My name is Johannes Ernst. I’ve been working with technology for something like 20+ years now, starting out in hardware … actually, if you count my teenage years soldering TTL chips together and disassembling my Z-80 computer‘s OS, then it’s a bit longer. After earning two now-extinct degrees (“Diplom-Ingenieur Elektrotechnik” and “Dr.-Ing.”, replaced by M.Sc. and PhD EE), I did embedded systems-related work for some automotive companies including BMW, worked on some development and simulation tools for some tool vendors, started an object modeling industry group in the Object Management Group, moving from Germany to Silicon Valley in the process. But for many years I’ve been gravitating towards the bleeding edge of how to empower people and groups to be more capable, more successful, with more personal tools that leverage the network and keep control with the users.

This lead to some distributed collaboration software, P2P style, and raising venture capital; mobile, situationally aware software in healthcare; an innovative web graph database, and the wild idea of decentralized identity on the internet which evolved – should I say, detoured? – into OpenID.

More recently, I’ve become increasingly concerned about the masses of personal data that — fundamentally unaccountable — organizations are aggregating, and sometimes hold hostage, about every one of us. If this is the information age, information is the ultimate resource, just like it was with steel and oil in previous ages, and they clearly understand how to dominate this age by taking possession of the age’s critical resource: personal data. This occurs both in the public sector, and in the private sector.

As individuals, we’ve largely let them, and even helped them by uploading all of our photos to other people’s servers, by having our conversations with our friends on 3rd party sites (with no local copy of what happened) and so forth. Arguably, we didn’t have much choice, because as technologists we have failed so far to build technologies that avoided those consequences and could stand up competitively.

But there’s a countervailing trend: the availability of cheap computing resources that, in principle, make it possible for anybody to have their own server on the internet and do whatever is available on somebody else’s site on our own, Indie Web style. For example:

  • For a few dollars a month, or even sometimes for free, anybody can get their own (virtual) server in the cloud from Amazon and other cloud companies.
  • Extremely cheap, but powerful “little” computers like the Raspberry Pi, BeagleBone etc. are popping up everyone. Just a few years ago, “real servers” had similar specs, so one can do real stuff with these little computers, and they are being deployed left and right as part of the Internet of Things roll-out.

So my focus is now to make it possible for mere humans to use all that power, so we can inhibit or even reverse that big data grab by unaccountable others, “bring our data home”, and do amazing things ourselves, without being dependent on some big internet overlord or other. Free and open source software is a great facilitator on this.

Just one generation ago people started doing amazing things with this new thing, called the PC, that took the mainframe guys out of the loop. I think we can do the same thing again. Which is why most of my focus these days is on UBOS, a Linux distro that will make it possible for everybody to own and control their personal data.

If you read this far, I’d love to hear from you!

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