Australian Science travelled to Canberra for the linux.conf.au (Linux Conference Australia) last week and had the opportunity for exclusive one-on-one interviews with a number of the keynote speakers. You may have been a little hesitant reading the first word of the title of this article, ‘Linux’, but perhaps the ‘Open Source Ecosystem’ in the latter part put your mind at ease. We are a computing world, a society heavily dependent upon computers. Computers, in their many shapes and sizes, are touching even greater areas of our lives and reaching a far greater number of people than ever before. Open source is revolutionizing the way we communicate. So while we all may not understand coding and app development, we can understand the end products that allow us digital consumers to produce and share our experiences and stories. The person who has had a tremendous impact in the Linux world is Bdale Garbee. And this is his open source ecosystem.
Bdale Garbee is a computer genius. Although he retired in 2012 after a long career with HP, serving as Open Source and Linux Chief Technologist, he shows no signs of slowing down. Quite the contrary, his workload may be picking up with the number of projects he is involved with, such as serving on the boards of The Freedombox Foundation and The Linux Foundation.
“Linux – euphemism for entire open source ecosystem and idea of collaborated development and maintenance of software and related data” – Bdale Garbee
Linux has a silence presence in our everyday lives; providing gifts from behind the scenes, things many of use and take for granted. As Garbee says, Linux is running airline reservations, stocks and powering digital TVs and Android phones. It’s running most sites on the World Wide Web – a place where countless hours are being logged watching video, playing games, chatting with friends, doing research for homework, or trying to find that MasterChef recipe from last night’s episode. But perhaps the greatest gift that Linux has given us is the ability to work open and collaboratively. Garbee speaks passionately about empowering people to take control of their own destiny and make things better. And we see this more and more every day in the increasing stretch of social media networks around the globe. It is a new era in the democratization of society – one where opinions are formed by the nature of mass communication and not dictated by a small ruling class.
One of the most poignant points Garbee makes in this interview reveals his concerns about data privacy in this open ecosystem. We can put our story, our whole life’s being on the web (and some do) as we build interconnections with friends and the rest of the world through these digital calling cards. The downside to this is that we are turning over a vast portion of our private lives to commercial interests. Are those photos, those stories, those videos still ours? Or have we relinquished our intellectual property, freely, to companies making a profit? Garbee’s work on The Freedombox Project aims to create devices to help people take ownership of their data, in a sense, to maintain and build personal privacy in the Internet age. This perhaps may be his greatest contribution to our computing lives.
You can get a sense of how his brain is hardwired as he speaks on the important role science played in his childhood. Kids need a healthy dose of curiosity about the world to prepare them for the future. I’ve written on this many times before, but it’s important kids and adults alike hear messages like this one from people at the top of industry advocating for science in youth education. Not all kids will be scientists; nor do we want them to be. But an understanding of science and how things work creates those processes for better fundamental decision-making that lift society and hold it to a higher standard. This is the open, collaborative process that Garbee sees making the world a better place; creating the blueprint for a positive future for the human race.
How are you finding the conference?
Oh, I think it’s been really excellent. I’ve enjoyed all the talks. I’ve been jokingly saying that opening keynote was a little rough, but since then it’s been getting better. But that’s just because I was the guy who gave the opening talk. I’ve really enjoyed it this year. There have been some great talks, excellent opportunity to meet and talk to people that I’ve gotten to know over the years and who I’ve worked on a lot of things with. It’s always – this has turned out to be one of those events that I really look forward to each year.
Any new trends and topics this year?
There have been some shifts over the years. I think when I first started coming to LCA back in 2002, there was much more emphasis on Linux itself, on the kernel and on sort of the core of the distributions and the operating system itself. I certainly came, in large part, the first year because of an invitation to be part of the first ever mini-conference associated with LCA, which was a Debian distribution mini-conference. Now, there really aren’t things like distribution-oriented mini-conferences anymore.
Things have sort of moved upwards and outwards. There are more discussions that maybe have a greater social significance. There are more discussions about interesting things happening in the application space. There was a really excellent talk by one of my very good friends yesterday about the use of Lego and [inaudible 00:01:15] in an educational setting.
These are a little more sort of oriented towards the use of technology and a little bit less about all of the geeky internals of how we make it work. Though, of course, there are still plenty of those kinds of talks here, too.
I think over the years, I have seen the conference sort of expand its role from being just about Linux. I mean, it’s called Linux Conference Australia. Now, Linux is sort of the euphemism for referring to the entire open source ecosystem and this idea of collaborative development and maintenance of software and related data and so forth.
Linux actually runs lots of things in this world. As recently as five or six or seven years ago, I was in my job at HP still sort of running around the world. Talking to CIOs of various companies about what was Linux, why should they care, how should they fit it into their planning and so forth. Today, it’s really turned around. The question is, if it’s not running Linux, why isn’t it? Linux is running a vast majority of sites that are on the World Wide Web.
It’s responsible for a substantial amount of the sites that are used for everything from airline reservations to air traffic control systems, stock market exchanges, all of those sorts of big computing things, and then in our personal lives, lots more devices. If you’re running an Android phone, you’re running the Linux kernel, whether you realize that or not. My new digital television at home is running Linux on the inside.
It’s just all over the place, everything from smart wrist watches and other tiny mobile devices to the world’s largest super computers. I think the last time the top one in 500 super-computing list came out that it was 90%-
something of those systems that are running Linux. So the operating system has had a very sort of pervasive influence on how we think about and do computing in all kinds of ways today.
Well, it certainly seems to me that when we started the whole free software, open source movement, this is something I talked about in my keynote earlier in the week, the objective that we really had was to try and empower people. Part of this has to do with the fact that in the open source world, the licenses we’ve chosen to put our software under are licenses which ensure that every user has the potential of becoming a developer.
Being able to take a great deal of control over their own system, their own destiny, making things better, sharing the changes and improvements they make with their friends, and so forth. It’s certainly true that a lot of the mobile devices, phones and things, tablets and so forth that we’re using today are sold primarily on the basis of the shiny applications and the fact that they can be good communications and media player devices.
But most of them, particularly the ones that are based on an operating system that includes Linux and other open source technologies, are things that people can write applications for. They can do work on them. They can try to get into the innards of them. My big concern really is that, from an educational perspective and so forth, we seem less focused on this notion of people sort of being empowered to take control over their own devices and their own data and their own destiny than I would really like.
But I don’t really think that’s the fault of the device vendors and manufacturers, as much as sort of a general societal malaise about the extent to which we should take personal responsibility, interest, and want to be working ourselves on improving our own situation and that of everyone around us.
Tablets and Smartphones are made for information consumption or more?
Like most things in the modern world, the answer is complicated. The reason it’s complicated is that I see immense benefits for individuals and for society as a whole, around the existence of what we now sort of call social media. This notion that instead of always being a consumer that you can actually create and publish little bits and pieces of yourself in a way that you can share with your friends and family and sort of build that expanding social network.
That we can have, and some people have talked about the notion that this helps to democratize society. Because now, instead of a small number of people with opinions being listened to by the masses, the opinions are formed by sort of the nature of the mass communication.
That’s wonderful, and certainly I have watched people that I know and love dearly, who have had sort of transformative experiences building better interconnections with their friends and with the rest of the world. And having a much richer communications experience because of these things. The flip side, though, is that most of the social media sites that people think about today are run by commercial interests.
As a consequence, no matter how noble their intentions are, they are constrained to operate within the legal systems and expectations of the jurisdictions in which they operate. That means that if you put all of your life on a commercial social networking site, all of your photos, all of your stories, your videos and so forth, you really don’t have any way of being assured that those are still your data objects.
Other things might happen to them. Legal processes might cause things that you thought were private to be publicly exposed and so forth. I think as a consequence, this is one of the reasons I’ve been very involved in projects like The Freedom Box Project. Where we’re trying to help create devices that will help people to take more personal ownership and control of their data, and to in effect be able to build and maintain personal privacy in an Internet age.
Well, it’s one of my hobby obsessions is playing around with high-power model rockets, which is more common in the U.S. than a lot of other places. But actually, here in Australia, there’s a very active high-power rocketry community, and I’ve actually had the opportunity to participate in some launches here and hope to be able to do more of that in the future. But I think when I was a kid, I was very interesting in everything around me about how the world worked. So the sciences that I was interested in were sort of the harder, more physical sciences. I loved chemistry. I love physics. I love mechanical engineering. I’m a grandfather. I’ve been a machinist, and I’ve learned lots about sort of how mechanical systems work and how to think about the world. I also discovered at a very early age that I’m fundamentally a tool-making kind of person.
I like to be able to take the things that are in the world around me and to be able to fix them and improve them, and make new versions of the tools that help me do the things that I want to do. So that led me down a relatively, sort of hard science path. I’ve always been interested in space. I’ve been interested in space exploration, the technologies around space. Playing around with rockets is sort of related to that.
I’ve had the opportunity in the past to help design and build parts that went onto amateur radio satellites. I had the opportunity a decade or so ago, to participate in the launch campaign at the European Space Agency’s launch center in French Guiana, when we put an amateur radio satellite on top of a launch vehicle and put it into orbit.
I tell people there are soldered joints and lines of code of mine in orbit today, and that’s not something a lot of folks can say. But, again, that was all done as a volunteer. Those were hobby activities. They were not things I was being paid to do. Today, the problem is I’m interested in lots and lots of things. So it’s very hard for me to pin down a particular area.
I think what I’m most interested in now, is making sure that my kids and their friends, and the other folks that I interact with are exposed to sort of a rich set of scientific influences; so that they too are curious about and are interested in understanding how the world works, and taking a very realistic and pragmatic view when all kinds of questions come up. Where being educated about science and understanding how things work on some fundamental level can allow you to make a much more fundamentally better set of decisions for yourself and the rest of the world.
Make a wish!
I really hope that the trend that I think we’re on now of more and more openness in systems, software, in the access to data, in governmental processes, in sort of this notion that we are stronger as a world when we are all empowered to take control and to work on things, to hack on things, to feel empowered to collaborate together… If we can continue that trend, then I think the human race has a very positive future. I will have been tickled to have had a very small part in helping to make that happen.
History has been full of science fiction authors and things like that, painting sort of [inaudible 00:10:10] futures. I think we’re very possibly now on a path to proving all of those folks wrong, and to suggesting that maybe the human race really can get it right. A large part of that, I think, is this sort of notion that if we’re open and if we engage in collaborative processes that that makes the world a better place than when we’re all competing with each other and fighting all the time.