Swatantra 2017: Behind the Scenes

The Swantantra conference on Free Software is a rather unique conference organised by ICFOSS in Trivandrum. Its unique because of the extremely rich discussion that it creates around the ideology of software freedom, rather than the technology. I was fortunate to be a part of this conference in multiple ways in December 2017. And this is a short account of the same.

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Hackable Hardware Obsession

For quite some time now, I have become obsessed with using and building hardware that is hackable. A part of this is my paranoia about using a system that is a black box (sometimes literally) and another part is about using a system that I can’t open up or fix or study or extend. It’s no fun using a system just as a normal user – without being able to look inside it and learn from it and basically being a superuser in it.

However, if you go by this logic that any hardware you own should be hackable, then you’re going to end up limiting your choices. Not all hardware is hackable. Very few hardware designers / manufacturers have any incentive or motivation to develop open hardware. A lot of hardware suffers from being badly locked down and impossible to hack. Often the methods employed to deploy alternative operating systems and firmware are themselves extremely smart hacks – sometimes the vulnerabilities of a system are exploited to replace it with something open, flexible and usable.

So hardware choices have to be made wisely. It all depends on how strongly you care about this hacker and DIY ethic. This means choosing your laptop, mobile phone, server, tablet, wireless router, single board computer, keyboard, digital picture frame, set top box, television and more by using a lot more decision making than just what is the best possible system that can be purchased at a given price.

Not just that, there might be compromises to make – sometimes you might end up buying a costlier product than what you wanted to just make sure that it does not compromise on your freedom.

You might wonder what is there to gain practically out such hackable hardware. Well — apart from a certain pride and peace of mind, there is also a lot of functionality that you can gain. And in subsequent posts, I will talk about each hackable / open source hardware that I have built, what it took to build it and what was to be gained from the whole process.