Free Software in San Francisco

I’ve lived in San Francisco for over a month, now. My experience has been mostly very interesting, between working at the Wikimedia Foundation and socializing with transplants from Boston. However, my foremost lens for examining any situation has always been digital freedom. With that in mind, I have been paying attention to the general climate of software use in the Bay Area, and I’d like to share it with you now.

I should note that my purpose here is not to criticize any person or group, but to give feedback and maybe better explain the landscape of digital freedom in the Bay Area.

At Work

The Wikimedia Foundation itself, strangely, is not overwhelmingly supportive of free software. The employees tend to run either Mac OS X or Ubuntu on their workstations, and the server infrastructure seems largely based on Ubuntu as well.

The tools being used are largely free, however, with git dominating the source control landscape and Gerrit providing code review and hosting. There is a wide variety of other tools in use, but the people all seem generally in favor of free developer tools. Even a few designers seem to be interested in using free tools, which is a refreshing change from the usual reliance on Adobe.

Of course, the ultimate product of the WMF’s toil is free software, and that’s one of the most important things to consider, but having a general culture of digital freedom would be a huge benefit to the community and the individuals involved!

In the City

Walking around town, I notice a lot of technology. It is my profound displeasure, however, that most of it is branded with Apple logos! Every ride on public transportation is dominated by iPods, iPhones, and the infrequent iPads. I also see Kindles and Nooks, and of course the occasional Nintendo handheld device. I walk around with my brand new Neo Freerunner, but it’s hardly enough to offset the overwhelming feeling of digital restriction….

In Online Communities

I also spend some time chatting with local people online, through sites like Reddit and BAParkour. Those communities, too, appear to be dominated by non-free software. A lot of the technical discussions are dominated by non-free options, and most of the discussions in general seem to be powered by non-free technology.

In Surrounding Businesses

San Francisco is a big place for software businesses, as I’m sure readers will be aware. But a lot of the chatter I hear about local businesses involves work on non-free software. Many of the people involved will be proud of using free software in one capacity or another, but their interest in digital freedom apparently doesn’t extend to their customers.

In Social Circles

The socializing I have done in person has largely revolved around common ties to free software, too. However, that common tie seemed to be rather muted after prolonged conversations, since the people I meet almost always use notorious non-free software (e.g., iOS, Photoshop, Facebook/Twitter), and seem uninterested in changing that fact. While I hesitate to confront these people on the subject (see Freedom: A Struggle, not a Nose Dive), it’s always sort of jolting to realize that the people I met because of free software are not devoted to software freedom.


I think these facts point towards a rather grim situation for digital freedom in the Bay Area. This realization motivates me to seriously consider more devotion to the movement, possibly through more direct means, to help spread freedom in the area.

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