Self-Hosting is a Productive Hobby
“What more sacred, what more strongly guarded by every holy feeling, than a man's own home?”
Self-hosting has a lot of benefits but there are reasons why it’s not as popular as the alternatives. Many of us are sick of “surveillance capitalism” and we’re rightfully outraged by the illegal and immoral behavior of our governments which was exposed by Edward Snowden but what can we do about it?
Setting up, securing and maintaining your own servers is the best way to protect your data but it takes time and you have to learn a lot before you can even start. Also, we’re constantly bombarded by all sorts of a corporate propaganda which talks lengths about how easy it is to start using their products while being pretty tight-lipped when it comes to their shady but very profitable practices such as collecting as much of your data as possible and selling it to the highest bidder.
It shouldn’t be this way but the incentives are too tempting. Let me expand on a few properties of software and the companies that make it in order to highlight the contrasts between self-hosted open source software and “managed” or purely commercial closed-source products.
Most of the apps and websites are “black boxes”: it is extremely hard and, in many cases, impossible, to find out what are they doing with your phone, laptop or any other piece of hardware you happen to launch them on. It’s fascinating how much we have to trust the software companies and how eager they are to betray this trust if it gives them an opportunity to make an extra buck.
Imagine a fast food chain that has an option of making a huge profit by adding a little dose of poison to each meal served. It will most likely pass on that opportunity because we can expose it by “auditing” the food and we also have certain laws which supposed to make sure that anyone involved in such a scheme will end up in jail. Food is “transparent” in a sense that it can be examined with ease and it’s really hard to get away with harming your customers. So, what are the incentives here?
Law – It will cost you a lot in fines and probably in your freedom too.
Profit – It’s not profitable, therefore it’s a pretty dumb thing for a company to do.
Ethics – Harming people is bad, right?
Well, this example is a bit silly, isn’t it? We need to focus on the real world instead of an imaginary fast food chain operated by psychopaths. Let’s look at Big Tobacco from the same angles:
Law – They sold and advertised tobacco products knowing that it’s a deadly poison. Not a single fuck was given, before they were forced to.
Profit – People like our sweet nicotine high and it makes us a ton of money. Why bother telling our customers that it also comes with poison? It would hurt the bottom line!
Ethics – LOL
By using the closed-source software hosted somewhere “in the cloud” we invite companies to act on their darkest incentives because it’s very profitable and it’s really easy to conceal such activities. Most apps and websites generate small amounts of “poison” every time we interact with them and this poison slowly accumulates in various databases where it can be enhanced and used to attack us later. You see, this poison is personalized. It can’t be used on a random person, it works only on a specific person and using the right poison on the right target is an extremely profitable activity.
By poison, I mean personally identifiable data, of course. Does it seem too far-fetched? Let’s say you want to buy a safe to keep something valuable in it. Do you really want this fact to be known to anyone? What if this information can be cross-referenced with your real address? What if we can add some other data points such as your usual time of absence from home and come up with a list of targets which would be pretty valuable to various criminals? What about state actors? Even the NSA breaks laws and invades the privacy of their own citizens and those guys are angels compared to what less “developed” nations tend to do with people they don’t like and wish to get rid of.
It doesn’t matter who collects your data. The more data your “leak”, the more vulnerable you are. Companies use it to influence your consumer choices, politicians use it to influence your votes, state actors use it to deal with the dissidents, criminals need it to steal from you or blackmail you and literally no one is harvesting your data in order to make your life better: there are no incentives for that.
Self-hosting is the best way to protect your data and to have a transparent infrastructure built by honest people and for honest people.
Let’s say you’re a local baker. You know most of your customers personally. Many of them are friends of yours. We have much more empathy for real people we know personally than for the abstract “users” and it also affects our decisions.
We can’t even keep more than a couple hundred people in our heads. Human communities don’t scale that well and humans aren’t known for being friendly and empathetic to total strangers. I believe that, contrary to the popular mantras, there is nothing glorious in scale. I’ve met many talented technologists who’re excited about scaling systems and about tools that help them do that and I get it: building scalable and reliable systems is hard and talented people tend to like challenge. Of course, the likes of Google, Amazon or Facebook are scalability marvels but the problem is: they’re also merciless monopolies that aren’t shy of exploiting their scale to crush any possible competition. Would it be beneficial for a society to let those companies get even bigger?
The bigger the company, the less it cares about an individual customer but at the same time, their customers become increasingly more dependent on their digital overlords. It’s easy to ban a YouTube blogger for any bullshit reason or for no reason at all or to exclude a certain business from Amazon. It means nothing for a big company that owns the platform but it can be devastating for its unfortunate victims.
When I hear “scalable” I tend to add “and also prone to centralization” in my mind. As engineers, we often obsess about technical challenges and tend not to think about the social consequences of our actions. Monopolies are bad for consumers, they don’t care about consumers and it’s also bad to support them by using their products or by working for them. As for challenges, there is a lot of inherently complex stuff that doesn’t involve scaling monsters to monopolistic sizes. It’s even possible to scale stuff without causing centralization, take a look at Bitcoin if you need an example.
Self-hosting can remove your dependency on big platforms and it also allows you not to participate in making the current market imbalances worse by being a customer of the already monstrous corporations.
We all have to deal with the fact that the future is uncertain. Even the most trusted companies may decide to prioritize their short-term profits over their long-term reputation. It’s called “reputation mining” and a low level of transparency allows software companies to slow down their “reputation rot”, adding more incentives to engage in the behavior that damages their clients but pushes up their profits.
Self-hosting helps you to avoid disappointment when a yet another well known and adored brand becomes evil profit-at-all-costs monstrosity. Don’t make a mistake of trusting commercial companies too much. Even the best ones tend to rot by themselves or with the “help” of activist investors that can take them over at any time.
I worked for many big companies as well as for several small startups. Many of the big companies are still in business but they are filled with ads and deceptive dark patterns. They’ve become worse for their users and their users can do nothing about it. Most of the startups I’ve worked for, have failed, shutting down their servers and abandoning their users. That’s what happens when you rely on a service you don’t actually own.
I really liked Google Inbox and I used it for both my emails and task planning. It was a great service and it was also pretty popular. Guess what? Google killed it and tried to force all of its users to switch to Gmail which is a piece of shit full of ads. Can you opt out? Of course not. I’m not ready to self-host my emails but it taught me a lesson and I switched to an email service which is transparent and upfront about its business model and its handling of the user data (it uses encryption to provably minimize the amount of data which is accessible from its servers). Anyway, it was a good reminder that the costs of not self-hosting your services are also pretty high and nothing good is free. You have to pay the bills to keep your servers running, after all.
Self-hosting allows you to use the software you like for as long as you wish to.
I tend to be optimistic about most of the stuff. Well optimisticly-nihilistic, which means I tend not to give a fuck about most of the online and offline dramas but, for some reason, resisting data harvesting and raising awareness of these shady practices seems like a right thing to do.
It’s hard to argue that automation and the division of labor are wrong and it’s not what I imply here. There are reasons why many of the services we depend on are centralized and why self-hosting is not for everyone. It has many benefits but you need to invest some time and money in order to enjoy those benefits.
I see self-hosting as a productive hobby, similar to upgrading and customizing your house. I would argue that our digital spaces are no less important than our physical spaces and taking care of your digital “castle” and taking time to understand how it works might be both productive and fun. Isn’t it cool to have your own autonomous house that has it’s own water and energy supply? In my view, self-hosting is a tool that allows you to build a self-sustainable digital fortress, what’s not to like about it?.