Celebrating the next generation of software tinkerers: interview with Matthias Kirschner from FSFE

by pavel | February 14, 2024

Today is "I love Free Software Day" a special day of appreciation to all the contributors to free software projects, large or small, and to show some love to those who advocate for free software. This year's theme is "Forging the future with Free Software" to engage younger generations, i.e. those who play a big part in shaping the future of free software. That's why we're putting a spotlight on one of those projects that aims to do exactly that: the children's book Ada & Zangemann -- A Tale of Software, Skateboards, and Raspberry Ice Cream by Matthias Kirschner with illustrations from Sandra Brandstätter.

The story follows a young hardware tinkerer Ada on her quest to take on Zangemann, an inventor who began controlling all of the world's computerized devices to do exactly what he wants. She learns that the power of computer code can set her and children everywhere free from the villainous inventor's selfish plan. Through clever experiments with hardware and software, Ada and her friends show the world how important it is to be able to have control over the everyday technologies we use. Suited for readers ages 6 to 106, the book is designed to peak children's interest in engaging with hardware and software, and to encourage their desire to shape their own technology.

From our own community outreach and advocacy work, we know how hard it is to illustrate the critical role of free and open-source technology for democratic participation. It's even more difficult if you have to break it down for younger generations. We sat down with Matthias Kirschner, the author of the book and president of the FSFE (Free Software Foundation Europe) to learn more about what inspired this project, how his own children helped him tease out the narrative--and what parents and others can do today to help shape the future of free software.

What is the importance of introducing younger audiences to the concept of free and open-source technology and its role in democratic societies?*

In Democracies we distribute power, and try to ensure that not too much power is concentrated in the hands of only a few people. Those checks and balances are often missing or not considered for technology. If we want to prevent a few people from controlling the rest of humankind, we need to ensure the distribution of power in the realm of technology as well.

Enabling the next generations to tinker, to actively shape technology, and have discussions about the effects on how we live together in a world full of technology will heavily influence democratic outcomes in the future. So, if you care about a free society, you should care about software freedom.

How were you able to tackle these technical issues and abstract concepts and package them into a story that would appeal to a young(er) audience?

As a father I read a lot of stories for children, with some of them doing a really good job at explaining complex topics, and I thought there would also be something like that about the impact of technology on our lives. So, I asked around on mailing lists for recommendations on books about software, hardware, programming, or also ethical aspects of those technologies for children. But I did not get a lot of recommendations and those I liked were geared more towards older children.

That's why I started to make up my own bedtime stories for my children that focused on those topics by viewing them through the lens of what they experienced during the day. And that was a great way to receive some honest and direct feedback. What did they understand, what did they like and what not? This helped me understand what story elements would work and should be included--and slowly but surely, the story of Ada emerged.

You mentioned the difficulty of finding resources that are also suitable for children. How can interested parents and kids continue their digital rights education journey after you've peaked their interest with your book?

For children, depending on how they like to learn I would either recommend checking if there are any local groups out there that already offer programming classes for certain age groups or that allow them to tinker with hardware. Or to check out resources in the library or online resources for self-guided learning. In general it is great for children and teenagers to connect with others with the same interests; at least I experience that with the children I met at my book readings and with the participants of the FSFE's coding competition for teenagers Youth Hacking 4 Freedom

I would also recommend introducing them to other books about the impact of technology on our society that are slightly outside of their age group and do some guided reading with parents. For example, I am a big fan of Cory Doctorow's stories. If you are an adult and have not yet read "Little Brother" or "Unauthorized Bread" by him, you definitely should do so. 

For those who are interested in non-fiction, the writings that influenced me most and made me better understand those topics were Lawrence Lessig's "Code and other laws of cyberspace" as well as the GNU project's philosophy page. And of course I also recommend people interested in those topics to follow the FSFE's work for software freedom.

This book is suited for kids, but they will grow up to become adults. What can the adults of today do to create a better digital future for their kids? What are some future scenarios that demand action today so that upcoming generations can have a 'better internet'?

The good thing is there are many things that can be done. Have a look at websites of organisations like EFF, Free Software Foundation, Software Freedom Conservancy working on user rights, many of the great groups developing free software, like the Tor Project, and see how you can contribute.

For example, for us at the Free Software Foundation Europe, contributing as a volunteer or donating makes a huge difference on what we can achieve in our policy, legal, technical, and public awareness work for software freedom. In general you should give more money to people, organizations, and companies that enable you to use software, which you are allowed to use, understand, share, and improve. 

Besides that it is important to work on those topics long-team. It took a long time in many countries to establish the freedom of the press. There are still many people who do not benefit from it. And it does not stop there: you have to defend such rights constantly. The same applies for software freedom. It will take us a long time to establish it as a default right and even longer to defend it.

What is the feedback you've been getting from kids & their parents about this book?

I suspected that some people would like such a book, but I was surprised how much positive feedback we received. From "I read the book with my daughter and now she wants to start programming" to those who gifted the book to their parents, colleagues, business partners, their boss or politicians and say that it helped start discussions about ethics and technology. 

There are also people who suggest or donate the book to libraries or those who even offer schools, youth clubs, or hackerspaces to read the book there -- which I can just recommend to everyone. I have meanwhile read the book to over 1000 people, and it highly motivates me every time (you can find all the materials for readings in our git repository.)

And it is great to see how people support translations of the book. For example, volunteers translated and published it in Italian; through donations we could print 3500 Ukrainian copies and distribute them to organizations working with refugees; afterwards we could repeat that with 7000 Arabic copies; a large car manufacturer contracted a Spanish translation which should soon be finished, in order to increase the participation of girls and young women in STEM; and through an initiative of the French Ministry of Education four schools did a project for several weeks to work with the book and do a collaborative online translation of it, which was then release by a publisher in December.

Is there anything else you'd like to share about this project or others that you are working on?

The book is published under CC-BY-SA, so use the power of the license to support and I hope you find it useful to assist your work for digital rights. More information on https://ada.fsfe.org including a link to our git repository https://git.fsfe.org/FSFE/ada-zangemann which hosts the illustrations and texts including community translations, as well as all the material I used to read it at schools or libraries.

It is also currently available in English by the publisher No Starch Press to order from the US and can be pre-ordered from your preferred bookstore world-wide with the ISBN 978-1-718-50318-2.

Do not forget to contribute and donate to organizations like the Tor Project or the FSFE.

And most importantly, a big thank you to all the contributors of the Tor project. You are making crucial contributions to our society. That is what "I love Free Software Day" is all about. Thank you very much!


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