Thoughts and feelings on the Nix drama

02 July 2024

Thoughts on the ongoing issues in the Nix project, for both philosophy and therapy.

The Nix project and community has been in the process of imploding over the last few months. I'm taking a long break from trying to contribute or even thinking about it.

Here's some thoughts on moral boundaries, and some introspection on why it's made me miserable.

My relationship to the project

I've been using Nix and NixOS for over a year-ish now. I think I was primarily introduced to it by Xe Iaso (who has since moved away from it). It appealed to me as, if not the correct way to manage computer configuration, certainly a step in the right direction. Since then, I've used NixOS for my servers, and use it as an alternative package manager on my other GNU/Linux devices.

Since I believed in its approach, I wanted to [contribute back to the project](is:pr author:williamvds) by packaging software I've been using, including Pi-hole and some other small tools. I think to date just one package has been merged, with the other two remaining in review hell - a common complaint about Nixpkgs, Nix's package repository. This is not to disparage the code reviewers, as a software developer I understand the effort required to keep a project at a high level of quality.

But I won't deny it has been disheartening. For some time since entering the "professional world", I've struggled with feeling like my skills aren't being put to good use, to benefit society at large. I believe in the Free Software philosophy: software should be made and shared with minimal restriction, to the benefit of all. Not for the extraction of wealth, nor for the benefit of private corporations and their shareholders. But my work contradicts that.

That's why I've been trying to get properly involved in a FOSS project, instead of remaining merely a user. It's been a struggle. Just as with my (attempted) contributions to Nixpkgs, I attempt to squeeze out some of this work in the little free time I have after work, after all my life stuff is out of the way, and when my mind can spare the mental energy. Long-term struggles with burnout from work certainly don't help.

That's my emotional attachment to the project: to me it's a means of contributing back to society. So when I read about the drama, suddenly what little energy I had to continue my involvement fizzled out. I opted to try to stop thinking about it all, closing my ongoing contributions for the foreseeable future.

Again, I'm a very very minor contributor to the project, mostly a prospective contributor. This is very much a parasocial relationship.

What happened

I'm not fully caught up on the details. I occasionally tried to skim discussions and such to try to see if their shit had been gotten back together, but as of writing, that is unfortunately not the case.

From my perspective it begin with a convention sponsorship. A private military contractor, Anduril, attempted to sponsor NixCon 2023 in Germany. After some uproar, that sponsorship was cancelled, apologies sent out, and I thought that was the end of that. A dumb move to accept the sponsorship in the first place, but they made the right decision in the end, I thought.

But then it happened again, this time while the unofficial NixCon NA (North America) 2024 was being planned. With the same sponsor. This time, the organisers didn't cancel the sponsorship.

Turns out, the main reason they cancelled the 2023 sponsorship was because the venue questioned the sponsorship, and volunteers handling audio/visuals refused to be associated with Anduril.

People in the community pushed back again, this time creating an open letter to demand the foundation specifically ban sponsorship from the military-industrial complex, requesting that the foundation create a proper policy to prevent this issue reoccurring.

This all coincided with flare-ups of long-running issues surrounding moderation, as well as poor governance in general from the highest level. To be honest, I haven't bothered to dig out the details of what and when and where, and I don't care to do any more. I've skimmed toxic discussions on inclusivity on so on. Apparently the original creator of the project has been holding it back.

It's all rather overwhelming, but the bit I've fixated on is the issue of military organisations' involvement in the project. I'm reminded of the profile picture I regularly see around the community, of a guy in a military jet. Apparently he's the "lead developer" at another major sponsor of Nix, Flox. As of writing, that profile picture has been removed from the Discourse site, possibly due to this whole drama.

Likely obvious by now, I signed the open letter about the sponsorship, meaning I'm firmly in the "against military-industrial complex involvement" camp.

But Free and Open Source has minimal restrictions, right?

Right. By releasing software as Free Software, there exists the possibility that people use (or in corpo-speak, leverage) that software for Evil, for any given definition of evil.

I think everyone's subconsciously aware of this fact. In the vast majority of cases though, it's very unlikely. If your software is so ubiquitous, for example curl, virtually everyone uses it to the point that all the Bad Guys do too.

Sometimes people this issue bring it to the forefront, such as the infamous JSON license including the line:

The Software shall be used for Good, not Evil

Which led to the GNU project, intimately tied to the venerable Free Software Foundation, listing it as a non-Free license.

The Free Software Foundation states that its fundamental freedom is:

The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose

Which, of course, includes military purposes. This position has its pros and cons. For one, it means they don't consider software which puts moral restrictions on usage to be Free Software. But conversely, it also means software which discriminates against who can use it is also not Free Software, For example, a license could stipulate that it shall not be used, source code viewed, or redistributed by transgender people.

The FSF policy is not apolitical. They chose to prioritise the rights of the user, all users, with a radical principle. It's obvious from reading the FSF's motivation page, that the Free Software movement is inherently political. It is anti-corporate, often anti-capitalist, and advocates for personal liberty. And if you're still in doubt, read some of Richard Stallman's essays.

As stated earlier, I generally agree with the Free Software movement's philosophy. This philosophy, however, does not require you to accept involvement of individuals or organisations you dislike or disagree with in your software project.

Each must draw their line somewhere. I draw mine well before "my software project will accept blood money from military organisations". And I don't want to associate myself with a project which crosses this line.

What makes Nix different?

All software has the potential to be used for Evil. However, the recent events in the Nix community have morphed this possibility into cold, hard reality. Nix is being used for Evil, right now. Anduril and others have stated that loud and clear.

What does that mean if I continue to use Nix & Nixpkgs, and continue trying to contribute to it? Am I second-handedly assisting the development of military technology?

Is the project permanently tainted by this fiasco? What of spinoffs and forks?

From the perspective of being a community-contributed package manager, Nixpkgs may be particularly prone to the involvement of unscrupulous individuals. Package managers in general are very useful tools, and Nix is compatible with most GNU/Linux operating system. It has a wide potential user-base. There's also very little restriction on what can be contributed to the repository. As of writing, searching for "bitcoin" gets a couple dozen hits.

What's next?

I don't know. I don't have any energy to stay engaged. My general mental health is poor enough right now, and continuing to follow drama will only worsen it.

My in-progress PRs remain closed. I don't know when or if I'll revisit them. I've barely touched my Nix configs in a while, and thankfully my servers have remained humming along.

I've blocked Nix and related subjects on my already limited social media usage to try to avoid thinking about it. Every so often when I decide to check in to see how things are going, I'm met with more hits to my psyche.

All I can do is wait things out.

Maybe the Nix community will sort itself out, and kick out the milcorps and the arseholes. Maybe a solid Nixpkgs fork will take hold. Apparently the nix app itself has already been forked? I just don't know.

It's a huge shame. I see so much potential in the Nix idea. It sucks to see it squandered like this.