needs — those things that everybody uses — no aspect of them should be privately controlled by anybody or anything, and especially not by corporations whose sole fixation is not public good but their own profit. That, it seems to me, is a recipe for disaster, and disasters with this root cause now loom around us on every front.

So the dilemma : Stick with this beautiful Mac and a trouble-free* user experience, but sell out my egalitarian principles to the largest corporation that ever was? Or return to the collective world of Ubuntu, where computing is open and free, but live with the tinkering it takes to keep the thing running? Your advice in the comments below would be appreciated.

* Not so trouble-free, actually : Ubuntu has a couple of (free) software programs that i can’t live without — Cherrytree, a hierarchical note-taking app indispensable as an information “junk drawer,” and Tomboy, a wiki-like gizmo for making interlinked notes. Unbelievably, the Mac world seems to have no equivalent to Cherrytree — a surprising lacuna. And i could run an older version of Tomboy on the Mac, but it would take a bunch of tinkering to install it — exactly what this Mac experiment is supposed to avoid.

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