Software for the world we want

 Greg Bryant
 University of Oregon
 Updated February 14, 2017


People need the power and freedom to improve their communities and their lives, together. We want everyone, and every community, everywhere, to have this autonomy. That's the human priority. The development of any technology is a distant secondary priority. Technology should only survive when it genuinely helps people. It's somewhat irresponsible to consider it in isolation.

We'd like to explore a community-driven future, creating the right kinds of technological assistance, by launching a set of community experiments that involve new software. Our intention is to create products and services that are not just community-centric, but whose claims are continually verified by research, and supportive of it. We need to discover, together, what helps our lives. We'll do this by improving our own environment first. Here.

Members of the university community want an environment that encourages self-determination and positive, high-quality and high-minded collaboration. Our environment should support free inquiry, free association, and the creation of meaningful work. It should encourage people to improve and fulfill the potential of both the individual and the community.

We want an empowering, democratic, cooperative workplace, free of dogmatism and managerialism. For this environment, it's not appropriate for the university to simply have 'an incubator' or call ourselves an 'innovation campus' or sponsor 'entrepreneural initiatives'. Instead we want to find ways to move the campus community towards an enlivened, engaged, enlightened cooperative culture, where fertility and incubation are natural. A place where our ambitious attempts to do social good are living topics of research and discussion. A place where support for the growth of good projects is normal.

This should be a community of people who are continually experimenting, investigating, and improving, who can collectively support, and define, the university's public-interest mission. Our independent initiative should help to catalyze these qualities, by focussing on the community needs and the resulting good technology. The campus and the city will be our social start-up laboratory.

what is good technology?

We'll need to define it together. We know that it must support, and not dominate. And, at a minimum, good technology supports communities and individuals working together to create a just, equitable, locally robust, ecologically sound, urbane, diverse, exciting, and principled local and transnational culture. It does this with continual improvement of important qualities: good fit, naturalness, coherenence, clarity, simplicity, usability, explainability, comprehendability, etc. It's technology that helps us to make ourselves more whole. It works assiduously to reduce the harm that technology does, and which the organizations that produce technology can do.

Obviously, very little good tech yet exists, by this definition.

There's a great opportunity to fill this gap.

how can we build good software in a good way?

We'll need to build it together, within a real community, as a part of pursuing all the goals congruent with the principles mentioned above -- not in a sanctimonious way, but as fuel for moving freely away from industrial and established norms, as needed, towards something better. We will pursue cooperative organization and workplace democracy to a degree that is unusual in high tech because, again, the technology is secondary. We want to set new standards, in cooperation with those around the world who have the same goals.

where should we do this?

We need to develop good software in an increasingly humane environment. This needs to be a real place, addressing real needs.

We suggest that a public university campus might become the ideal place to develop good technology. People are already engaged with each other. Projects need to meet the mission of a public university, and effect it positively. It's a critical environment, in the positive sense, so projects need to be research-engaged, not full of the false claims pervasive in computing today. Projects need to be principled. They need to be in the community interest. They need to be produced in an environment of free inquiry and collaboration. They need to be focused, critical, and free from dogma. These are also the ideals, if not always the practice, of a public university. So good technology and good universities should be mutually reinforcing of their enlightened goals.

research-engaged computing (REC)

A university is the right place to develop something we'll call research-engaged computing (REC), products and services that are created and hosted on campus, which are deeply committed to discovering the right place for technology in society. This will be accomplished in the appropriate manner: a mix of rational theory improvement and evidence-based evaluation. It's alarming that the computing industry lacks a rational view of its effects, and we must set an example through an alternative approach.

Again, this engineering work must be done within community-organizing efforts here. Software should not dictate human interaction.

And, as a practical matter, any software project needs a real testing ground. University communities consist of real people with real needs. This, combined with a free-thinking environment, can help people drive new kinds of software into existence. We need to not be 'satisfied consumers', and make the software we need.


Many computer people have, for many decades, desired alternatives to Silicon Valley's egregious wealth-first incentive model of technological progress. Tectonic impact has emerged from this model, but rarely a positive impact. We want an overhaul, and a vast improvement, over the status quo. We want to put people first.

We'd like to create centers of computing culture that can counteract the negative activity facilitated by modern technologies, giving people the tools they need to make a world where human rights, mutual aid, ecological sensivity, self-actualization, and direct democracy are critically important.

Again, this work needs to be shaped by communities. Within such communities, a high-minded, visionary project can become grounded, and turn into a real local movement -- the very existence of the resulting organically-grown software can propagate good ideas, and move communities that otherwise would be stuck, repeating the mistakes of the past -- the mistakes of an establishment that destroys people's creativity and willpower, as well as their lives and their environment.

We need software grown to fit the future we want.

It will be influenced by the way we behave towards each other: respectfully, freely, democratically, cooperatively. We want a world that's sustainable, sensitive, helpful to the arts and sciences, to workers and consumers. We want technology that helps people to cooperate in a deeply democratic and thoughtful fashion, to take control of their lives and their communities from the grassroots. And clearly we want technology that helps us create alternatives to destructive, greedy, monopolistic, violent, and unenlightened political, economic, and technological systems that strangle the world.'s alternative is an experiment in 'community technology'.

Those community technology projects that are research-engaged do not directly compete with for-profit products and services, because modern tech companies cannot take make these public science commitments. Their research is about optimizing for profit, growth, clicks, ad revenue, addiction, etc. They cannot take the high road. Our community technology will be quite different.

ulterior motives

Lastly, this expansion of the mission of public universities can help them to survive. Service income is badly needed because of decades of anti-social trends in the United States, coupled with increasing inaccessibility to higher education. We're hoping to expand the campus economy, in a fashion that helps it to shift even further towards serving the public good.


The opportunities for the development of new applications are vast, because of decades of unaddressed needs. People need support for cooperation, collective organizing, community and and individual autonomy. For example, the rubric of wage-slavery -- jobs, hiring, employers, management -- should be on history's scrapheap. We need support for workplace democracy and institutions run and owned by all the workers, consumers, and communities. We need local small-scale sustainable manufacturing, local ecologically-sound power production, local and affordable organic agriculture. Almost every computing service could be reconsidered and recast in the light of adressing power structures and inequality, towards a more fair and economically robust model of society.

A universities there is a critical need for software that assists us in the elimination of management, administration, and entangling overhead -- in favor of community self-management. A university's mission is discovery and understanding, not bureaucracy.

Too much software is not designed to help people, or is built simply to deceive or attract people. We want to be free of unecessary stimuli and distractions, and nurturing of people's best capacities.

We can recast current approaches to software because it does not take an army of enslaved workers to write a piece of software, or to promote it. It takes bright, motivated people, dedicated and sensitive to their community.

It also must be remembered that computing is still an extremely young discipline. There are new applications to be discovered, old ones to be revived, and current ones that need to wither away. The computer industry has accomplished very little, as yet, from a humane perspective. But the potential for good technology exists, certainly.

To give the reader a sense of how immature software is, and the low-quality of modern complex technology: consider human-made products, and compare them to the incomprehensively more complex and robust systems we study in nature. We do not understand much about the latter, and we can only be inspired by those qualities we can perceive, because the gap is so great. We have many breakthroughs ahead of us before we can achieve such positive qualities.

Of course, these opportunities are hypothetical, and unproven. We'll need to make the appropriate space in the operation of the university to test these ideas. We call this 'space':

Our experiment in community computing has some requirements, and must also position itself relative to the university's operating concerns.


intellectual property

It is a project's choice to make public domain or proprietary IP. The university will not claim IP ownership for a FOSS or public domain project.

Personally, I'll work to keep IP in the public domain. This is a public university, and intellectual property is an idea with decidely mixed results. But a project could also propose an IP ownership structure -- again, when the university has made no direct investment in the project. The university would be part of initial terms at 10% ownership and 10% carried interest, in exchange for a waiver of any other rights.

conflict of interest

Let's try it today, and work out the details as we go.