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A Magazine for Sheffield

Bitfixit: Bridging the Internet Gap

The internet is a new form of literacy and, just like other sorts of literacy, having it gives you power. It can empower you to find a better job, research what politicians are claiming, and organise and socialise directly with others across the world. But not having access to a reliable computer means you lack this power. It only takes a single virus or a fault with a power cable to stop you in your tracks. For some of us, this means an annoying and expensive trip to a repair shop at the weekend. For others, it means no more internet for the foreseeable future. As the internet gets ever bigger and more important, the gap between those who are connected and those who aren't gets wider and wider. This wonderful technology should be used to connect us all, not drive us apart. That's why I founded BitFIXit, and why our members have been volunteering to fix our neighbours' computers every Saturday for the last 11 years. We've helped thousands of people in Sheffield get a few extra years of life from their old machines, removed millions of pieces of spyware and viruses, and drunk hundreds of cups of tea along the way. Our project opens its doors on Saturdays from 12-3pm at Abbeyfield Park House in Pitsmoor and we welcome all computer problems, apart from mobiles. Because our community clinics are 'pay as you feel', it's easy for us to build trust with our visitors. We'll happily spend a couple of hours repairing a headphone socket, when commercially this is dismissed as 'uneconomical'. We like to give people open source software like Linux, GIMP and OpenOffice because they are free. Free to use is a must, because most of our visitors can't afford to pay Microsoft or Apple hundreds of pounds, but these programs are also free in a subtler and more important way. These programs are literally open. You can go inside them, look at them and change the way they work if you want. This is important because there is nowhere for manufacturers to hide anything. If Volkswagen engines had open source software then we could have found them cheating emissions testing much more easily. If Skype was open source we might have spotted how the NSA had the ability record everything we said. It's a challenge to the capitalist concept of intellectual property. Rather than restricting and monetising, the mantra is sharing and empowering. Like the polio vaccine, modern software is too powerful and too important to allow a small group of powerful companies ownership so they can maximise their profit. Luckily, many of the world's best software writers feel the same way. They hate the licensing and patent restrictions that get in the way of them making the next generation of cutting-edge software. Many of them contribute to open source projects in their spare time. Linux is one of the biggest collaborative projects in the history of the planet. The basic tenet of science – speaking a common language of Latin – gave rise to an incredible age of discoveries and inventions, as knowledge from Arabic, African, Indian, Chinese and European traditions mixed together. The modern world owes its development to that freely flourishing spirit of exchange and learning. But we've allowed our biggest companies to twist the frameworks of patents and licensing into bizarre forms of enrichment for them, to the point where Apple has a patent on the rounded rectangle and format wars make products obsolete before they can mature. We see our humble work of removing spyware and repairing power sockets as part of this larger battle for power. We try to keep our neighbours on the internet, connected with each other and literate, because that is power in the modern world, and we want it shared. You can bring your computer problems to our community clinic on Saturdays, 12-3pm, at Abbeyfield Park House, S4 7AT. BitFIXit also offers a professional callout service. We're at Union St co-working space every Friday, 10am-6pm. )

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