Fee or free, people or profit?

We at Comment asked some of our regular contributors to respond to Brian Janaszek's January 29 salvo on open source software and conviviality.

Symposium
February 12th, 2010

We at Comment asked some of our regular contributors to respond to Brian Janaszek's January 29 salvo on open source software and conviviality.
—The Editors




Dave Evans:

I like convivial software and open source code and the free proliferation of tools. I also really like entrepreneurship and the creation of new technologies using the vehicle of profit-making enterprise. The issue is which one to like when.

Which way to go? I don't think it's resolvable. I say that it's not an argument—it's a paradox.

The profit system has fueled the huge investments necessary to create the technology platforms that allow free tools creation to occur. The universities where open source ideas flourish and often start are dependent on corporate participation and the long food chain of profit. The open source movement fuels huge creativity, engages new players and allows true communality to flourish, letting us stand on each others' shoulders, not toes. Who wants a world without Craigslist? Isn't crowdsourcing the ultimate form of democracy?

Maybe this is one of those wonderful aspects of being co-creators with God that is meant to delight and humble us. Nature, as designed by God, is elegant but very messy. You can't always tell what's going on, and lots of times—even in physics—the correct answer to your question is "it depends." So, welcome to God's party—a place where you get to participate on the front lines of doing stuff and making things, where how you do it really matters and there are truly different approaches available that seem in conflict. Each day you have to choose, or you don't get to play.

We may even see the (near) end of this fight in our lifetimes. The whole thing may change so radically within a few decades, as everything moves to cloud computing and the crowdsourcing it empowers. If you thought Microsoft was powerful, you have no idea what Google's going to be like soon. They're really figuring out a new paradigm, where everything is on-demand and most all of it will (appear to) be free. The money is elsewhere, in the ads and the transactions, but the info and the connection and access and very possibly the code will all be free. From paradox to movement to moot in one generation—that'd be cool to see.




Milton Friesen:

Technology and conviviality are strange bedfellows. Mixing open source terminology with the idea of conviviality doesn't quite work for me. I keenly support—both philosophically and as a result of being a ceaseless life-hacker—making source code available for people to use and modify. I'm also fully devoted to eating, drinking and good company. These pursuits cannot, however, be presumed to be in any way equivalent to one another, and should perhaps not be construed as such.

Open source software is about leveraging our collaborative impulses to accomplish together what would be impossible to do on our own. With coding in particular, that often means working with people you might never meet, who live in some other geographic setting (or in a different part of the building).

Working collaboratively on an open source project can lead to conviviality, but it does not necessarily do so by its nature. Considering the varied implications of Word vs. OpenOffice involves copyright battles, intellectual property law, user-group processes and technical efforts of all kinds. All well and good. But development can happen without having to ever meet people. This is not to say that developers never meet—only that they may carry out their work without doing so.

You cannot, however, fully enjoy good food, drink and company apart from being in the same place, experiencing the boisterous textures of other human beings with their wildly varied nuances of smell, taste, sight, sound and touch.

I would like to gently defend the noble legacy of conviviality against the erosion of digital comparison. Let our discussions of who owns the code and who can change it be about important aspects of our freedom—legal, creative, and otherwise. Digital connection remains a very thin substitute for experiencing the company of living, noisy, raucous human beings intent on being alive together without digital mediation. Party and celebrate fully and pursue open source collaboration without ceasing.




Sharon Johnson:

I appreciate the ethos behind the idea of open source software, and as a Mac user, I am interested to know there are some free options available for me. However, I am really a computer fledgling and don't know how to go about using some of the resources available to me. I am particularly interested in interfaces with standard software, because, for example, I need to readily communicate with users of Microsoft Word. Where can I find knowledgeable others who can guide and comment on the free resources available to a fledgling?




Rosie Perera:

I appreciate that open source software can contribute to human freedom. I use it often and have contributed to beta testing it. I believe it has a significant role to play in preventing giants like Microsoft from controlling the means to our ends, a purpose which Illich would applaud. But I wouldn't say the level of community afforded by collaboration on an open source project can rival that enjoyed by a team developing software together as part of a company. In fact, the term company is related to the word companions (Latin: ones who eat bread together). In my work at Microsoft, we had a great deal of conviviality, both in the sense of friendly companionship (albeit not Illich's meaning for the term) and in the sense of freedom to create—within certain constraints, of course.

Illich was not opposed to development of proprietary technology per se. He was concerned that the technology serve the people rather than the other way around, that we remain free to use or not use it, that it respect "natural scales and limits." A small software company creating a useful closed-source program and selling it to users who could choose to buy it or not (for the purposes for which it was designed) would not have bothered Illich, I'm convinced. He supported a certain amount of professionalization of medicine to the extent that it didn't do more harm than good.

What he objected to was what he called a "radical monopoly"—not dominance of a particular brand, but the ubiquity and inevitability of a particular type of tool—in which people can no longer choose to do things the old non-mechanized way. Nobody can walk in Los Angeles, for example, because the car has taken over. Microsoft Word is not a problem, but a world in which nobody could write documents any other way would be. Fortunately there is still Wendell Berry with his manual typewriter, and he can't be forced to buy a computer. He wouldn't use open source software either.

Finally, a few minor nits:

  1. Janaszek confuses "free software" with "open source software"—one involves price and licensing, and the other development methodology. Though there is much overlap, the open source community "accept[s] some licenses that [Stallman, et al.] consider too restrictive, and there are free software licenses they have not accepted."

  2. He says that the inability to download Microsoft Office source code "immediately nullifies" freedom 0. It is actually the EULA that nullifies freedom 0, not the unavailability of the source code.

  3. He says that "Microsoft Office [file] formats are not published"—this is not true anymore. In Office 2007, Microsoft adopted Open XML, an "open, royalty-free file format specification" standardised by an international industry association.

I still think it is worth asking the question whether software can be inherently convivial. Open source is probably a step in the right direction, but it doesn't get all the way there.




Response from Brian Janaszek:

Technology and conviviality are indeed strange bedfellows, as Mr. Friesen points out, at least in the common understanding of conviviality. Yes, often software developers (open source or not) work in a sort of physical isolation, and this does not foster conviviality in the common sense or even in Illich's sense. It is important to realize, however, that not all open source development works this way. Developers on a larger project may work remotely, but there are times (conferences, for instance) that allow the "team" to come together. I experienced this first-hand last year when I attended YAPC|10 (Yet Another Perl Conference) in Pittsburgh. The leading Perl developers (Perl is an open source language) are well known in the community, and I only saw them apart when they were leading seminars and lightning talks. It was clear they valued and enjoyed each other's company.

Though I did not pursue this in my initial essay, I believe we should so also examine software (open or closed source) with convivially-tinted glasses—particularly how it is used. The Internet, especially in this phase of social media, has created a vast virtual community. This is both a blessing and curse. Without it, I would not have likely crossed paths with the fine people at Cardus. Yet this virtual community fosters a sense of false community—yes, you can grow relationships with people you may never actually meet in person, but if your relationships are limited to the virtual, you are clearly missing an important part of living: sharing food, drink and time with people you love. We must always be aware that virtual communities can never supplant physical communities.

The paradox that Mr. Evans describes is not necessarily so thorny. I appreciate that Illich didn't necessarily want to abolish "industrial" tools—he simply sought a balance (and, as I stated before, I believe Richard Stallman's "free or nothing" approach is wrong). The key, I think, is to integrate free and open source tools in your own projects (free or not), and, more importantly, contribute to those communities. Google, among others, leads the way here. Android (their open source mobile operating system) and Chrome (their open source web browser) are growing in popularity among both developers and users, and Google has released countless other tools and platforms to the community (for example, Unladen Swallow, their implementation of the Python runtime). Google is certainly not a non-profit company, and perhaps a cynic would say their open source contributions make for good marketing, but it is difficult to deny that their engineers are contributing to the open source community.

Ms. Johnson's question exposes a bit of the seedy underbelly of the open source movement. It was born of free thinking and self-motivated hackers (not crackers!) who valued self-reliance, and these characteristics still drive the movement today. Unfortunately, while these traits make for hardy individuals, they can leave new users out in the cold. But this attitude is changing as programmers realize that if open source applications are to be viable replacements for their closed source alternatives, they must care about their users. As far as finding software, well, Google (or your favourite search engine) is your friend. Start with "open source application." Lifehacker periodically releases "Top 10 Open Source Apps" lists, and these can be very helpful. As for help, there are a growing number of "social" community sites like superuser.com and howtogeek.com that offer kinder, gentler forums for advice.

Finally, despite the picked nits, I think Ms. Perera and I agree on the basic issues at hand. Illich didn't wish to do away with proprietary tools. And, of course, I would be a hypocrite to advocate Richard Stallman's approach, since my employment consists of writing proprietary software. One can indeed produce a closed system yet still give users "hooks" into the software to produce their own tools and extensions (Microsoft does this with their Visual Studio integrated development environment). What Illich wanted, and I what I seek too, is balance. In that balance lies our greatest freedom as developers and users of software and technology.

Topics: Business Culture

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