Productivity Positive Constraints

This is part of a series of blog posts on positive constraints. You can read much more here.

Today’s post will be short, but show you three positive constraints that I guarantee will make you more productive at work.

No Desk for Creativity

This positive constraint works for anyone who spends far too much time in front of their computer. I constantly have to remind myself that spending hours on the computer does NOT equal productivity.

The environment we live in is constantly giving us emotional cues. Whether we listen to Bach or Megadeath, whether we can smell lavender or gasoline, whether we stand or sit at a desk will have an influence on our mood and thence the work we do.

I associate desks and computers with Work. That’s Work with a capital “W” because it’s stressful Work, Work that feels like Work: chasing emails, answering queries and junking spam. I needed somewhere I could escape.

But how? My default “relaxing” hobby was to flop down in my nice swivel chair and drag the mouse around the computer screen for an hour or so. I had to disrupt this mindless habit. So I built a No Desk desk, a desk that folds flat against the wall.

With a permanent unfolding desk, my computer was always out and the opportunity to work was always there. A folding desk gives me an alternative. Now, whenever I fancy a change of scenery or a break (and always at the end of the day), I clear the desk and fold it down.

Folded desk
Folded bliss! There’s my sofa on the right, ready for leg stretching creativity. Note also the plants: greenery is good for mind relaxation too.

The critical point is that I can’t work on a desk that isn’t there. The computer goes on a shelf and I can sit on my sofa and relax. That relaxed state is where we find day-dreaming, imagination and creativity.

It’s like an off-switch for my work-related stress and an on-switch for creative thinking. It has transformed my working day and I love it.

What you need: Two strong hinges from a hardware shop or online (mine were £26 for two), a flat piece of wood for the desk (mine’s varnished), a couple of wall batons and some screws (all recycled). The build took me about two hours. If you have a bigger house than me, then separate your working space from your relaxing space – and make sure you spend time in both!

No Phone against Distraction

When I’m working, I put my phone away into a drawer, with the ringers off. This is surprisingly simple, but devastatingly effective. The old adage “out of sight, out of mind” is no less true for being ancient.

After my experiment with No Phone, I am now acutely conscious every time I check my phone. I know that, when I leave my phone on my desk, I will check the thing. It doesn’t matter whether it’s gone off or not, I still check it, several times an hour.

These are called microchecks and they are toxic to our focus. Every time you look at your phone, you are distracting yourself from the task you were engaged in. Every time you distract yourself, it takes an average of 25 minutes to regain your focus. By which time, you’re checking your phone again…

Putting my phone into a drawer when I’m working is a really simple way to safeguard my focus.

What you need: A drawer, a bag or a different room.

No Computer for Writing

I often write using my Neo Alphasmart instead of my laptop. The Neo is a full size keyboard with a four line screen and a memory for hundreds of thousands of words. That’s all.

Neo 2015-09-28 001
The Neo. Indispensible.

There’s no internet connection to distract me. There’s no hunching over an eye-straining glowing screen. There’s no clunky weight to carry around or rest on my knees. There’s no power cable because there’s hardly any technology to power so the batteries (3xAA) last for years.

This is a great example of what I mean by minimum viable technology. I could use a pen and paper to write; that would certainly be less tech than even a glorified typewriter like the Neo. But I type much faster than I handwrite, so this glorified typewriter is a more viable technology for the task of writing than pen and paper. (For me.)

The Neo does the job of writing better than anything else. Even so, I still habitually turn to my laptop, with all its distractions and discomforts. I have to remind myself to leave the desk or the house, with the Neo in tow and rediscover writing purity, just me and the typing machine.

A computer can do a million things, but when combined with human distractability that’s a weakness, not a strength. The Neo does only one thing and that means more writing, less Tetris.

What you need: A Neo Alphasmart (~£50 second hand from the US), or any other more basic technology. Hats off to you if you can manage with just pen and paper.

So there you have it. Three dead simple positive constraints that you could get working with today.

If you’d like to be first to hear of the positive constraints book, please sign up to my mailing list here.

Minimum Viable Technology

This is part of a series of blog posts on positive constraints. You can read much more here.

Rather than an experiment, this blog post deals with the idea of Minimum Viable Technology, one of the most important basic concepts that governs the wider application of positive constraints. First, a little story to illustrate the principle.

I was in Boots the other morning, buying a Meal Deal for the train down to Bournemouth. I hadn’t had time for breakfast because I’d had to get up super early to appear on the Victoria Derbyshire show on BBC2. But that’s another story altogether.

Boots, if you hadn’t noticed, has self-service checkout machines. You know, the ones that constantly screech about an unidentified item in the bagging area. You know, the ones where you don’t have to talk to another human being. You know, the ones where you can leave your headphones on, stay on the phone and surreptitiously put down six avocados as a kilo of onions in Asda.

I never use them.

I queue up for an actual human interaction. Except there’s no queue because everyone’s too busy screening their phones, waiting in lines for the self-service checkout machines.

I walk up to the man behind the checkout and smile. He smiles. I say good morning, he says good morning. I hand over my Meal Deal merchandise and he says there’s an unidentified item in the bagging area. We laugh.

Then it comes to the bit where I have to pay Boots some money. I whip out my debit card and ask him if I can use this. He replies in the affirmative.

“Is it contactless?” he asks.

“No,” I reply. “Thank god. I never want one of those.”

“Why not?” he asks, preparing the machine to receive my contactless-less card. “They’re really handy!”

“Really?” I ask.

“Yeah! They’re so quick and easy – it takes like two seconds! Please, insert your card.”

I shove my card into the machine and wait for the invitation to enter my PIN.

“Isn’t this quick and easy enough?” I ask him. “I think there’s a certain level of technology that’s enough, you know. I don’t think we have to always make things quicker and easier. I can use this bit of plastic to pay for things without money. It takes about twenty seconds. Isn’t that quick and easy enough?”

The machine flashes that my transaction is complete.

“Yeah, I suppose.” He hands me my receipt. “I never thought about it like that.”

“And we wouldn’t have been able to have this little conversation. I like that twenty seconds!”

He laughs.

Minimum Viable Technology

Technology is there to solve the little problems of existence and support us in our lives. There’s a lot of amazing tech out there and it’s easy to get sucked into saying yes to every little advance, whether it’s needed or not.

Technology solves problems. That’s good. But when the problem is solved, I think we should stop there. Paying for something when I haven’t got any cash on me is a mild inconvenience, but my debit card solves it with little fuss. Saving a further twenty seconds at the checkout is simply not a problem that I have.

In fact, far from being a problem solved, shaving seconds from that interaction is actually a bad thing. Solving problems that aren’t problems will always have consequences. In this case, it alienates us a little further from the people who serve us our Meal Deals.

I’m far from being against all technology (he says, publishing this on the vast interconnected technologies of the internet), but I do think we should always use the minimum viable technology for a task. In other words, we should use the most basic tools that will still get the job well done.

Minimum Viable Technology: Benefits


The more basic the technology, generally speaking, the greater the skills you must learn and deploy.

For example, motorists who grew up in the 40s, 50s and 60s had to become semi-skilled mechanics in order to keep their cars on the road. Modern motorists have no such need. In fact, car manufacturers deliberately make their technology unhackable, so that you must go back to the approved dealer for expensive repairs.

The same is true of modern computers. You used to have to understand the fundamentals of programming to use a PC properly. Nowadays, user interfaces have evolved to the point where the internal workings of your computer are shrouded in mystery. When something goes wrong, the user is clueless and open to exploitation.

Of course, for many people, myself included, this ease of use is a good thing. But ease of use and incomprehending dependence are two completely different things.

Dependence is hierarchical and undemocratic, concentrating knowledge and power in the hands of the few. It reminds me of the worst excesses of medieval religion, where divine forgiveness was sold to the layman by a corrupt hierarchy of priests.

Hidden Benefits

Using the minimum viable technology for a task often has hidden benefits. For example, writing long hand on paper is important to cognitive development in children, helps you learn by combining visual, motor and brain processing, could make us more creative and stave off mental decline as we get older. Not bad for something that is so obviously “backward” in this screen-filled age.

These hidden benefits apply to almost every positive constraint that I’ve experimented with: No Hot Showers, No Mobile Phone, No Supermarket.

The Tool is not the Task

In our search for the most efficient technology, we forget that 99% of a task is not about the tools we use.

  • Cleaning yourself is not about power showers, hot water tanks or expensive shampoos; it’s about water and scrubbing. Jumping into a lake would do it.
  • Communication is not about 4G, wifi or GSM; it’s about talking to other human beings. Like the ones you see on the train every morning.
  • Grocery shopping isn’t about foil-packed for freshness, 138 different varieties of soup or self-service checkouts; it’s about building a strong and healthy relationship to your food and the people who supply that food. You find that at your local greengrocer, not in the aisles of a supermarket warehouse.

The Best Things in Life are Simple

Using the minimum viable technology reminds us that the best things in life are not complicated.

There is nothing that gives me greater pleasure than pulling on a pair of walking shoes (my minimum viable technology for travel without blisters), slinging a small backpack over my shoulder (MVT for basic food and camping gear), walking out into the sunset, sleeping the night on a hilltop in my bivvy bag (MVT for sleeping) and waking to the warming glow of the sunrise.

I don’t need much more than that. Anything else is a luxury and distracts from the task at hand: exploring the corners of the life I have been given.

Technology is there to support us when we need it, not to be taken for granted. When the support falls away – and it will one day – will you be able to stand on your own two feet?


When I arrived home from my trip to Bournemouth, there was a letter on the mat from my building society. Inside was a letter congratulating me on my arrival in the future, attached, my new contactless debit card.

If you’d like to be first to hear of the positive constraints book, please sign up to my mailing list here.

The 2014 Elevate Awards

This is the twenty-seventh in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!


The Elevate Awards shine a light on people and projects that cultivate a more sustainable, innovative and just planet. Goaded on by our host Herr Hermes and watched by the crowd in the Dom Im Berg and on Elevate’s live media channel, the award nominees have the chance to share their work. The winners also take home two thousand five hundred Euro in prize money to elevate their work to the next level.


There are three awards to be handed out tonight. The International Award is given to projects based outside Graz, the Artivism Award to artistic groups with a message, while the Steiermark Award is presented to projects from the local region of Styria.

The International Award garnered twenty-four nominations from across the world, from Latin America to South Africa, and on global issues ranging from the environment to human rights. Ksenia Ermoshina, the jury representative presenting the award, made special mention of the fourth placed nomination: the solidarity letter for the liberation of Josef S, a German student who was arrested for participating in an anti-fascist demonstration. “Everyone could be Josef S tomorrow,” she says. “As a Russian,” she adds, “human rights are being oppressed everywhere – and the western world is not an exception.”

The international jury came to unanimous decisions on the top two nominees for the award. Both were projects concerned with internet privacy. “Maybe we’re all paranoid on the jury,” Ksenia jokes, “but we do think that, for all of the twenty-four other projects, encryption, privacy and security are needed.” Second place went to, which provides secure communication for activists. “This platform helped me and my friends when we were fighting against Putin’s regime in Russia,” Ksenia says, “and helped a lot of people all over the world.”

But the winner of the 2014 Elevate International Award is Cryptocat, an encrypted internet chat application. “I think it’s a great choice,” Ksenia explains, “because their initiative is about making privacy accessible and easy for everyone – even if you don’t think you’re a radical activist.”


Nadim Kobeissi, the founder of Cryptocat, comes on stage to accept his gold painted statue and oversized cheque. “I’m sorry, I don’t speak German,” he says. “I think I know how to say, Ich liebe dich.” The audience laughs. “Am I supposed to say a few words?” he asks Ksenia. “Encrypted please,” she replies. Nadim laughs. “Do you all have your AES encryptors ready?” Bafflement creeps over the crowd. “I don’t know if anyone got that joke,” he adds. Then we laugh.

Nadim explains the ethos of Cryptocat. “I’ve never appreciated that some people took something and tried to make it more complicated instead of simpler,” he says, echoing the Van Jones quote from Let Fury Have The Hour. “There’s a lot of elitism in technology and that’s always bothered me,” he adds. Nadim started developing Cryptocat in college.

Nadim wasn’t even studying computer science, so relied heavily on the open source community. “They were the people who pointed out better ways to do encryption, security problems and ways to make Cryptocat more secure,” he says. Nadim feels this collaboration, community and mutual respect was and remains the most important aspect of the project. “If we deal with each other and the world honestly and transparently,” he says, “this is what ends up benefiting us and benefiting the public.”


Everywhere I look now, I’m seeing creative-response, no less in the code of Cryptocat than in the nominees for the Artivism Award: from a photographic exploration of the housing conditions for asylum seekers in Tirol to a theatrical extravaganza called Sorry, we’re fucked – YOU are the climate catastrophe!. The winners were decided by a public vote on Austrian national radio FM4, involving more than two thousand three hundred people.

That vote chose a group called Partycipation, who, through their camps and festivals in Lower Austria, encourage community and lively exchange on an intellectual and practical level. They bound on stage to give us a demonstration that involves a song about how “the fishes are going to love me more than you ever done” and a drawing of dancers with broken hearts skipping hand in hand across an ocean. Julian Leutgeb explains that Partycipation are trying to show how art can be meaningful and fun.


The Steiermark Award, organised in cooperation with the local Kleine Zeitung newspaper and regional broadcaster ORF Steiermark, attracted twenty-seven local projects. After the counting of over one thousand five hundred public votes, the winners were Kama Graz, an organisation that flips the usual educational experience of asylum seekers on its head.

Instead of forcing them to attend German classes and classes in Austrian law and culture, Kama Graz provides the opportunity for migrants to use their talents to become teachers. In Austria, as in the UK, asylum seekers are forbidden from working throughout the long years their case is considered by the authorities. Teaching these classes gives them an opportunity to use their skills and to participate in society. The classes are also the perfect setting for exchanges between asylum seekers and local residents in Graz, over an African cookery class or a lesson in martial arts. Creative-response begets creative-response.

Hermes throws in one last gag before closing Elevate 2014. “I’ve heard I’m booked until 2024,” he says, “so the festival will continue!” He bows low, the lights play over the applause, and Elevate is over.



As for me, after four days of discussions, deliberations and dancing, I am a stronger person than I was before. I am stronger because I know I am not alone in believing that a more commonistic, connected and creative world is possible. In fact, thanks to Elevate, I don’t have to only believe; that world is already here, waiting for me to join.

In a post-party human circle, thirty or forty of the organisers, producers, artists, activists, technicians and musicians who make Elevate elevate, raise shots of Zirbenschnaps to the only toast we’ll ever need:

“Ich liebe dich!”

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.


Elevate Awards Show 2014 from Elevate Festival on Vimeo.

The header image is a free cultural work under Creative Commons, author unknown. Thank you!

Reality is the Next Big Thing Debate: Can Capitalism and Democracy Co-Exist?

This is the twenty-second in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!


The fact that everybody at Elevate seems to be so bothered by the idea of another person using our data to make a profit, raises a question from the audience: Can capitalism and democracy co-exist?

According to Shoshana, actually, yes. “There are good arguments to be made that democracy emerged as a condition for capitalism to work,” she says. “Because the populations were required for industrial capitalism to be successful, over time, there was enough pressure on elites to give up some power.”

You could argue that democratic power was only gradually extended to all working age men as part of the deal to provide labour for capitalists after the industrial revolution – and that women were included only because they were needed to expand the workforce after the First World War.

“The rise of market-based capitalism and the rise of democracy have been very imbricated, very intermeshed,” Shoshana says. “There are very salient ways in which they depend upon one other.” This is why Google’s new business logic is such a threat to democracy.

Shoshana is somewhat optimistic about what this tells us about capitalism. “Capitalism has survived for many centuries,” she says, “not by being the same thing, but actually by always changing, by being very plastic.”

For the last five hundred years, our economic system has oscillated between embedded (“cooked”) and disembedded (“raw”) capitalism. In times when capitalism was “cooked”, Shoshana argues, it has been very productive for society, resulting in higher standards of living, better education and healthcare. But in times when capitalism is “raw”, such as early nineteenth century Britain, it has resulted in huge inequality, struggle and conflict.

According to Shoshana, capitalism has this flexible quality and, luckily for us, raw surveillance capitalism is only one market form that it could take. There are many other forms of capitalism that we can create and adapt for our society – including the commons. “I don’t think that we just give up on capitalism,” she says, “I think we take it and we make it what it has to be for us.”


Building Alternatives

One way of addressing the future of Dark Google would be to build alternatives to the technology of surveillance capitalism. “The problem,” Micah says, “is that the alternatives aren’t as good.” He finds DuckDuckGo, an alternative search engine, unsatisfactory for his needs, for example. “A third of the time, at least, I have to search Google instead,” he says. Personally, I’ve been using it since last year’s Elevate and have no complaints.

A search engine is one thing, but how can you build a new social network when you need, not just you, but all your friends to move from Facebook as well? Daniel suggests Diaspora, a dispersed social network that runs on personal servers. “Everyone could switch, invite all their friends and change,” he says, massively underestimating the technological capacity of most people on Facebook.

“This isn’t accessible to many people at all,” Micah argues. “And it’s hard to get out of this corporate dominance because these big companies are able to hire the best engineers in the world and pay them two hundred thousand dollars a year to make software that doesn’t crash.”

Daniel’s answer is to form technology solidarity networks with geeky friends, like CryptoParty. “I switched to Linux in 2006, but I had a friend to help me,” Daniel says. “Since then, I’ve learnt to love it.” It’s also important to remember that alternatives become better when more people use them and it’s not necessarily a case of either/or: there could be a transitional period where we use both Facebook and Diaspora; Windows and Linux.


But Felix is less optimistic. “I don’t think social change happens by adding small pieces into a pie,” he says. “We’re within a highly structured space that really constrains these things. The first hack is easy, the second hack is more difficult and it gets more and more difficult because it’s such a slanted space.”

In the early days of the internet, programmers deliberately designed protocols without a slant. Why, for example, can you change your email provider without losing your address book? Because that’s the way it was designed, without a slant; it is a network, but it is not a monopoly.

“You can’t do that with Facebook,” Felix says; it is also a network, but it is a monopoly that will not communicate with others. The Facebook protocol is slanted. “I’m sceptical about lobbying the government to do stuff,” he adds, “but this would be one thing to do: force these protocols so that different logics can interact.”

Micah isn’t so sure. “Even if Facebook made it easier to interoperate with other systems like Diaspora or email,” he says, “they could choose to do this, but they’re not actually being governed by a spec that we’ve collectively agreed on.” They would still be a company and their business model would still be surveillance capitalism; their assets would still be our data.

Micah is also critical of Ello, a new social network gaining traction from saying that their business model is not about tracking people. “But it’s also just a company,” he says. What they do in the future is their choice. “For this stuff to work,” Micah adds, “we need to agree on standards that make us all equal.”


Daniel wistfully describes how, in the EU, we discuss in excruciating detail the regulation of the light bulb, but do nothing about the technology that’s actually running our lives. “There is a lot of unreflective use of technology,” he says. For Shoshana, this is down to the modus operandi of the tech companies. “First they assert,” she says, “then they wait for push-back.”

Despite “hundreds and hundreds” of law suits against these companies, Shoshana wants much more from us. “So far there hasn’t been very much push-back,” she says. “They end up paying a small fine, which is pocket money or less, and so what they have institutionalised is what gets to stand,” she adds, sternly. “That’s why, when I talk about institutionalising, I’m not talking about just a building or a new kind of parliament; it’s a lot of more subtle stuff.”

Nevertheless, Shoshana is optimistic about the potential of capitalism to satisfy this need for institutionalising. “If enough of us decide that we’re fed up with the surveillance capitalism protocols of Facebook,” she explains, “that translates into economic demand and so there is, slowly constituting itself, a new kind of market place.” She gives the example of the 2013 launch of Qwant, a search engine that does not track users. “There are many other companies beginning to constitute themselves in this new space as a response to the crisis of surveillance capitalism,” she says. “That’s another way that capitalism works positively, to evolve in a way that is aligned with our interests.”


From the audience, Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation has what sounds like a wildly optimistic proposal. “We had unions, we had consumer organisations,” he says, of twentieth century capitalism cookery. “How is the Facebook user union doing? Is there any sense in expecting some kind of organisation of the users of these platforms?” I look up to see if he’s joking; he’s not. “Maybe we should be fighting within because not many people are going out,” he adds. “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!” Shoshana replies. “These are creative examples of new kinds of institutionalising!”

Micah is also optimistic about the direction in which programmers are taking encryption, a vital tool to combat the seizure of your data as surveillance assets. After the Snowden revelations, software developers realised that usability is an important security feature. “Now there’s all these projects to make encryption usable by everyone,” Micah says. “This is where things are shifting,” he adds. “It’s not in trying to get governments to change policies, it’s in trying to fix the broken holes in the internet.”

These holes are being steadily filled by programmers; you can take Facebook chat “off the record” with apps like Pidgin or Adium, for example. “We’re at the very beginning of this,” Micah says, “but it’s going in a good direction right now.”

So perhaps there is room for optimism; perhaps alternatives are on their way – Ello, Qwant, Loomio, CryptoParty, Pidgin, Adium, FreedomBox, Diaspora, Cryptocat. After all, as Elf Pavlik, a computer programmer who has lived without money or passport for five years, says, “A falling tree makes more noise than a growing forest.” Perhaps all we need is to support each other in making the right choices, conscious of the direction in which surveillance capitalism is taking us and determined to change course.

“I would like to end this session with a quote from another time when revolutions were going on,” Daniel says. “I would just modify it slightly,” he adds, with a smile. “Be realistic; demand the possible.”

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.


Reality is the Next Big Thing >> Elevate Festival 2014 from Elevate Festival on Vimeo.

Header image © Lia Rädler

Fair and Open IT

This is the sixteenth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!


IT: Systematic Exploitation

The IT industry is founded on systematic exploitation, from the mining of raw materials right through to the way we dispose of our old technology. Why is the industry so exploitative? The usual hoary reason: profit. Companies don’t pay sufficient attention to the ethical consequences of their entire supply chain or the life cycle of their products because that would be too costly.

Regina Joschika is a consultant for Clean-IT, who campaign for fair working conditions in the global computer industry. She outlines the three key features of this exploitative system. First is the demand for fast and inexpensive technology. The lifespan of a computer is much shorter in 2014 than it was in the 1990s. Back then, according to Regina, you would expect to keep your PC for seven years. Now she says that the average life cycle of a computer is just two years; we are now living in a culture of regular technology upgrades. These regular upgrades deliver rapidly decreasing improvements in technology for the user, but the IT industry relies upon them for their annual profits.

This shortened lifespan is a concern because the amount of raw materials required to produce a computer is truly shocking. According to research by the United Nations University, it takes 240 kilograms of fossil fuels, 22 kilograms of chemicals and 1,500 kilograms of water to make one desktop PC. Furthermore, countries in the global south are richest in these resources, but they are not the ones overwhelmingly profiting from their exploitation.

The second key feature of the IT industry’s exploitative system is the complexity of its supply chains. Unlike chocolate or clothes, IT products are made up of many tiny items. In a computer, hundreds of companies will contribute to the supply chain for a product that is eventually labelled “Apple” or “Dell”. Most IT companies simply don’t know the set up of their entire supply chain because it is so complex. This means that they can’t control environmental abuses and worker exploitation.

At the start of the supply chain, the extraction of raw materials for the electronics industry is highly dangerous. The mining workforce is often not well-informed and not protected, leading to many deaths from exposure to toxicity or from mine collapses. In some countries, children work in the mines. During the next stage in the supply chain, work in electronics factories is often inhumane. Workers are forced by low wages, the threat of lay-offs or worse to work unpaid overtime or overnight. In many countries where these IT products are built there are no trade unions or union activity is restricted. The majority of workers don’t know their rights. Work in the computer industry is also dangerous. During soldering, for example, toxic chemicals are released which can burn skin.

Finally, we come to the third key feature of the IT industry’s exploitative system: disposal. An estimated fifty million tonnes of e-waste is generated every year. Two thirds of this is not disposed of correctly or recycled – computers are full of valuable input material that could be reused. Most of this waste is toxic, with tragic consequences for the environment and the communities on whom it is dumped, often in the global south, where there is not the expertise to handle it properly, leaving children to exploit the dumps for things to sell.


Regina ends by demanding that we pay more attention to human rights: they must prevail over profitability. In 2012, Apple were forced to join the Fair Labor Association after a public relations disaster in the wake of a New York Times article concerning labour violations in China, but abuses in their factories persist. In July, China Labor Watch accused one of Samsung’s suppliers of using child labour. We must do more.

We can increase pressure on these companies through raising awareness (Just by reading this – well done!) and by using our purchasing power to force change. We can start by using the work of Electronics Watch, the world’s first independent monitoring organisation for labour rights in the electronics industry. We, as citizens, must begin to take responsibility when buying our computers, smartphones and other technological miracles. Starting, perhaps, with the fair mouse.

Fairness and Open Supply Chains

In 2009, Susanne Jordan and Nager IT took on the challenge of developing the first fair IT device on the market. “I have been unable to find alternatives,” she says. “So I did it myself.” Her aim was to offer critical “consumers” an alternative. “At the moment, we either buy nothing or we buy what is available.” Nager IT’s first product is the fair computer mouse. “A mouse is not a hip product,” she says, “but it’s quite a simple product, so I thought I could be able to create a fair mouse.”


There are only about twenty little components in a computer mouse, so why did the development take three years? Susanne demonstrates by showing us a diagram of the supply chain. It is huge, spreading from wire manufacturers, right down to the mines that take the metals out of the ground. Each element of the supply chain is labelled in green or red depending on whether the working conditions are acceptable or not; it’s about half and half at the moment. All the raw materials are labelled red, unfair, except the copper, which was recycled in Germany. “The reality is we still have to use unfair components for our mouse,” Susanne says.

Susanne illustrates the complexity of the process by telling us the story of her mouse cable, which was made in China. She personally went on a tour of the factory and found that the entire cable was not made there, only the processes that could be automated. The rest of the production was actually carried out by hand in the countryside, where the wages were so low as to be cheaper than automation. “It took us three weeks to find this information,” Susanne says. “And, once we find unfair suppliers, we have to find new ones.”

It’s a constant battle and Nager IT are one of only a very few technology companies who are interested in learning about their supply chain. “Transparency and openness is of the essence,” Susanne says. “If other companies did similarly, then we could share information.” Instead, she has to visit every supplier in person, with no guarantee that she’ll be able to find a fair supplier at all. It’s a massive amount of work, even for something as technologically simple as a computer mouse.

Furthermore, as a small business, Nager IT do not have the influence on suppliers that Apple or Dell would do. “If I go to a supplier and ask for fifty grammes of tin, then I have no power,” Susanne says. Nager IT cannot change the entire industry on their own, but they can wave a red flag. “We want industry to notice us,” Susanne says, “see their sales fall and encourage them to make their mice fairer.” Nager IT have only sold 4,500 mice so far, a number that will not make the slightest impression on the sales figures of the mouse giants (I like that image). “But still we try to convince businesses that fairness is a purchasing criterion,” Susanne says.

The Power Relations of Openness

The openness of Nager IT’s supply chain encourages fairness. If we could see clearly how unfair a company’s products were, perhaps that would discourage us from buying them. The closed supply chains of most IT companies keep abuses hidden, even from the companies themselves. But openness can also be a bad thing when it is not fairly distributed.

At the moment, we are subject to the Customer Relationship Management of big businesses like Amazon. There are huge databases full of personal information that we have given away: our home address, our credit card details, our shipping preferences, our purchase history and so on. We have been incredibly open with this data, but Amazon themselves are not reciprocating with open supply chains or open accounting systems. This doesn’t seem to be a fair balance of power.

Markus Sabadello, of the FreedomBox project, wants to flip the relationship that we currently have with businesses like Amazon. He wants Vendor Relationship Management. Instead of Amazon, eBay, Google or Apple storing your personal information, you would store it for yourself in your own personal data vault on a FreedomBox at home. You, the customer, would then decide who would be allowed access to that information on a temporary basis. Open Notice in the UK are currently working on one element of this: a “consent receipt”, which would allow access to your data on terms that you set.


In the same way, the FreedomBox could also hold your social data. At the moment, we have a very centralised web architecture: Facebook holds your identity, not you. The influence of Facebook-as-ID is spreading through the “Login with Facebook” system used on many websites. Again, our openness with our personal data is not being reciprocated by this for profit company. A FreedomBox could be a way of allowing us to take back some of the power of our data. “It’s not about disconnecting from the network,” Markus says, “it’s about owning part of the infrastructure.”

Openness is a Business Model

This idea of taking back control is the same impulse that drives the open source hardware movement. Open source hardware is hardware whose designs are made publicly available for people to study, modify and use to build and sell products. It’s about empowering people with knowledge, rather than becoming dependent on the jealously guarded, patent-protected knowledge of closed corporations.

Tsvetan Usunov runs Olimex, a hardware company based in Bulgaria. They have made over six hundred products, of which about half have an open source hardware licence. “Where we can open the products, we do,” he says. Why on earth would he do that? Because, as Tsvetan says, open source hardware is important for communities, for customers – and for his business.


Open source hardware is important for communities because it allows people to understand how things work and to learn how to modify and make their own products. This is also why open source hardware is good for customers: it gives them independence from the manufacturers. Even if Olimex decide to stop producing a certain product, this will not hurt the customer because they can always take the open design and make the product themselves or hire someone else to make it for them. Everything is under the customer’s control and this helps to secure their business. Furthermore, if they don’t like how something is made, or where something is made, they can change it.

All these things are nice, community-orientated reasons for openness, but where’s the business benefit? For Tsvetan, building open source is actually a crucial element of his business model. “You have not just customers,” Tsvetan says, “but collaborators.” A Chinese competitor, inspired by Olimex, opened their designs as well. This is an extraordinary development; it is more common to hear of “protected” designs being stolen by Chinese companies and made more cheaply. Thanks to the principles of open source hardware, Olimex and this Chinese firm are no longer competitors, but collaborators. They will both benefit from the research, design and manufacturing they share. This reduces costs to both parties and, as Tsvetan says, “We both learn and build better products.”

Jan Suhr, one of the developers behind CryptoStick, tells us that open source is critically (and perhaps surprisingly) important for IT security products and software, to the extent that you should not trust any security product that is not open source. CryptoStick is an open source USB device designed to store encryption keys securely, so that people can send encrypted emails even when they are on an untrusted computer. The open source nature of the product means that its security is independently verifiable by anyone. It means that you can yourself guarantee there are no NSA “back doors” or security flaws. Its openness is the very guarantee of its security.


Fairness and Openness Together?

“The conclusion is that they’re not together yet,” Michel Bauwens says. “There are people who talk about openness, but not fairness; and people who talk about fairness, but not openness.”

For Michel, part of the problem is the conflict between labour and liberals, represented by the “open” and “free” movements. “Liberals only look at formal rights,” he says, “not the real conditions where those rights could be exercised.” He gives the example of Linux, which is distributed under a General Public licence (GPL), allowing full use of the commons to anyone. Unfortunately, this licence means that the Linux economy is almost entirely dominated by those with the resources to capitalise: seventy-five percent of the Linux economy is swallowed up by big companies like IBM and Redhat. This leads Michel to ask the question: “Can we have openness and at the same time a more equal economy?”

Michel’s proposal is both controversial and a bit complicated. The complication arises from an apparent contradiction: “The more commonistic the licence,” he says, “the more capitalistic the practice.” As we have seen, the result of the entirely commons-based GPL is domination by big corporations. The same, Michel says, is true of open hardware, where designs are appropriated and made cheaply for private profit in China (Tsvetan’s experience notwithstanding).


Michel’s solution to this problem is the commons-based reciprocity licence. This licence is the same as the GPL, but with one crucial change to the rules: for profit businesses using the commons must pay a licence fee. This proposal is controversial because some people in the commons movement see anything that is not one hundred percent open to be a retrograde step. But Michel anticipates a double benefit from this change.

Firstly, it will create a stream of income to the commons itself, from the side of capital to the side of commons. Secondly, it will integrate externalities. Externalities are not normally considered in business, unless managed through government regulation. However, Michel argues that effective regulation “is endangered because the state is being captured by those it’s supposed to control”.

Michel sees this commons-based reciprocity licence as a social charter, protected by a global foundation that we must yet build. “Every project today,” he says, “is starting from scratch. If we had a coalition, we’d have scale, we’d have pre-existing solidarity.” This is Michel’s link between openness and fairness: “If we had a licence,” he says, “we could have open book accounting and open supply chains.” This transparency, Michel believes, leads to fairness, or at least the possibility of fairness, as we have seen with Nager IT and the fair-as-can-be mouse.

Michel’s example is Curto Cafe, a Brazilian coffee company who operate open book accounting and an open supply chain, showing exactly who produces the coffee, under what working conditions and also exactly who gets paid what. They also have open research and the designs of the blends of coffee are posted online. Their retail expansion is crowd-funded, under a similar model used by Kleine Farm, by asking the local community to fund their rent. This transparency and community accountability ensures that Curto Cafe run their business in the fairest possible way.

Michel believes that, if we want a fairer society, we will ultimately have to create an open and commons-based counter-economy. Part of that counter-economy will be the development of an alternative currency. Together with the CIC in Catalonia, Michel is buying up a fairly-distributed crypto-currency, Faircoin.

Unlike Bitcoin, Faircoin doesn’t encourage rent extraction: stockpiling coins in order to profit from rising currency value. “This is not positive from a commons point of view,” Michel says of Bitcoin. “But what if you could use rent extraction and give it away to entrepreneurs?” CIC and Michel want to use Faircoin as a capital investment collective, to create a flow of value from the capitalist economy to the commons-orientated economy.

There are many problems obstructing fairness and openness, not just in IT, but in our entire social and economic structure. The challenge is, as Michel says, “to design a system in which these problems are already answered and solved from the very beginning”. From environmental impact research and open supply chains to open source hardware and alternative currencies, we have perhaps seen a glimpse today of that beginning.

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.


Fair & Open IT >> Elevate Festival 2014 from Elevate Festival on Vimeo.

Header image © Jakob Isselstein