Ethical Interfaces: an introduction to the world of small software

What is open source? What is “small software”?

“‘Open source” is a term that originally referred to open source software (OSS). Open source software is code that is designed to be publicly accessible—anyone can see, modify, and distribute the code as they see fit.”

That’s what “open source” means. It generally also implies that the interface, the program or application is free for use by anyone. Users can donate to developers if they wish to do so. Free doesn’t always = accessible, but in the world of digital media, especially in creative industries, open source programs often allow creators a lot more freedom to experiment, contribute and enjoy the possibilities of a given software. 

What I mean when I say “small software” is a software that meets a few of my own requirements: 

Why open source? Why small software?

As a full-time artist AND a full-time activist, nothing makes me more proud than hosting a successful digital event with totally rad artists, using secure & open source platforms, created using software made by kind and wonderful developers.

I take immense pride in my commitment to protecting the digital and intellectual safety of my entire collaboration team on any given project. In my short career, I have been able to determine that the benefits of committing to working with ethical interfaces often outweigh the challenges presented by the troubleshooting processes that can sometimes inhibit or lengthen a creative process. This is not to say that problems are only present in open source applications or that large corporations offer flawless products that are more reliable. 

But if given the choice, wouldn’t you rather feel good about what digital spaces you and your audience are creating and participating in? Digital safety is a frequently overlooked aspect of the creation process. 

Creating digital works can and should be easily accessible to any person who wants to make them. The world of digital events is vast, and every person you speak to will have their own solution for any given problem you run into. 

A large part of my practice is ensuring that my process and the tools I use are in alignment with my virtues as a human and an artist. I’d like to share some resources that I value in my work with digital creation, online security, and supporting ethical small businesses. All resources are cross platform unless otherwise noted:

Isadora: the creativity server [affordable, small software]

I’m biased because the developers at Isadora charmed me when I was young and impressionable. Since the beginning of my learning journey with Isadora, I have always felt unconditionally supported by the developers and the community on the Troikatronix forum.

While it is not free, nor open source, I sleep better at night knowing that my $30/month license fee is helping these artists do the hard work that allows me to more easily and freely create my art. There are a wealth of tutorials and deep dives by the creators and staff at Troikatronix available on their YouTube!

Jitsi.meet [open source, free]

I find myself using Jitsi more and more the further we dive into this collective digital world. What I appreciate about Jitsi is it’s unhinged versatility. It is free, open source, it allows for unlimited participants, HD video, locking meetings, YouTube integrations, screen sharing, end-to-end encryption for some users, and call-ins. There are other features that I would encourage you to look into during your next virtual meeting. 

Jitsi is constantly in development, and therefore is not always 100% reliable. The vast majority of issues can be fixed with a browser switch or a quick refresh or permissions check. Things sometimes just don’t work, no matter what you do. 

Existential Audio: Blackhole Virtual Audio Routing [free, MAC ONLY]

Existential Audio offers a free download of their virtual audio routing plugin with a quick email signup. It’s a simple way to redirect the sound coming from your video conference directly into a stream or recording interface. This is how I most frequently use it. It is widely compatible, and while it has no GUI (graphical user interface), it requires almost no setup and is fairly reliable. 

VOICEMEETER [by donation, PC ONLY]

This Windows alternative for virtual audio routing features a wider array of settings, mixing and routing options, all for the price of a donation as low as $1! Many PC users in the digital arts world swear by this platform and, for such a reasonable price, it is certainly worth testing. 

OBS [open source, free]

OBS stands for open broadcasting software. It is a collaborative project designed for livestreamers, and is super super simple to setup and use across all platforms (even Linux!). Whether you’re livestreaming, recording or sending your creation back into your video conference, OBS is the very last step. 

It offers robust configuration options for livestreams (bitrate, latency, optimization for different platforms), and recording (size, location, reliable stream capturing). 

Why go to all this effort? 

My dedication to this ideology stems from my involvement in grassroots activism, where security, digital safety and anonymity are imperative for the efficacy of our campaigns and demonstrations. I have found that extending this learned culture of safe usage of digital interfaces into my artistic practice has helped myself and my collaborators to be free of self-censorship and have a better understanding of what our presence in digital spaces actually means in a greater socio-political context. 

How does this work in practice?

Aside from utilising the tools suggested above, I have worked on creating “security briefings” for certain productions to help keep all artists safe.

One example is from a production that dealt with the sensitive themes around the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement, and in the interest of protecting all artists, we prepared pseudonyms and some protocol:

team security briefing 

names, crediting, pseudonyms

Most of the team has opted to be credited under a different name for this production. This means that these team members want to keep their involvement in this piece out of the public eye. This means we’ll need to avoid using their real names in situations like: 

  • Discussing the piece with friends, family, colleagues
  • Speaking to the media in interviews and appearances in promoting the piece
  • In public promotional and print materials for yellow objects on all platforms where the show is being represented
  • Other situations at the requests of each artist respectively

Everyone is currently comfortable using real names/emails/phone numbers within the circle of the production! 

awareness of the situation & nsl safety

You can follow Alliance Canada-Hong Kong for updates on the Canada-Hong Kong advocacy front.

If you have plans to travel to Hong Kong or China, please familiarise yourself with the terms of the National Security Law’s border defying policies and plan to protect yourself accordingly.

secure storage of information & secure communication

I made a little info package for the safe usage of Telegram. Just a reminder that conversations are not encrypted by default (you must use the secret chat function), and that the desktop app version is not considered secure. 

We are in the process of moving the personal information of the team off of the cloud and onto encrypted harddrives, as an extra precaution to protect addresses & SINs from any potential attacks. 

onsite safety for team & participants

The Venue has a sophisticated and secure registration system that will ensure that all attendees are registered and issued a ticket. It is of course, not out of the question that we may encounter folks with the intention to disturb or interrupt our event. Try not to let anyone take your photo! If a situation does arise, staff will be onsite to assist and de-escalate. 

tankie update

Be aware of sketchy follows/friend requests/likes on your social media and messengers. If someone like this: https://twitter.com/aerielist engages you on social media about Hong Kong, this show, or your involvement in the community, do not reply. Block. Report. 

Folks on the margins of the activism communities have been increasingly targeted in recent weeks, thanks to the massive waves of hate, threats, physical and verbal attacks that we’ve seen against more prominent activists in Canada. 

No one is immune, really. Social engineering makes it really simple for people to see who we work with, what our work is and who we support. 

Be careful, report anything suspicious to the team, and be aware that you’re not imagining things. It’s actually scary out there. 

Let me know if you’d like more resources/info on this recent wave of suppression against Canadian HKers & their supporters. 

In conclusion, I want to provide you with a few further resources if you are interested in further understanding my approach:

The Dramaturgy of Online Security by Davey Samuel Calderon 

DIY Feminist Cybersecurity 

U.S. lawmakers ask Zoom to clarify China ties after it suspends accounts 

Platform pros/cons by Andie Lloyd & Anthony Lee

Artist Disclaimer

Andie is a contractor with FOLDA and a co-digital technologist at Progress Lab 1422. An interdisciplinary artists coming from varying backgrounds in theatre, film, music, writing and more, they are committed to sourcing and researching the possibilities of accessible, professional and ethical methods of presenting digital & remote work.

As artists who work with technology as our primary voice for artistic expression, we are often up against tech industry monoliths that often represent the very same systems of oppression that our work and the work we support seeks to dismantle. It is not a simple task to source and create a functional digital performance without years of experience and expertise in live A/V production. We acknowledge and understand that this access barrier is often what prevents us from presenting professional quality work. 

I am interested not only in what is going to support your work technologically, but also ethically. I am interested in exploring open source, secure, small business, queer & BIPOC owned apps, APIs and platforms. When we can’t use these, it is important that we share the impact that platforms have on our global socio-political landscape and beyond. 

I am new to this world too, and am trying, failing and learning everyday.

If you’re interested in discussing this aspect of my work in more detail, please reach out: digital@c-space.ca