This time I did not think we will do the mural. Riya messaged me that a group of volunteers was already doing one. I saw the design. It was designed on a computer, and while it looked nice, it was ideologically clean. For me the free and open source software (FOSS) was part of counter culture, part of a rebellion against a society that wanted to keep knowledge of computing with a few corporations. The rebel in me was awakened and I asked Frappe folks if we should do our own mural, and everyone was like, “YES!”. Just coming off a hectic Himalayan trip and another intense conference, I was already feeling fatigued. But then looking at everyone, I thought why not. So we got a new cloth and painted a “radical” mural, that I hoped would piss off at least some people.
Our idea was to use the graffiti style to paint the mural about freedom, democracy, liberation. Sadly in today’s world these seem like archaic ideas. The world has moved on and we have become neo-liberal capitalist puppies. I did not even know if these ideals resonate with the youth anymore. Software industry is what has taken India global in more than many ways. Not only is it a source of wealth and new found confidence and identity, it has connected us to the world dominated by Anglo-American culture. Many neighbourhoods of Bangalore look more like Silicon Valley than a city in India with its affluent bars and restaurants, full of young people with high amount of disposable income. The liberation it seems was already here and it was lubricated by cash.
Things seemed chaotic next day as we reached NIMHANS for the event. Vishal was in the middle of a nervous breakdown and Riya was trying her best to hold things together. We got some tapes and setup both the murals. The conference itself got off to a rocky start. I thought the first half had too much content about Frappe. Both the opening talk and the Hussain’s (excellent) talk were in the first half. It was definitely horrible when I overheard someone say, “it feels like a Frappe sales conference”. While I was a part of the talk selection committee, I quit the process midway (realising my own conflict of interest both as Frappe and FOSSUnited) and now I suddenly felt responsible. Or maybe I was being too hard on myself. In the first half we also had Akash Hamirwasia give an excellent talk about his project building a tool to visualise automata and formal languages. It felt really proud to see Akash grow up over the last few years as a part of the FOSSUnited community, first winning a hackathon and now making world class projects.
Maybe it was my own state of mind, but I felt the first day was very disconnected. Things did not seem to flow. I missed most of the talks I wanted to attend, though I had some great conversations. I had a great chat with Nidhi Anarkat from Navgurukul who had brought some of their students to IndiaFOSS and we talked about education and technology and alternative ideas of organising and living. It was surprising how many people were interested in our ideas of how we run things at Frappe (self directed work) and my own experience of being a part of a micro-school (Learner’s Collective). Anupam Guha was challenging some students after his talk about AI regulation. I tried to challenge some of his ideas — why not universal basic income (UBI) instead of regulation? Can we stop innovation? A couple of young kids forked the conversation into a more passionate discussion about society and technology, making me hope day 2 would be better.
The K Factor
Kerala has been the beating heart of Indian FOSS. There was a bus of participants from Kochi (another K) who had come for the IndiaFOSS event. Born out of a strange affinity to democratic communism, the Kerala state had embraced FOSS as a political tool to drive out corporations. FOSS for Kerala is not about liberation or freedom, it is about asserting the domination of the state and “community”. Over the past few decades, Malayalis (people from Kerala) have been enthusiastic adherents of FOSS through their efforts to localise computing to their native tongue.
The domination of the state and labour though had also driven most companies and Malayalis out of Kerala in the search for jobs. Bangalore, just a few hours drive away, had a huge demand for educated, intelligent, motivated youth which was to be found in plentiful in god’s own country. Since FOSS had unwittingly put young engineers from Kerala on the “right” path, it was no surprise that Malayalis came to dominate engineering roles in the startup industry in Bangalore.
Malayalis tend to be tightly knit and bring their own culture to places they go, whether it is the US, Gulf or Bangalore. The mixing of the Bangalore dream with Malayali culture has given rise to another strange but happy phenomenon of many new age open source projects founded by Malayalis. Several projects which presented at IndiaFOSS including Chatwoot, Hoppscotch, Tooljet were founded by Keralites. Along with this there were several students and active student run clubs evangelising FOSS. Richard Stallman had made quite a few trips to Kerala and even last year’s DebConf was held there.
The biggest K factor though is Kailash Nadh — who is called by his friends as the Shahrukh Khan of Indian tech industry. Kailash’s rise to celebrity has been phenomenal in the last few years along with the rise of Zerodha has the darling of the Bangalore startup scene. His blogs have given a huge boost to FOSS in India, and a big attraction for many of the participants, specially young college kids from Kerala. It was fun to see Kailash visibly annoyed with all the fuss around him. I am sure he would be happy to handle it all considering the visibility FOSS has had because of his and Zerodha’s success as the “killer app” for FOSS.
Day 2 turned out to be everything day 1 wasn’t. For some reason, things seem to “flow” much smoothly. It probably wasn’t just me, but everyone was just feeling their way in on the first day. Though the crowd was smaller, still more than 500 people were there on day two, and the conversations continued to flow much smoother. People were spending time at both the halls and tables. I got the chance to talk to volunteers who had come from all over India. Their motivation and energy was infectious. It was clear that we were doing something right. Sai Rahul and I had a good chat about FOSS United governance and how can we take this energy forward.
Coming to events and meeting people is fine, but all of this has to convert into something more substantial for the community. It has to convert into several new contributors and FOSS projects. I also felt that while we had successfully incubated FOSS United, it was now ready to go out to the world and spread its wings. College students seem to have the maximum time and availability on their hands and are also relatively un-corrupted and they very genuinely want to contribute.
When we started FOSS United, we just knew the space was needed, and did not visualise what form it would take. In the initial months, we were veering towards a more “industry focused” approach trying to rope in tech companies and unicorn startups to become partners. But after a year of trying it seems that it is hard to get large companies to act because of their inherent bureaucracy and they don’t seem to have special budgets in place for such things. On the other hands, the response we have got from individual volunteers, both student and professionals, is tremendous. What they lack in cash, they make up in time and energy. And this is a good thing. A community that is run by enthusiasts is much better than a community run by industry. Industry is welcome to contribute and sponsor, but it is clear that the future of this community is in the hands of these enthusiastic individual volunteers.
FOSS is many things to many people, but in the heart is the idea that we are all better off when we work together. Successful FOSS projects over the years have fundamentally shaped society and technology and will continue to do so. Ironically it has also made the state and corporations more powerful than ever before. In the middle of this, a community driven organisation like FOSS United feels like the right way to balance power. This will be done if we continue to build on the energy brought in by the volunteers and give them the community space and tools to build their own future. In that context, the FOSS United Platform seems to be a promising way of taking back the commons. It has to be seen how far it can go.
The “buzz” was definitely back as we closed Day 2. With the anxiety of the event over, several of us lingered on as darkness set in, having relaxing conversations and sharing new ideas. Next year promises to be even better. Instead of a dozen tables, we should give a low cost table to every FOSS project who wants to talk about their project. Abhas also suggested that we should have a music to close the evening. This would make for a wonderful community experience. Can’t wait for IndiaFOSS 4.0.