Freedom & Limits: The ASUS C201 with libreboot and Parabola Linux

Unfree BIOS Software

Surfing the web one day, I came across a mention of libreboot, a free software replacement for BIOS firmware used to load and run operating systems that’s been around since December 12, 2013. For many years, the only system you could buy with a free BIOS that could run free software was the Lemote Yeelong. Prior to that, every system ran nonfree BIOS system to initialize the computer prior to starting the operating system.

Unfree Software Everywhere

Unfree BIOS software is not a unique problem. Most elements of a computer are run using software that’s secret. For instance, none of the modems that are responsible for cell phone network communications run on free software. No one knows exactly what it does, except, perhaps, the people that created it.

Same is true of wifi. There are also only two wifi chips with free software drivers. The rest require blobs. Blobs are black boxes. You can know what goes in. You can know what comes out. But, you’re not entirely sure what happens in the middle.

Controller firmware, CPU microcode, graphic acceleration and many other elements of a modern computer system are almost always proprietary. Unfree software is the norm.

Free Software: Who Cares?

If it is a norm, why should anyone care about free software? People in the free software world often talk about free as in beer, i.e., it does not cost anything, opposed to free as in freedom, which enables people to do things they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do.

One example is a car. All modern cars have a series of electronic systems that control every facet of the car’s operation. When those electronic control systems are proprietary, it can mean that owners of the car can be compelled to see an auto mechanic rather than repair the car themselves. Or worse, a manufacturer could decide to not share information with auto mechanics and establish a system where car owners would have to go to a dealer to get their car repaired.

Proprietary software puts the owner of the software’s copyright in control. Free software, at minimum, reliquishes the copyright and gives that control over to the user of the software or the hardware it powers. In some cases, it tries to exert control over the process, making it a requirement that improvements also have to be shared under the same conditions that the original software was shared.

Free software is fundamentally about empowering people. You might not care about the code running your car, but you likely do care if that code limits the supplier of repair services to a monopoly that charges significantly more than it would if it had competition.

Enter libreboot

Looking over the libreboot site, it is clear the BIOS problem persists. There are a handful of systems that can run libreboot. Most computer systems run a lot of proprietary software, e.g., BIOS, device drivers – such as wifi, controller firmware, CPU microcode, graphics acceleration hardware, etc. Under these conditions, is it even possible to run free software? If there is going to be compromises, what is an acceptable level? How much inconvenience will it entail?

Freedom always comes at a cost. In the modern world, the cost is often in convenience or capability. But, the reality is that we often have no idea what something costs us, as individuals or as a society. It’s not until we struggle with a different, perhaps even radical position, that the standard quo has a foil to make these costs visible.

I found such a foil while looking at the libreboot site and read this quote in the documentation for the only ARM laptop compatible with libreboot, the ASUS C201:

In practise, you can (if you do without the video/wifi blobs, and replace ChromeOS with a distribution that respects your freedom) be more free when using [an ASUS C201 than other libreboot systems that are Intel based].

What does “more free” mean? On the ASUS C201, the embedded controller firmware is free software, and there is no microcode. On ARM CPUs, the instruction set is implemented in circuitry, without microcode. If you choose not to use the wifi/video blobs, you can make the system about as free as is possible in the modern computing landscape.

Getting There From Here

It’s a bit of work to make the ASUS C201 run with free software. I bought one with faulty wifi from eBay for $52 dollars and a wifi dongle with a free Artheros chipset for $31 from Think Penguin. I then got the low end iFixit tool set to take apart the laptop for $25, removed the write protection screw, installed libreboot, installed Arch Linux on a SDCard I bought for $20 and then converted Arch Linux into Parabola by switching the depositories. For ~$130, there was a lot of educational value in the exercise, and the end result was a usable laptop that is my daily driver. Not bad. But before you go off and try it yourself, let me share some of the bad news.

All the instructions mentioned the possibility of making the computer unusable or damaging it while installing libreboot. In my case, I did manage to put a small crack in the top of the laptop in the course of prying it open. I ended up covering it with a sticker. Problem solved.

It is also possible to make a mistake flashing the firmware with libreboot and “bricking” the machine, which is always a possiblity when flashing firmware. It didn’t take the first time for me, but it didn’t seem to cause any problems either.

There are also other issues that can come up. For example, if you are not familiar with the command line and mounting usb or sdcards, you might not know that you need to use a set of commands like the following to transfer the libreboot files from a usb drive to the C201 in the first place, which the instructions assume you know how to do and don’t specify:

# cd /
# mkdir libreboot
# mount /dev/sdb1 /libreboot
# cp /libreboot/libreboot.img /

You can also make mistakes when installing the operating system, such as missing part of the long command to partition the table properly. Assuming you can get the whole thing to boot, then you have to set-up the Arch Linux distribution from scratch.

Arch Linux starts with a minimal distribution, and it is built around the idea of you create the distribution you want, with only the most up-to-date software. Prior to this experiment, I used primarily Debian. Arch Limux showed me was how many decisions Debian was making for me during the installation process. You could say that Debian is more focused on stability and ease of use.

So, the initial process was reevaluating software. On Debian, Gnome is the default, but it will not run on an ASUS C201 because it doesn’t have the video acceleration required to run it well. I found myself trying a number of window managers and eventually settled on ratpoison, a tiled window manager, that would work well with the limitations that free software on the ASUS C201 required. Hot tip: “ctrl-t :” will bring a text box up in the corner, then you can type “quit”, without quotes to exit. It took me a bit to learn that detail.

The graphics limitations of the ASUS C201 tended to encourage the use of the command line, just as working with OpenBSD did. The command line is something every user of a UNIX derivative should know in some detail, including Macs.

Debian also does some of the basic set-up for you, such as creating users, installing base software like sudo, or getting wifi to work. Arch Linux largely doesn’t, although setting up wifi through wifi-menu was easy.

Then, there is switching your distribution from Arch, which allows some proprietary drivers, to Parabola, which doesn’t. This leads to additional issues, like an update of the machine made a fully-functional touchpad useless. Was it a software upgrade of X or a firmware upgrade to the touchpad driver? Probably the latter, but the end result is that I try to keep to the command line where using a mouse isn’t necessary.

Another thing cutting down on my use of graphics? Apparently, the icu package (International Components for Unicode) updates every 3 months, but it breaks iceweasel, the only free software graphical browser that will run javascript and render pages correctly. I’ve since learned how to downgrade packages from cached packages on the machine. However, in the process of learning, I cleared the cache. I ended up having to wait six weeks to get an unbroken graphic browser package. Part of the delay is because the dependencies in the browser are written for specific versions of icu, and so they break every time it is updated. Part is because the ARM architecture doesn’t get the same kind of support as other architectures, because the number of people using it is much smaller.

The Point

So, what’s the point of this long litany of issues with making an ASUS C201 a free software machine? I think the main value is the exercise of rejecting the default option and choosing for ourselves. That’s what free software offers. You may not want the freedom, but sometimes just making an effort in that direction helps us to evolve into people that appreciate options beyond those that are offered by default.

In this case, the default is to use ChromeOS. It provides a safe, relatively secure computing environment where people can browse the web, read email, use networked Google software applications and such, and the price for the machine is minimal. However, there is a price to be paid in freedom. Convenience is offered in exchange for agreeing to become the commerical product of Google. For some people, this doesn’t bother them. They might even view it as a benefit. Since Google knows so much about them, the advertising driven by Google might help them to make better purchasing decisions.

Trying to swim against the default stream, whether it is the defaults of Google or a particular Linux distribution such as Debian, means a lot of work. It also means inconvenience, where hardware doesnt work like it should or graphical browsers remain broken for months. But, I would argue that taking the risk of bringing your computer, accepting a restraint like “free software only”, having to try new alternatives, etc., all leads to a mindset worth cultivating.

Even if you think concerns about free software is a kind of zealotry, there are kinds of knowledge that only a zealot can know because they are willing to accept limits others will not. There’s an education to be obtained in doing it. The only question is whether it is worth it to you.

The Plain Person’s Guide to Plain Text Social Sciences by Kieran Healy

The Plain Person’s Guide to Plain Text Social Science is written for graduate students in the social sciences, but useful for any writer. For people not doing sophisticated data analysis, the key suggestions are to use a text editor like Emacs for writing, Markdown for formatting, git—such as on GitLabs—for version control, and a translator program like Pandoc to translate your text file into a variety of formats, such as epub, pdf, doc and so forth. Additionally, he strongly recommends automated backing up of your data with a cloud service. He mentions two standards but if you go that route consider a privacy focused service like SpiderOak, or the free software alternative, NextCloud.

Details

The Plain Person’s Guide to Plain Text Social Science is worth reading for anyone involved with writing, research or data analysis. It introduces the problem of thinking about the tools that we use to do our work and serves as a technical primer for a particular style of writing.

Kieran Healy starts with a dichotomy, c.f. Section 1.2. There are two computer revolutions. One revolution is trying to abstract out the technology and present people with an easy, touch interface to accomplish specific tasks. Using your phone to take a picture, send a text message, post to social media, play YouTube videos, etc. are all examples of this type of technology. It’s probably the dominate form of computing now.

The other revolution are the complex computing tools that are being developed that cannot be used via a touch interface. At this point, there is no way to use an open source neural net like Google’s TensorFlow in a way that is going to make sense to the vast majority of people.

As we move to using a keyboard, this tension can be seen in the different types of tools we can use to write, research and do analysis. Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Access, etc. were designed to be digital equivalents to their analog predecessors – the typewriter, the overhead projector, the double entry account book or the index file. Of course, the digital equivalents offered additional capabilities, but it was still tied to the model of the business office. The goal for these tools, even as they include PivotTables and other features, is to be relatively easy to learn and use for the average person in an business office.

The other computing revolution is bringing tools to the fore that are not tied to these old models of the business office and is combining them in interesting new ways. But, these tools have a difficult learning curve. For example, embedding programming code that can be written into a text analysis to generate calculations when it is typeset is not a feature the average person working in a typical office needs. But, it clearly has some advantages in some contexts, such as for data analysts.

Complexity makes mistakes easier to make. So, it requires a different way of working. We have to be careful to document the calculations we use, track versions from multiple sources, be able to fold changes back into a master document without introducing errors, and so forth. The Office model of handing a “master document” back and forth and the process bottlenecked waiting for individuals making revisions isn’t going to work past a certain minimum baseline level of complexity that we are slowly evolving past.

So, laying out this case, he then suggests various tools to consider: a text browser such as Emacs, Markup for formatting, git for version control, Pandoc for translating text documents into other formats, backup systems, a backup cloud service, etc. All of these tools are equally important to complex writing of any sort, whether it be for writing long works of fiction, research analysis, collaborative writing, and other circumstances we are more likely to find ourselves in, which these more powerful tools help make possible.

2018 Experiments, 1st Quarter Follow-up

New Year resolutions always seem like an exercise in futility. Everyone does them. But, it is difficult to get the social support to make any kind of New Year resolution work. Failure is expected. Starting out in the aftermath of a holiday like New Year’s Eve probably doesn’t help much either.

New Year’s resolutions tend to focus on one big change, and they are rarely conceived in such a way as to accommodate the inevitable failures of implementation that come with trying anything new. And when doing something, you always learn things that differ from our preconceptions when starting out. So, you have to build in some flexibility into your program, and a resolution tends toward absolutes.

All of this is true of the changes I tried to make at the start of 2018. I started in December 2017 trying to eat a ketogenic diet, start a HIIT Burpee and Running Program, and consistently do some form of meditation.

On the ketogenic diet, it is possible to lose a significant amount of weight. Within a few weeks of starting it, I lost just over ten pounds, probably the bulk of it due to water weight.

However, I found it difficult to stick to because eating is such a social activity. Invariably, there was a birthday party, a holiday, or some other social occasion where people encouraged me to come off diet. If I ate one thing, the next comment was, “Well, since you already ate cake, why not have some cookies too?” The holiday season was particularly challenging.

In retrospect, my suggestion is to not tell anyone that you are on a diet, whether it is ketogenic or some other type. As soon as people hear that you are on a diet, I believe social forces kick in, and people will try, likely not even consciously, to bring you back to your default routine. Few people will support your effort, particularly if your diet impacts them in any way.

If you are lucky enough to have a spouse or significant other joining you, it will be much easier to keep on diet. If you are on your own, you’re on your own. Keep a low profile and use excuses like you aren’t feeling well, aren’t hungry, and so forth to skip eating when out. Socializing is a killer of diets. If you like socializing, eat before you go and try to find activities where you are active and not eating.

I haven’t been following a ketogenic diet closely for several weeks. I started again in April, but I plan to keep it low profile. Thankfully, the few people that might read this post don’t care what I eat.

The HIIT Burpee program has been the biggest success thus far. Doing the program is probably another factor in why I am not taking off any weight, quite the opposite actually.

I started with the idea of 12 sets of timed burpees. But, in retrospect, the key issue is not time but the number of burpees per set.

The program probably should just be setting an interval timer with budgeting about 3-5 seconds per burpee in the set and then take a minute rest in between sets. With 12 sets, the whole thing can be done in less than 20 minutes. But, it should be noted that it hurts, and it probably shouldn’t be done more than twice a week.

Start from 1 per set and work your way up. If 12 sets is too much, do 2 rounds of 6 sets or 3 rounds of 4 sets, with 3 to 5 minutes of rest to catch your breath per round. If you do these exercises on concrete, it helps to wear a set of leather work gloves if you don’t want bloody finger tips.

In the beginning of the HIIT program, I also laid off doing any running because the program is punishing. Until you adapt to the program, don’t try to do anything else. I went from 3 per set and a total of 36 burpees to 6 per set with a total of 72 burpees, for the last five weeks. There has been significant increases in tone and muscle, even over this short period. I have missed 3 out of 28 sessions. I think it makes sense to plan for a week off every quarter, which wasn’t in my original plan. I am going to start trying to work in some running sessions this quarter.

As for meditation, I did manage to do around 50 consecutive days of meditation. Overall, I think it is a good practice. However, I had problems with my android phone I was using to time the individual sessions, and thereafter, I haven’t been regularly doing it.

The problem with my phone ended up being an opportunity. I learned how to get an inexpensive phone set-up with LineageOS. Then, I used the same idea and changed my primary computing platform, buying an old ASUS 201 laptop with bad wi-fi and adding a usb wi-fi adapter and installing Libreboot and Parabola Linux, all for $83.

Parabola is an Arch distribution, which took some getting used to changing from Debian. But, it was not too bad a transition. I find I spend more time on the command line and associated tools in it, e.g., this post was written in Emacs and posted to cafebedouin.org using org2blog. Hopefully, the org2blog set-up will help me to write more original content for cafebedouin.org.

Also I also am trying to stick to a reading list. I have been putting any new books I hear about on a preliminary list for next year rather than trying to read them. I haven’t really been reading much over this quarter. I have been sidetracked on a series of other projects. But, today, I am recommitting to reading and writing more, doing daily meditation, twice a week physical training, and eating better. I’ll follow-up in three months, and we’ll see how it goes.

Swimming Against the Stream of Convenience

A year ago, I deleted my Facebook account. It was a bit of a watershed moment for my digital life because it was the start of a process, where I took a hard look at my use of the “free” services offered by Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Apple and tried to assess whether other alternatives, particularly paid ones, were better based on factoring in other considerations than cost.

Facebook was the obvious starting point. On the plus side, it helped me to keep in touch with my extended family, a few groups I liked to participate in use the platform, and the calendar of events integration into Google calendar made it very easy to plan and take advantage of all the events my city has to offer.

On the negative side, those benefits came with a cost to my well-being and to society at large. During the U.S. election, it gave me a window into the thought-processes of people in my extended social circle, and I found I started liking them a lot less. It was obvious to me that people were being manipulated, less obvious to me is that I was one of those people. Reading “The Data That Turned The World Upside Down,” I had a realization that Facebook was manipulating everyone’s thoughts and interactions that used it, and by continuing to use it, I was essentially saying it was alright. It wasn’t.

But, once your mind goes down that route, then you can’t stop. You have to look at everything. Google has more than double the advertising revenue of Facebook. Yet, I used Google for almost everything, such as email, photo storage, contacts, etc. And, the influence they have, such as the companies that surface when using search, maps, or their other products is profound, but the algorithm is even more opaque than Facebook’s. You really have no idea what kind of influence Google is having over your choices, and it is impossible to have any transparency about what is going on behind the scenes and the intent behind it. Again, using Google means you agree the convenience is worth being manipulated. For me, it wasn’t worth it.

I changed my search engine to DuckDuckGo. I switched off of Gmail to one email provider then another. I switched off Google Drive to NextCloud, a free software cloud storage solution. With Nextcloud, I was able to migrate documents, pictures, contacts and notes off of Google’s servers. Some services, such as managing RSS feeds, were also part of NextCloud, which Google chose to no longer support when they retired Google Reader.

And once you go this far, it’s a short step to look at things like Wallabag to replace Feedly. Or eliminating other social media applications that are affiliated with feudal Internet companies, such as Instagram, Whatsapp, Hangouts, etc.

Once there, I was able to take bigger steps, such as installing LineageOS onto my android phone and Linux on the desktop to replace Microsoft Windows. Or using free alternatives to apps, such as those in F-Droid over those in Google Play or LibreOffice instead of the Microsoft Office suite. These moves were organic extensions of the thought processes quitting Facebook began.

Still, some things have no ready replacements. If you don’t use Google Maps, what are the alternatives? Those that exist are objectively nowhere near as good.

Choosing to not use Amazon is possible, but it comes with significant inconvenience, trade-offs and costs. Is it better to go to Wal-Mart rather than order from Amazon? What about paying 20% more by shopping elsewhere? Consider that over half of U.S. households have a subscription to Amazon Prime. Shipping costs alone make shopping for some products online prohibitive.

For Amazon, I’ve stopped buying ebooks from them. There is a lot of reading material to choose from in this world. I try to stick to DRM free books, but failing that, I try to use services that are not Amazon and available via the library, such as OverDrive. While OverDrive is not as good from a reading experience perspective, it does have the advantage of not being part of the feudal Internet.

The only Apple product I have ever used is iTunes and iPod related devices. I find other programs integrating my music collection to be easier to use. So, my exposure to Apple is negligible.

Being against the feudal Internet is swimming against the stream of convenience. It means more cost, more aggravation, and more of your time troubleshooting problems that would “just work” if you let Google, Apple or Microsoft manage everything for you.

Looking back after a year, choosing the path less travelled by has indeed made all the difference. Not everyone can do it — due to financial, time, or other constraints — but it is worth doing, if you can.

The Fallacy of Calories In / Calories Out as a Mental Model for Weight Control

One of the common comments people make about weight control is: “It’s just calories in / calories out.” It’s true, but it’s also wrong in important ways.

For example, one of the things that we know happens once people reach their thirties is that they start to lose 3-5% of their muscle mass per decade. In medical terms, this process is called “sarcopenia with aging”, and it accelerates further when most people reach their seventies.

So, “sarcopenia with aging” is slowly reducing “calories out” for most people older than 30, and this subtly shifts the equation of “calories in / calories out” over time. It’s a force that requires that we either:

  1. Consciously change our eating habits to reduce calorie intake as we age
  2. Work to reduce sarcopenia through a program of strength training

But, doesn’t the human body’s homeostatic mechanisms guide us to reduce intake as we burn fewer calories? Yes, it does. Except we live in a cultural environment that makes every effort to disconnect eating from feelings of hunger. Make sure to eat three square meals a day is an idea that puts food consumption on a predictable schedule. From there, the concept has evolved further, where food has become primarily a recreation for many people.

Consider the ever expanding “holiday” and spectacle seasons. Is it a coincidence that the Super Bowl (or pick your holiday/spectacle of choice) party is an excuse to eat and drink in ways that make weight control difficult, if not impossible?

The same dynamic is in play with ever increasing portion sizes and richer, more calorie dense food.  Movie theaters sell large tubs of popcorn, soda and candy to justify increased prices, which offset decreased ticket sales. Whether you are talking about eating out in restaurants or convenience food, there are billions of dollars being spent delivering just one message: “Eat more.”

Why? Imagine if everyone in the United States cut their calorie intake by 100 calories a day, how many billions of dollars of revenue would that cost food companies in a year? Conversely, the opposite is also true. More calories equals more revenue.

In the context of this dynamic, the “calories in / calories out” argument is problematic. On one level, it suggests that weight is an individual problem. It is as if the billions spent on food marketing, the dearth of sound nutritional advice available to most people, the socio-economic constraints of food availability, etc. are all irrelevant. On another level, the idea of an “equation” implies that “calories out” is a viable approach to a weight problem, and it is why exercise is so often offered as a solution.

But, the treadmill, the elliptical machine, the stationary bike, the aerobics class or other cardio exercise is not how you address the problem of “sarcopenia with aging”. And cardio exercise, by itself, is not enough. There is a saying, “You cannot outrun a bad diet.” Unless you are someone like an elite endurance athlete logging +100 miles of running a week, the only way to bring weight under control is to eat less, not more. Exercise can be an important catalyst for changes, making them happen faster. But, exercise can also undermine weight control as it drives increased appetite and can make it more difficult to eat less.

We need to eat less in an environment where we are always incentivized to eat more. Saying “it’s just calories in / calories out,” is like saying, “Just eat less.” It’s correct, but it’s missing taking into account many of the factors that make that so hard.

 

Omelets, Perfection & Life

Several years ago, I stumbled across an article in Gourmet magazine called “Chasing Perfection” by Francis Lam. This is how it starts:

“Before Chef Skibitcky got ahold of my brain, I, like every other rational person, thought an omelet was something anyone can make. You throw eggs in a pan, stir them around, fold them in half, and put them on a plate. Done. No-brainer. It only gets interesting when you start tossing in other things—ham, some cheese, maybe a sautéed mushroom or two.”

Reading on, this article about the “perfect omelete” made with just a few simple ingredients: three eggs, salt, pepper and a little butter “got ahold of my brain”. I had to try my hand at it. How hard can it be? It’s turned into a minor obsession.

I have gone through periods over the last several years since, trying to make this “perfect omelete”. I’ve come close, maybe one or two times. It turns out it is pretty hard and the key is having good technique.

Since then, I’ve had friends ask me for a omelete making recipe, “for the lay person,” the unobsessed. I now recommend this article that explains some of the finer details. Initially, I was skeptical about adding Boursin, “the French Velveeta.” But, it does a nice job of adding a little fudge factor that helps you get that soft internal texture that you hope to get with the classic french omelet.

The things I might suggest that would improve this recipe for people that don’t make 30 omelets during a breakfast/lunch shift is to use lower heat (somewhere between low and medium, but closer to low – with a final 5-10 second burst of high heat at the end), breaking up the curds as they form with a fork if you can’t get them with the spatula, and adding a little butter around the edges helps to roll it up at the end. Even if you aren’t much of a cook, it’s worth giving it a try.

If you were like me before reading this article, you’ve probably never had a really well-prepared omelet. You will be amazed at the difference. Omelette making may, in the end, be trivial. But, I like how the “Chasing Perfection” article ends. Lam writes:

Three eggs, salt, pepper, and a little butter. That’s all there is in a classic French omelet, but it’s enough to keep reteaching me this vital lesson: Things are only simple when you’ve stopped asking the right questions of them, when you’ve stopped finding new ways to see them. Because what you find, when you learn how to find it, is that even simple things can be wonderfully, frustratingly, world-openingly complex.

Omelette making invites us to ask: What else in my life, besides omelets, have I stopped asking the right questions about? Where have I settled for the simple answer rather than “the frustratingly, world-openingly complex” one? The advantage of omelete making is that even when you make mistakes – it doesn’t roll off right, the skin of the omelete is too thick, or you didn’t stir enough and have to settle for a scramble – the end result is always a really tasty egg dish that’s still better than 90% of what you’ve have eaten in your life.

Revolution For One

“You see the beauty of my proposal is / It needn’t wait on general revolution / I bid you to the one-man revolution— / The only revolution that is coming.”

—Frost, Robert. “Build Soil.”

Change is a constant. Paradoxically, remaining the same, over time, requires change. Our bodies, like the Ship of Theseus, change and mutate, cells replacing cells. Continuity evolves, and stasis is relative.

Pick some idyllic life moment. Imagine remaining in that moment indefinitely. Would not our perception of our emotions revert to the mean? Does not the perception of joy require occasional experience of its opposite?

Further, would you not be different by dint of not evolving along with everything else in your life, by remaining static when most everything else is changing? Doesn’t holding on to a moment constitute a change? Doesn’t the change of relation to the world imply that we were not as we once were — even if as an individual, we have not changed?

And, it is these relationships with family, friends, and neighbors that provide the deep, textured sense of ourselves, of our personal identity. These relationships serve as the basic building blocks of
social networks that form our world — extended family, work colleagues, churches, local organizations, and neighborhoods. These, in turn, lead to larger groups: tribes, cities, ethnicities,
nationalities, religions, etc. Like individuals, these social groups form, grow, change, diminish and die over time.

Evolution within a group slows or speeds up in proportion with the turnover rates of the group. Communities often get an influx of new members that change the social dynamics in significant ways. Original or older members often change in response to their lived experience. Others leave the community. A strong community culture can live beyond the lives of its progenitors, durable yet malleable, with a general tendency to change at slower average rates than individual constituent members.

As we move up in size, the informal networks between individuals form into larger groups and develop governance models, it is clear that the difficulty of unmaking these arrangements is proportional to the number of individuals, the size of the institutions involved, and the complexity of the informal social networks that underpin their formal structure. Except in a rare unravelling, by-laws and Constitutions are neither made nor unmade overnight.

On the level of nations, political revolutions typically require decades to create the right conditions for possible success and even during their acute phases, they can take decades to resolve. Sweeping social movements that effect society at large, such as the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution, the propagation of a new major religion, the current Digital Revolution, and so forth happen over time spans measured in centuries.

There is nothing controversial in these ideas. But, if we accept them as true, then there are interesting implications regarding the kinds of change that are futile and those that are fertile for individuals to pursue.

Ideas about general revolution, revolutions lead by charismatic leaders, preferred social policy instituted by government by political parties, and issue advocacy are, largely, futile. Let’s look at each in turn.

General revolution is often discussed in terms that suggest that there might be a leader or vanguard group that sparks a general revolution or general strike that will bring down the current socio-political environment and lead to some utopian social order. While it may be true that the conditions of a general revolution may manifest in some form — such as the majority of humanity displaced by automation in a global economy or that some group will take over from the current elites in some place and institute a new social order — the historical conditions cannot be manufactured. Success of these efforts comes from opportunities of circumstance and are limited to a locality or region. The integration necessary for some kind of global movement is still centuries off.

The central problem is that it is impossible to know in advance whether the conditions are ripe and what the consequences of any particular action might be. A classic example is the assassins of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. They could not have guessed that the repercussions of their actions would be World War I and setting the stage for much of what happened in the Twentieth Century. While they may have achieved their objective of creating a Yugoslavia, they did not live to see it nor did Yugoslavia last.

But what about someone “important”? It is possible to create “revolution”, top-down, through various forms of authoritarian control. However, there seems to be a limit on the amount of control formalized systems can exert over society or even small social networks. A CEO can declare their business a “paperless office” and remove all the printers, but this is rarely enough to make that goal a reality. Employees just outsource that function to the local copy shop.

Same is true of many other rules imposed from above. You could look at the effectiveness of efforts of social control in the United States, such as the War on Drugs, War on Crime, War on Terror, and so forth to see that there are always limitations of enforcement in top down control in the service of a political agenda. It also appears that top down control always inspires significant resistance.

Further, efforts of top down control are elite projects primarily concerned about maintaining the status quo, creating enough change to maintain their power. If anything, they are counter-revolutionary. Almost always, the goal of top-down projects is to consolidate an individual’s power or the power of a political elite. It benefits only a small subset of society.

What of the everyday individual? Most people understand that their ability to change society is limited. This likely accounts for much of the disengagement that the citizenry has with democratic institutions at all levels of government around the world, with many developed
countries having participation levels of sixty percent or less in federal elections.

Another strategy is to focus on issues that are relevant to a particular community and are amenable to reform: immigration, justice, education, the environment, healthcare, etc. Most of these are within the Overton Window, because they facilitate the perpetuation of a slightly more enlightened status quo when successful. If you look at the pattern behind any kind of major reforms in these areas, change happens on the scale of decades, in the rare times that they happen at all.

“A man’s illusions about himself and others are not basically different from the illusions which groups, classes, and parties have about themselves. Indeed, they come from the same source: the dominate ideas, which are the ideas of the dominant class, even if they take an antagonistic form.”

–Raoul Vaneigem, “The Revolution of Everyday Life.”

So, what is to be done? What is a fertile form of revolution for individuals to engage in that live in some historical moment that is not conducive to their preferred alternative order? The individual has very limited influence beyond their own thinking and experience and those in their immediate social sphere. So, the first task is to focus on where you have the greatest influence, over your own mind and those close to you socially.

There’s nothing wrong with participating in electoral politics, engaging in public assemblies, listening and giving speeches, signing petitions, leafleting, picketing, attending vigils, boycotting, acts of civil disobedience, strikes, and so forth. These are valid ways of pushing back against the established order, or if you’d rather, engaging in political activity. But, if that is your main mode of action or involvement with the world, then you are taking the illusion as reality.

Fertile forms of revolution are redefining our identity and interacting with a group of fellow travellers in terms that do not use dominate narratives as the reference point. Practically, this often means a refusal to participate in the larger popular culture and an attempt to create an alternative culture based on different values. 

One extreme example of this behavior can be seen in religious groups like the Amish. But, the question is also one of degree. Professional organizations, intentional communities, ethnic minorities, and others create a degree of separateness in order to maintain their distinct character. Yet, at the same time and on some level, they are integrated into the wider society in which they are part. Even the Amish do not live in a hermetically sealed bubble.

Speaking of the Amish, it might be good to end on an apocryphal story:

There once was a bus load of tourists that were visiting Amish country. Upon reaching their destination, the tourists got out of their bus, and they saw an Amish man waiting beside the road. They ask him: what does it mean to be Amish? He started talking about Jesus. They stoppud him, saying, “We know all about that. How is being Amish different?” The Amish man thought for a moment and then asked them, “How many of you own television sets?” Everyone raised their hands. Then he said, “How many of you believe that television has a detrimental impact on your life?” Again, most everyone raised their hands. Finally, he asked: “How many of you are willing to give up television?” No hands went up. Then he said, “That’s what it means to be Amish.”

While we all cannot be Amish, we can all be as critical of our culture as the Amish are of technology. The revolution of single individuals and of small communities to reject mass culture, even in the form of mass political movements, and focus on renouncing those elements that we feel are detrimental and building smaller communities around alternative values is the only revolution that is always possible, and it is a better approach than trying to fix the problems of the larger society. Like television, the problems of society will not be solved by advocating for better programming.