FOSS Guru maddog Sees World of Opportunity in Tech Freedom

Jon “maddog” Hall talks about how low-cost, open computing is sparking opportunities in Latin America and elsewhere.

Before I talk to Jon “maddog” Hall about Campus Party, Latin America and the state of free and open source software, I need to ask The Big Question: Do I call you Jon or, ahem, “maddog”?

“The only person who called me Jon was my mother and she died two years ago, so now there’s none.” OK, the old nickname maddog (referring to an erstwhile fiery temper) it is, then, although it’s not easy for a Brit…

An icon of the FLOSS movement and president of Linux International, maddog is in London as part of the preparation for Campus Party Europe, the geekfest, hackathon and knowledge share that takes place in the UK capital in September. A veteran of Campus Party events, maddog says that, as well as speaking, his role is “to find people who really know the technology well. A lot of campuseros (as Campus Party attendees are known) are impressed by a big name, sure, but really they want people who know the real technology and can sit in with them”.

Maddog is a fixture at Campus Party, having attended many events across Latin America and elsewhere.

“I got involved in Campus Party [in part] because I was seeing all these really bright kids who, when they got educated, the first thing they did was move to England or Spain. I was talking to these kids in Venezuela and they said ‘The only job I can get here is installing Microsoft Office and that doesn’t pay much.’ They wanted jobs in programming or green solutions and to have a lot more money and about the same living expenses. I see developing nations today and there’s no reason they can’t start a company there so long as they have education. If they don’t have enough trained people, the technology companies won’t come. You can offer them all the tax incentives in the world and they won’t come.”

There are two constructs here that are familiar maddog themes and memes: the negative influence of traditional, commercial software companies, and the importance of an education system and culture that favours students getting their hands dirty and going deep into hardware and software.

He contends that students today have a more shallow knowledge of computers than 25 years ago.

“That’s because, before, you would sit there with a soldering iron and type in all this weird code and then you would debug that code. Today, kids get a laptop computer from the store that doesn’t have a compiler installed and they never open it up. They buy some games and code some HTML and think they’re programmers. They’re not. My knowledge of machine language and programming helped me run a program 14 times faster on a Raspberry Pi. Without that underlying knowledge I’d have been helpless. We need to go back to the universities and high schools and say ‘you have to go a level deeper’.”

Maddog says he is often confronted by arguments that computers are so fast that low-level programming skills have become less important but he believes that understanding the fundamentals of hardware and software is crucial to make people more productive, questioning and adaptable.

“Not everybody has to be a systems engineer but if you cut your finger you should be able to put a Band-Aid on it, cleanse it or make a tourniquet.”

He’s also optimistic that, as hardware gets cheaper, entrepreneurialism and success in the technology business can become global rather than be relatively concentrated in Silicon Valley and a few other areas.

“As computers become less and less expensive you get more and more people who can join in. When I was young you had to spend [a vast sum] on a minicomputer with 4K of RAM and a half-meg disk drive and it would only run one program at a time. Now you can buy a Raspberry Pi with half a gig of memory for $35. That’s empowering for people who are perfectly intelligent but now have the capability [to develop their skills regardless of location].”

He believes that Microsoft’s empire is weakened now with multiple web browsers prospering, Android and iOS dominating in smartphones and tablets, and Linux established as the leader in embedded systems and HPC. He also believes that “the door is opening” for Linux on the desktop but stresses that what’s crucial is that users have freedom of choice.

“I’m going to say something very strange for me. I’m not about Linux; it’s the freedom you get with software [that’s important]. A slave is a person who doesn’t own any property and is completely controlled by the master. If you’re a software slave you’re told when you have to upgrade your software. XP is going so you’re supposed now go to [Windows] 7 or 8… and we’ve seen how successful 8 is. For a long time, manufacturers wanted a second source for everything but for some reason they didn’t mind getting all their software from this one company. People’s sophistication has changed now.”

Back to Campus Party. What has impressed him recently? He recalls meeting a 12-year-old in Spain with his own Linux distribution that has facial recognition for logon. A few years later he had signed up 30,000 users and his father, after decades working in the computer industry, was working for him. He also praises the developer of a phone app to help people with dyslexia. Computing is just one field at Campus Party these days, together with astronomy, robotics and many more. All these fields can help make the world more interesting, enjoyable, equitable and just, maddog contends, so long as people come together in a spirit of open collaboration and learning.

Maddog’s support for technology as enabler of broader change will be seen again on July 4 at the FISL conference in Porto Alegro, Brazil, when he will unveil details of the next plans for Project Cauã, an effort that includes the modest goal of creating up to two million new jobs each in Brazil and the rest of Latin America. This launch will include a Raspberry Pi-based thin client running Linux and guidance on how people can become “system administrators/entrepreneurs” by building on these systems.

If all that isn’t enough, maddog also weighs in on the Edward Snowden affair, saying: “If people want to work for government they have to understand they’re working for the people. We used to have a time when the mayor, priest and teacher would be the three most trusted people in the town and people would go to them with problems and trust them to provide sage counsel. Now they’re the last three people you would go to. If people want to work for government they have to understand they’re working for the people. The entire world government needs a reset.”

And with that, maddog ends his fireworks and encourages anyone with a belief in the capacity of technology to effect change to become a campusero.


Martin Veitch is Editorial Director at IDG Connect International