OpenBSD version: Not relevant here...
Arch:            ?
NSFP:            Well...

Read proposition 2 »

So… i did a thing and spent some thoughts on our Internet today and how our world is falling apart all around us. What somewhat sparked these thoughts is research i did in the past years, but also very much this blog article which very much deals with the question of how we could rebuild the Internet once our world has finished properly burning down.

However, up until then, we live in a burning world, i.e., one evaporating under the human-made climate emergency and countless other shifts we find ourselves in at the moment. The Internet of today will certainly neither be sustainable nor resilient in the future we are heading towards.

Together with my colleague Doris Aschenbrenner i wrote down these thoughts in a paper in the form of “13 propositions”, which will appear in the proceedings of the joint workshops on “Technologies, Applications, and Uses of a Responsible Internet” and “Building Greener Internet”, colocated with ACM SIGCOMM later this year. (Feel free to click through the paper already and get some spoilers… or wait for a new article every day… the choice is yours. :-) )

So, given the silence in my blog (to end soon; i was a bit busy with overdoing this selfhosting stuff a … bit more), i figured it might be a nice way to get some content up here again; So, for the next 13 days i will go over one of these propositions every day, and talk a bit more about the context of them.

Note, that our propositions are based on our own research contributions published in the past, public discourse, and are most certainly rooted in system administration lore and our own experience as system administrators. They are intentionally bold, and we make no personal claim to originality and completeness.

So, here we go with the first one:

Proposition 1

“Operating systems requires operators to execute care, towards their system, their users, and the infrastructure as a whole.”

Note, that this one is very much not about Operating Systems, but instead more about the process of running and maintaining a system.

In the first line, this statement draws on work by Mannat Kaur, a PhD candidate i have the privilege of working with, who takes a unique safety-science and feminism informed perspective on human factors and system administration.

In her recent paper (pre-print), she took a look at how sysadmins coordinated in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic hitting. The rather striking observation made by her is that system administration has a major component of care work and emotional labor. This may be self-evident to any system administrator who ever had a user ask them if they happened to have ‘a backup’ of something important said user lost. Maintaining the user’s emotions, fear, and anxiety, regardless of whether a backup is present, is the major part of the task.

However, we also claim that the necessity to care for users extends beyond this example. To operate systems means caring to create those backups in the first place. System administrators need to plan in advance, anticipating needs, and provide solutions for problems before they materialize and are realized by users.

Furthermore, system administration means caring for systems in their whole life cycle. While building a system is fun, ensuring that it keeps running is a different and more complex task—especially under the security and privacy guarantees users expect. Following, e.g., the gist of Limoncelli et al.’s book on system administration, providing a service is a responsibility that has to be fulfilled, and the hard part is continuing to fulfill it.

So, if we want the Internet to sustain in our burning future, we have to reorient ourselves to actually caring for infrastructure and its users. If we do that, digital infrastructure might give us an edge in surviving the future to come. If we don’t start caring soon, it may very well become a liability (if it is not so already) further dragging us down.