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Adventures with Proprietary Software in Disneyland

by Karen Sandler on December 2, 2019

I'm not a big fan of Disney - I don't like the impact the company has had on copyright or the social messages that they have insinuated over the years. But I have little kids and when I was in the Los Angeles area I knew I had to take them to Disneyland. I have happy childhood memories myself of a visit there. Like my mother did when I was young, I researched everything I could about how to make the trip the most enjoyable for my kids. I planned out a route to get to the rides, what we would likely eat, even what my kids would wear. I noticed that the tickets that I got came with the ability to skip some of the lines. In order to use that part of the tickets, you had to download the Disneyland app.

If you're reading this, you probably know that I avoid as much proprietary software as I can. I have a heart condition and a technical background, so that when doctors prescribed a pacemaker/defibrillator, I was appalled not to have any ability to look at the software that was to be sewn into my body and attached to my heart. I didn't have much choice but to get the device but I have been passionate ever since about making sure our software is safe and ethical. At first I was concerned with the transparency of the software and making sure it could be reviewed. Then as I lived with my device I encountered times where I realized that my device wasn't designed exactly for me. Through no ill will of my device manufacturer, I was getting unnecessary and unwanted treatment, and the only way to deal with it was to take drugs to slow my heart rate down. I realized that this was a spot-on just a really good example of how well-intentioned manufacturers could simply not anticipate all of the use cases for their product. These experiences have made me passionate about software freedom and our ability of us -- as the public technology users and consumers -- to have fundamental control of our technology in a practical and meaningful way.

Now because of all of this, I'm all about using only free and open source software whenever I can. I'm as "pure" as one can be about avoiding proprietary software while still getting things done for myself in the world - I have to use proprietary java script when to book a flight or interface with my bank, for example but otherwise I simply avoid it. So when I was getting ready for Disneyland, I was disappointed to see the app referenced but I figured I'd just complain at the park but have my husband use his phone to down load the app so that I'd make the point but also make an exception for this special occasion and one-time use (I believe getting someone else to use proprietary software or do anything else you'd morally avoid specifically for your benefit is basically the same as using it yourself.

Arriving at the park was so magical for my kids. We got there right when the park opened and the line was minimal to get in. There were many Disney characters for them to take pictures with. And then, when we started to embark on our planned out day of rides and adventures, we realized: my husband's phone was too old to download the app. The lines on some of the rides were already starting to form and it began to set in that even though we theoretically had the ability to skip some of those lines, we were going to be unable to do it. I cannot describe to you the sinking feeling I had when I realized that I had spent a ton of money to make my little kids stand in long lines doing nothing for a large part of what was supposed to be such a special day, all because of my desire to avoid proprietary software. I had let them down. After spending so much time making sure I was prepared to maximize the day, I was so embarrassed and upset. My face literally went red.

Now, I'm a lawyer and a software freedom advocate. I'm an Executive Director! I pulled myself together and marched over to the customer service people. If you watch the Good Place, these women looked and acted an awful lot like Janet. I explained to them what had happened - that we'd purchased the tickets that we learned had line skipping ability, that I don't use proprietary software and my husband's phone was too old for the app. We had no way to access this feature. The Janets were nice but puzzled. They had not had anyone complain about this before and had never considered that this could happen. But ultimately they understood my problem.

Disneyland is a huge expense. It's a lot of money to get in, and there are tons of additional things you can buy presenting themselves attractively to your children at all corners. While the staff is really nice about not upselling you, it's hard not to feel very self conscious about money while you are there. The less money you have the more dear it is to you to make the most of this special splurge. And it's embarrassing to admit that your phone is so old that you can't even download a "free" app.

The Janets were lovely and were able to attach a few special passes on our tickets that allowed us to skip certain lines in a different way and then gave us advice on where we should use them to best maximize our time in the park, so my story had a happily ever after that day. But the implications of that experience were haunting.

While surely Disney wants visitors to Disneyland to spend as much money as possible, it was clear to me they'd taken care to make sure that there were ways for people on a budget to have a good experience - you can plan to bring your own food into the park, if you try to buy something without specifying you want a larger size or special version they assume you want the basic option without asking, and the workers will take pictures of you with your own phone so that you don't have to purchase their professional photos. But the technology wasn't designed with that care. Poor people with old phones would have to walk up to customer service and confess in front of their children and anyone else around that they couldn't afford a more modern phone to find out whether or not there was another option to skip the lines. I don't think most people would do that. They would just spend a large part of the day waiting miserably in lines that more well off people would easily skip.

While there's hopefully nothing life or death about going to Disneyland, it was a profound example about how our technology is being created with inequity baked into its very design. I wanted my children to have a good time that day so badly, and I had spent so much money to even get there, that it was an emotional experience even for a skeptic like me to feel like the experience we had looked forward to was being yanked away. When companies incorporate proprietary software into their basic products, services and experiences it becomes much more likely that this will be the effect. Richer people using new proprietary software never even realize this as they used technology they considered available to all.

We must be more thoughtful and resist incorporating technology carelessly into more and more aspect of our lives. We must embrace the fact that the creators of any technology cannot anticipate every possible customer or use. We must insist that when we do require the use of software that we provide fundamental control for it to be changed by those users who haven't been anticipated (or by someone working to help those users down the road). The only way to be sure that there is no ultimate inequity is by making sure there are easy "analog" alternatives to technological solutions for every day activities, and to make sure that software is free software as often as possible so that software can be adjusted when people need it to be, especially those who are most vulnerable.

Tags: software freedom for everyone

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