Monthly Archives: October 2006

What Bikeshed?

Mark Shuttleworth’s recent post on the new gaudy desktop prettiness of Ubuntu has received a good deal of interest and discussion (more than 130 comments and counting).

Pretty much all of that discussion was summed up in one of those comments:

# Murray Cumming Says:
October 25th, 2006 at 7:31 pm

The bikeshed is brown.

The bikeshed in question is this one, and the idea behind it has proven to be one of the most powerful ways of explaining why so much energy is spent on inconsequential nitpicking in F/OSS projects. Especially when it comes to artwork and usability.

Why we have anthropologists

Native speakers can rarely explain the grammatical rules of their own language. In the same way, those who are most ‘fluent’ in the rituals, customs and traditions of a particular culture generally lack the detachment necessary to explain the ‘grammar’ of these practices in an intelligible manner. This is why we have anthropologists.

Kate Fox

I came across this quote in a little book by British popular anthropologist Kate Fox, and though it is a simplistic statement, I kind of like the way it presents anthropologists – it does makes us sound very important, doesn’t it?

Meanwhile, in my field of study, all of the computer people I interview prove to be very reflective and often discuss community structure and governance issues with a fair bit of detachment. So I often end up discussing these topics with them on equal terms. I wonder whether I can still call it anthropology… 🙂

I’m in Oslo this week, interviewing another couple of Ubuntu hackers, and learning even more about how it is to participate in Free Software development. I’m getting to the point where I have so much data that I’m really looking forward to beginning the thesis writing proper and see what sense I can make of all of this.

Design work

Some time ago, Anne Galloway posted an excerpt from a talk by designer and HCI theorist Brenda Laurel on her concept of culture work which caught my interest.

Laurel’s main concern is design which focuses on the bottomline, the way that most of the products we buy are designing with buying and consumption in mind, not necessarily use. She suggests Culture Work as the means for designers to inject their own positive values into the capitalist and consumerist products they design:

Here’s what I want to say. Consumerism demeans us. Nobody wants to be a consumer. The power relationship implied by the term should be unacceptable to everyone, if they were able to understand it. I picture a “consumer” as something like a giant slug, a simple tube through which stuff passes from retail to landfill.


In the 18th century, 80% of the populace read Common Sense by Thomas Paine. Today, we do a better job of teaching kids to be consumers than citizens. And so there are fewer and fewer young people who believe that their votes can make any difference the gross malfunctioning of our government the underlying dismemberment of our Constitution. Many, like I, are ashamed of the dim, corroded lamp we lift as we hold up our way of life to the rest of the world.


I propose that each of us actively redefine the success criteria for business to include the cultural and material costs and benefits of the product, as well as what we currently think of as “the bottom line.” I’m suggesting that we find ways to help both kids and adults have access to this material and the means to understand it. I want every person in this country to know the unauthorized biography of every single thing they buy.

At its best, commerce can be sustainable, if it is based upon the free and fair exchange of value with respect and common sense. By contrast, consumerism consists in the creation and fulfillment of desire, regardless of the actual value of the product to the individual or to society. And who decides what value is and which values are to be put forward in the design of experiences and things? Designers do. We do.


Design gives voice to values. Design suggests what is useful or beautiful or pleasurable or good or true. The affordances of a design suggest desirable actions. A design that has not engaged the designer’s values may speak, but with a hollow voice. We know the rules of good design. But it often comes as a delightful revelation to young designers that brilliant design not only permits but requires the designer’s personal voice.

And so we arrive at the happy confluence of responsibility and power. We are only the victims and servants of business as usual if we choose to be. This work of transformation – which I have come to think of as “culture work” – must be approached mindfully and with great conviction and effort. The strategy of culture work is not straight-ahead revolution; rather it is to inject new genetic material into the culture without activating its immune system. By intervening in the present, we are designing the future.

One of the central elements of the STS academic discipline is exactly focusing on the implicit values which designers and engineers infuse in their products, and now one of the designers themselves cry out to use this in a positive, ethically viable way.

Internet theorist Geert Lovink comments on this in the following way in his review of Laurel’s book on the topic:

Fair enough. She wants to get rid of the “great machine of consumerism,” a strategic cause many share. However, this goal hasn’t made much progress over the last twenty odd years — and Laurel will be the first to admit this. Laurel says: read my advice and keep on trying. I would counter this “will to action” and instead call for a break. It is time to stop and take time to go through some fundamental questions. For instance, I would like to call into question the implicit equation between utopian entrepreneurism and the very specific techno-libertarian agenda of the venture capital class.


As soon as you start to reflect on the inner dynamics of Silicon Valley, you seem to be out. Instead of calling for the development of a rich set of conceptual tools for those working ‘inside,’ Laurel reproduces the classic dichotomy: either you’re in (and play the capitalist game), or you’re out (become an academic/artist/activist, complain and criticize as much as you can). There is no sense here of a possible support line of an ‘organic’ virtual intelligentsia (in the Gramscian sense) which could cross borders between in and outside. The implicit anti-intellectualism is widespread amongst Californian New Age- infected fifty somethings. The mutual resentment between those involved in technology and business and the ivory tower humanities on the other hand seems higher then ever.

Lovink argues that the ethically positive, reflective stance of designers and researchers and the ‘anything goes’ attitude of those wanting to create instant fortunes in places such as Silicon Valley cannot be aligned at all. Maybe this is part of the reason why veterans from failed Silicon Valley start-ups are so reluctant to talk with researchers about why their venture failed.

Basically, Lovink denies the possibility of doing culture work within a clear capitalistic context in that it would require cooperation between people who deeply distrust one another. How can anti-consumerist products be designed without capital? How can anti-consumerist product ever make any money?

Indeed, this leads onto the whole question of the ethics of creating and designing new technology and Anne Galloway has found another excellent quote on this issue in her dissection of the Engineering Ethics Curriculum at Texas A&M:

Technology makes such a profound impact on a culture that there is always a question whether a particular technological artifact should be created at all. Some technological innovations have clearly been more destructive than constructive…The question about the ultimate value of a technological innovation is often difficult to answer, but it is one which an ethically sophisticated designer should consider…

She suggests that it would be relevant to have a sort of Engineering or Design code of ethics – maybe even something like a hippocratic oath? – for makers of new technology to swear to. This won’t solve the problem above between capitalist interests and ethical concerns, but it will offer some guidelines which may relate to.

Meanwhile, Geert Lovink argues that if you really want to do ethically viable design you need to get off the capitalist bandwagon all together and refers to the utopian Oekonux project which seeks to take the ideas of Free Software and use them in a wider economic and societal context. Which is curious, considering that all of the Free Software projects I’ve encountered all work with or to some extent receive sponsorship or goodwill from various IT-companies who want to use or provide support for the Free Software they produce.

Most are concerned with corporate entities taking over the direction of their projects as it has happened with Novell taking over some GNOME projects, and they may not like being dependent on corporate money but most are pragmatic enough to accept it for now. Maybe more of those ethically conscious designers should try a similar approach..?

Installing Ubuntu 6.10

So with the release of the new version of Ubuntu, 6.10 (6 for 2006, 10 for October) I decided that rather than merely upgrading my system from 6.06 to 6.10, I would wipe clean my hard disk, wipe all my desktop settings and try to start afresh to see how long it would take me to get a clean, default install into a position where I’m happy with it.

One of the main reason for starting afresh was to separate my personal files onto another partition so that I easily could reinstall the system another time without risking all of my settings which I find to be such a sane idea that it might be considered for the default.

It worked very well. All I had to do was to create a third partition after the standard 2 (root and swap) and choose that as home in the installer. Easy.

So the installation went without a hitch, until I tried restarting the system without the CD-ROM in the drive and got the dreaded “Hard disk boot sector invalid” error. The system worked fine booting from the CD-ROM and I could then figure out how to reinstall GRUB and make the root partition bootable.

Then I could go on to adding all the extra software I use which isn’t in the default installation, and it for the most part worked really well, partly because I knew exactly which obscure names the applications I wanted were hiding behind, partly because the GNOME application installer just works really well. In general, Ubuntu is reaching the point where it is not just the best Free Software desktop out there, but the best desktop period. Much kudos to the hard working developers – especially those who managed to fulfill their hard work despite of my anthropological nagging and random visits. 🙂

The only issues (apart from the rather unfortunate boot sector debacle) arose when it came to the multimedia bits. With all the licensing issues surrounding the various formats, you’ll need to through a few hoops (and a lot of packages) to get all of it working. It will be nice have some centralized way to do multimedia codec installation in Ubuntu. Though installation of the installation of the kind of proprietary software that is fundamental for Internet use has become a lot easier by making most it available through the GNOME application installer, I really hope that we can make it even easier to make ready by creating a meta-package for it.

All in all, it took me a couple of hours to bring the system into a state where I felt that it was *my* desktop. Another few hours if you include the backing up and the downloading and burning of the CD-ROM. Not bad, but there’s room for plenty of more polish.

Note that all of this is in the “nice to have” category, and that it is the sort of thing that won’t bring developers out left and right to remedy this. But it is the kind of polish that will give people that positive surprise that will make them fall in love with their system. It’s the kind of saying “oh, we know you’d most likely want this as well. So we made it easy for you to get working” that evokes trust in the user. She will think “If they’ve thought about this as well, they must really have spent a lot of time making sure everything is works well.

Designer Emeritus Don Norman has written a wonderful little book on “Emotional Design” which sums up how this emotional relationship between the user and the used object (in this case an operating system) is created. Among other things, he asked people he met about their favourite things and their most positive experiences with technology. One answered:

I still tell people about my experience, years ago, at the Austin Four Seasons Hotel. I checked into my room to find a TV-Guide on the bed, with a bookmark placed on the current date.

Which exactly sums up the kind of positive surprise that good design should deliver. The kind of forethought that makes it a joy to use. For me, when installing Ubuntu 6.10, the surprise came when I saw the new default wallpaper:


There has been a lot of discussion about the new Ubuntu artwork, and the SABDFL has been working hard to impose his vision of a glitzy, saturated look. But this is actually pinkish. And too bright as well. What happened to the proper brown? Hoping for alternatives, a simple right click on the desktop brought up this wonder of chocolate loveliness:

Choc love

And I felt that positive surprise: “Ah! They thought about that after all.” To whoever did that wallpaper: Thank you! I’ll buy you a beer next time I meet you. It is almost edible in its chocolate love!

And that’s the conclusion of Norman’s book as well: Good design not only fits the user’s needs, it also enables the user to make the technology their own, to customize it to their own needs. As Norman quotes Harrison and Dourish:

A space can only be made into a place by its occupants. The best that the designer can do is put the tools into their hands.

This is especially true with computer programs where everything is potentially customizable, and the machine itself has so little emotional value attached to it to begin with. One recent example of appropriating this new space and turning into something personal was on Planet KDE, the aggregated communal blog for the KDE desktop project where a developer wrote about receiving and customizing her new laptop.

There even seems to be a whole F/OSS subculture focused on making the desktop look nice and glittery with all of the latest eye candy, sharing screenshots of their desktops, where people have a place to utter the essential words of Emotional Design: “I want this.”

Ubuntu governance discussions

It didn’t take long for my specification on community governance best practices to be superseded by an avalanche of community and governance-related topics that are already approved for the upcoming Ubuntu Summit. Clearly, it is something the governing bodies have been meaning to put on the agenda for some time. And basically, it looks like these topics will open up for a thorough evaluation and possibly a complete reworking of the growing community structures. It will be very interesting to see how these discussions pan out:

2006 Community Council Nominations

2006 Technical Board Nominations

Ubuntu Membership Management

New Developer Approval Process

MOTU (Universe Maintainer) Organization

Developer-only mailing list

Ubuntu Forums governance

Ubuntu Local Community Team Organization

Coordinating Local Community Teams with regards to Countries and Translations

Opening up for so many discussions at once would be unthinkable in most other F/OSS projects, but there is such a professional energy and direction within Ubuntu that this kind of massive reworking does seem feasible. As one of my informants (that’s anthropological slang for persons whom I’ve interviewed in relation with my fieldwork) said, “I don’t know if there is a ‘usually’ in anything we do yet.”

Maybe this will turn out to be an occasion to set down such traditions and practices.

Going to San Francisco!

After some deliberation, I decided to blow all of my remaining grant money plus a little extra to buy a ticket to the Ubuntu Developers’ Summit at the Google HQ in early November.

This is quite a big step, since I only just came back from three weeks of fieldwork in Ireland, England and Scotland and I will barely have time to reorganise my notes and get everything settled before I jet off again. Going to the summit will also mark the end of my fieldwork in the Ubuntu community, and when I get back from the US, it will time to enter a state of intense thesis-writing.

For the Ubuntu Summit in Paris, I had added a couple of specifications on my own proposed research which didn’t really attract that much attention. This time, I’ve tried to write specifications on some of the issues I’ve come across in my time in the Ubuntu community, so as to be a bit more constructive. I’ve written a couple which I would love to get some feedback on:

Improving the participate page and team pages

Scaling the community governance

Documentation reorganization for topic-based help

.. I actually had a few others, including an idea for an Ubuntu usability team to coordinate between the KDE and GNOME usability upstreams and the Ubuntu and Kubuntu desktop teams and all of the various usability wishlist bugs that come in. I don’t know how useful such a team actually would be, but it does seem that there is a gap there at the moment.

Oh, and finally. Coming to San Francisco and Mountainview, I have no idea where I can stay for the summit. Any locals who would care to give me some hints? 🙂

Travelling in pins

Badges: KDE, Foyle's, Leonardo di Vinci

I’ve bought or were given several pins during my tour of the British Isles.

I got the KDE pin at the aKademy, and it sums up the atmosphere at the conference quite well: Even the man sitting at the counter in the hostel got free Kubuntu CDs to showcase KDE, that passion and outgoing interest in spreading that passion is infectious.

I left Dublin and the aKademy conference at the end of September to go to London where I stayed with my friend Bryan who I met during my semester in Manchester last year. He has since finished his Ph.D in Mathematics, moved to London and got a job as an investment banker. He still hasn’t gotten used to being elevated to the higher echelons of the capitalist system, and it was very interesting to hear stories from a world of which I know almost nothing.

One of the smaller benefits of that kind of job is all the extra free stuff the bankers get. They can just go down to the reception and get free tickets to most of the major art exhibitions in town, and when I came by, Bryan had gotten tickets for the exhibition of Leonardo di Vinci’s notebooks at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

The exhibition was tiny, with no more than around 15 pages on display. All of them written in Leonardo’s trademark mirror handwriting which when you saw it on the page looked so tiny. He must have had really good eyesight. I got the “Genius” pin there, though I don’t feel brilliant enough to wear it. Maybe I can pass it off to one of my informants.

Later, after a two-day excursion to Cambridge in the middle of last week, I went to Foyle’s bookshop on Charing Cross Road and lured myself into buying several books which I am now obliged to lug around for the rest of my trip. The friendly shopkeeper gave me a little “Independent Thinker” pin to go with it. And who wouldn’t like to mark themselves as such?

KDE signatures

One of the frustrations with being on the road doing my fieldwork is that I can’t be on-line often enough to keep a solid presence in the Ubuntu community or even on my blog.

The birthday consumption of my bottle of Danish herb snaps on my last night at the aKademy
resulted in seven KDE contributors signing a pound coin with hopes of creating a cult item to be auctioned on e-bay:

Signed pound coin detail

Since there wasn’t a whole lot of room for signatures on such a pound coin, we added a Certificate of Authenticity to go with it:

Certificate of Authenticity

For those not in the know, the wantonness is a KDE in-joke, and the signatures belong to

Adriaan de Groot, KDE Quality Czar
Allen Sandfeld Jensen, KHTML Wiz
Ellen Reitmayr, affectionately known as ‘Usability-Ellen’.
Dirk Müller, one of the old Konquerors.
Florian Grässle, Master of usability and snaps-swigging both.. 😉
Robert Knight, young champion of the Konsole.
Tobias Klein, KDE PIMpster extraordinaire.

Now, I don’t actually like e-bay very much, nor do I have a usable account there, so there’s no auction yet before I get back to Denmark and have better time for arranging it. But I can say as much as that all the proceeds will go directly to furthering the cause of KDE. 🙂