Five years went by since Eben Moglen's Freedom in the Cloud talk, in which he made it clear (at least to me) that computer programmers have a responsibility to decentralize power in the world. The term 'hackers' is often used to mean people who break the law using computers, but I'm using it in the sense of computer programmers who decentralize power, and this is usually done in ways that are fully legal under applicable law.
For a lot hackers, this is just a game. They are the ones who build a quadcopter with Arduino because it's fun. People who run linux on their desktop sometimes have a sense of superiority over people who merely run Windows or OSX, because it's difficult and l33t. But this is still sports. Even in hackerspaces and at hacker gatherings (camps and conferences), the majority of people are passionate and curious about technology, and how to make it better, and control it better.
A lot of people, especially around groups like FSF, EFF, FSFE, Quadrature du Net, FramaSoft, etcetera, do have a clear sense of "this is very much not a game". In the last years, Noisy Square is a sort of meeting place for people who want to help decentralize power because they realize it's important, and that as a trained engineer they have a unique choice, which not many people on this earth get to make: they can either go build a quadcopter, or go make a difference.
Journalists, politicians, doctors and (controversially) soldiers are often in a very similar way driven to make a difference. Once you accept a certain responsibility for the things that happen around you, you can no longer just look away and work on some random stuff, just because the salary is nice. Choosing what you work on has become part of your job.
So what should a computer programmer like myself work on? Every time I come up with an answer to that question, I can find 5 different things that may be more important than the one I just chose. The study of unhosted web apps (including the development of remoteStorage as a technology) has been my primary project for most of the past five years, but there were always other projects floating around that, fighting for a share of my time: OpenTabs, Terms of Service; Didn't Read, UserAddress, and the one that sort of took over as my "primary" project, IndieHosters.
But I often think that I could (and therefore should) be doing even more important things. Yesterday I was at a meetup about the situation of Syrian refugees. There are so many people living in misery that it seems almost like a crime of negligence not to try to do something for them. I could earn money and donate it to charity:water. I could offer my skill in a refugee camp, for instance by setting up communication networks that let refugees contact other family members.
The question is what will have the biggest impact. With a well-paid engineer job, I could probably set money aside to finance one charity:water well (they cost about 10 kUSD each), and make life a little better in one village. Offering my skills in a refugee camp sounds like it should have a big impact, but there is probably a lot of missionary bias in that - going to a poor country to fix things there, using our supposedly superior Western approach and tools.
It's not at all clear if I could do something useful as a computer programmer, if what people actually need is for instance food and blankets. I would also be in a very bad position to predict how people will react to for instance a safe internet connection between refugee camps. It's likely that it would be used to still participate in the war people just fled from, organizing new attacks for instance. Or it could be used by the mafia powers which probably exist in the chaotic society of a refugee camp.
Thinking more long-term, I often think that the only issue that really matters about how we organize humanity during the 21st century will prove to be either the diminishing rainforest or the antarctic methane problem. But I don't know what to do about these issues. Maybe the only people who can save the rainforest are Western politicians (who like to think of themselves as the 'world police'), convincing or incentivizing Latin American and South-East Asian politicians to create very big nature reserves. Maybe this can be organized through the united nations.
Or maybe we can organize global civil awareness through a collaboration of the WWF and GreenPeace, making sure nobody buys uncertified wood and palm oil shampoo anymore, and that thousands of people go tie themselves to trees when the bulldozers come, thus creating awareness among local voters and politicians in countries that are currently selling their natural rainforests to project developers.
Then there is the idea of 'hacking society', to change the course of capitalism. A more direct economy (people directly exchanging hours of work with consumers, instead of their work being controlled by investors) would reduce inequality (yes, I'm reading Piketty at the moment), and could also increase visibility of providence. Working on direct economy is quite theoretical and abstract work, compared to bringing wifi or clean water to one village, but its potential impact, if successful, is of course much more global and long-lasting. OpenTabs is a project that studies direct economy. It has not had any practical application so far (apart from a few test implementations), but if it were to find adoption somewhere, one day, I think it could make a difference.
Also, by developing free technology, I could be eventually be helping to empower individuals, which could (depending on how everybody would use this power) lead to a better world. IndieHosters, UserAddress, unhosted web apps, Terms of Service; Didn't Read, and the recent Decentralized Sharing Working Group all address a piece of the puzzle of the decentralized internet, whose ongoing consolidation of power we should try to stop.
And so, until next time I'll go through the cycle of asking myself these exact same questions again, I am able to tell myself that by working on the projects I was already working on, even though they don't explicitly relief the misery of one single person, I am really doing the best I can to fulfill my responsibility towards the things that are going on in the world around us. :)