Category Archives: open source

The Free Software Movement

Had been to Gnu/Linux Habba today, it elicited quite a good response from the student community, compared to what Im used to from my student days. Gnu/Linux is getting a fair bit of attention, since it is also being viewed as something that can get one a job. The Free Software Movement has grown phenomenally to say the least in the past few years, not least because of events like the Habba.

It is not a coincidence that the FSM exploded with the explosion of the internet. The great levelling power of the internet contributed immensely to the growth of the FSM, and this is well known. If one analyses the FSM, the key features one would find are:

  • Community: pariticipants think (or are urged to think) of themselves as part of a larger community. It is only the mutual give and take that makes Free Software what it is now.
  • Cooperation: Helping each other to solve problems, in whatever capacity possible is a by-product of the feeling of community. Big egos exist, but they are usually reined in ‘for the greater good’.
  • Equity: Notice that Communist also derives from the word community. The reason why the FSM did not end up becoming a dictatorship is the equity among its participants. Any person with a reasonable contribution is welcomed. Communism, for all its hype, never featured equity at the level of the FSM. There is a reason for that, however: most participants, atleast in the development process are of similar skill and background. They differ in terms of ideas and experiences, which makes for the vibrancy in the movement.
  • Communication: members are highly communicative, in one medium or the other. The value of this need not be stated, especially in reinforcing the above three.
  • Zealousness: Firm belief and identification with the goals of the FSM of people from varied backgrounds, skill and intellectual levels keeps the fire alive, at all costs.

The FSM defines a ‘commons’, a shared resource that anyone can use without interfering with anyone else’s rights, especially the right to private property. Noone or, equivalently, everyone owns it. IMO, it is the largest movement of our times which has altruism as a core tenet.

This was one of the reasons for the initial scepticism that it faced from the corporate world, who are taught that everything must be owned by someone (not everyone!). Fortunately for the FSM, the developed economies were rapidly transitioning into service economies at the same time as it was growing and viable business models came into being which put service ahead of the product. The corporates, adaptable beasts that they are, probably saw the value that FSM can bring in a service economy and joined forces. It is quite amazing that two social institutions, one based on altruism and another based on selfishness have managed such a fruitful interaction.

It is not as if only the corporation adapted to the FSM. The other way round happened as well. People who previously talked in terms of freedom also started talking in terms of business models and bottomlines. This is a constant feature of resilient social institutions: they learn other’s languages and develop a hybrid one at the end. With the corporation firmly behind FSM, there is no doubt that it will continue to grow and flourish. Thus, the FSM has learnt to value selfishness to some degree, and corporations have learnt a (very little) bit of altruism.

Similar interactions have happened between the Environmental movement and the corporation, leading to environmental economics for the greens and green manufacturing for Wall Street. One of the reasons that I feel the corporation will be the dominant institution for a very long time to come is this high adaptability that it possesses. Religion pretty much disintegrated in the West after the Enlightenment, but the corporation has withstood many assaults from the time of the Industrial Revolution.

Then why is adoption to Gnu/Linux still slow ? the FSM, quite like the environmentalists, had been interacting within themselves for too long. Not anymore. Gnu/Linux Habba was a focussed session on usability, especially in Kannada. Similar outreach activities will continue to push Gnu/Linux to the mainstream. However, its impact will not be as high as the environmental movement until they make a fundamental shift in approach: most interactive sessions focus on the outcome part of using Gnu/Linux. For a person, especially in places where software piracy(!) is not taken seriously, the outcome of using Gnu/Linux is not very different from using MS Windows or Word. Some things cannot be captured by the outcome of using a software product, like the experience of using it. Like the marketing tenet says, sell the experience, not the product. One has to ‘sell’ the status, moral superiority of using Free software. This is not as outlandish as it sounds. This is what the environmentalists are trying to do by asking for labelling of products, and what Apple does when it is selling the iPod, which is otherwise just a box which makes noise.

This is a slow process, but systematic brainwashing will defintely lead to favorable results. Maybe some perusing of marketing literature is in order ;)

PS: you cannot really sell an experience if the product does not work well. However, I think GNU/Linux is almost out of the blocks in this matter (at long last!)

iPhones vis-a-vis Open Source: implications

This is a normative view of technology, i.e, what – in my opinion – technology ‘should be’ or ‘should do’. As we know, technology is the means by which we interact with the world around us, and with ourselves as well. However, one gets the feeling that technological developments nowadays are being driven not by the necessity of invention, but the invention of necessity. Addressing people’s needs ostensibly seems to be the purpose of new technological developments, but what is more likely is that technology is pushed down consumer’s throats with relentless advertising pressure.

Complaints and heresies apart, my focus here is how the technology gets developed and what normative view does it subscibe to. Technology, even if may be developed in air-conditioned offices or clean rooms, has a distinct political dimension to it, and it is this dimension that this post deals with. From the time of the germination of an idea to selling it in the market, many aspects of the nature of the consumer and their relationship with the creator are assumed, implicitly or otherwise. A rough genealogy of the development of a product can be given by:

  • Top level design/Wish list (sometimes preceded by surveys)
  • Detailed low level design
  • Implementation
  • Packaging/aesthetics
  • Marketing
  • Feedback and start all over again.

Testing and review is usually there in every part of this list, especially in pharma, chemical, civil works. When this cycle is no longer felt as required, one can say that a technology has been ‘commodified’. It still carries the same politics and relations that were internalized during its development, but one cannot do much about it, since it gets ‘black boxed’. The only time that these politics re-emerge or are made explicit is when things go wrong with the product, or things don’t go according to plan (These two things may not always mean the same thing). While technology is the heart of any product, the role it plays during the product’s lifetime is very small, since it is considered a ‘black box’. To elaborate on this point, one can take the politics surrounding the Apple iPhone as a very good example, which I have been following on (where else!) Slashdot for some time now. The iPhone is a Pretty Thing and all that, agreed, but Apple’s response to active tinkering instead of passive consumption of the iPhone reeks of stupidity and snobbery. The battery is not easily replaceable (as bad as it gets!), people can only buy using credit/debit cards (to ensure a paper trail), limited to two per head, no SIM changing facility, warranty being void if SIM unlocking is tried (which was found to be infringing US warranty laws). None of this actually is concerned with the technology of the iPhone, but more with the control and profits that Apple gets. Where is the user an active participant in how the iPhone looks, feels, performs ? The user cannot even do what he/she likes with the phone after buying it! Though some people may say warranty may go to hell and play around anyways, it is not everybody’s inclination. The power that such blatantly unfair conditions to own an iPhone gives the manufacturer is quite considerable, and the feel-good factor more than overwhelmed such considerations, driving Apple to one of its highest share prices ever. The invention of necessity is extremely important to mask such asymmetric power relations, and the multitouch screen (and supporting interface) practically did this on its own. From a ingenious piece of technology, it becomes an instrument to legitimize the asymmetric balance of power. The iPhone may provide most things a user might ever need, but it precludes the possibility of choice. I fail to see how this is different from the burqa system. A Muslim woman may be comfortable and even proud to wear one, but does she have a choice whether or not to wear it ?

In contrast is the Open Source phenomenon. I did not mention ‘Free Software’, since it brings in its own ramifications, but simply any piece of code that is viewable by a potential consumer. The most important factor that comes in here is choice, like I mentioned earlier (Software is a nice example to take up simply because it is one of the most flexible of technologies mankind has developed). Freedom to do what one pleases with available technology radically flattens the structures of power. Though this is quite a libertarian sentiment (We have made it possible to modify software, but if you don’t know how, too bad!), it has many consequential implications also. Software potentially becomes better, more diverse, responsive to user needs and a person who modifies it to her needs feels a sense of ownership. None of these can happen with the iPhone, API or no API. This is an evolutionary, organic model of growth, while the former is a more totalitarian, ‘silver bullet’ kind of approach. One must however concede that even with the iPhone kind of technology development, large players can still tailor it to their needs. Here, the power structures even out because of the economic backing the client has.

Which one can be more effective ? the participatory model of development, of course. Which is more efficient ? the consumerist model, of course. Which is more important ? here comes one of the major points of conflict in any sphere of human social life: should we let people have a part in shaping their future, or do we do what we somehow know is best for them ? From the conception of the State to planning cities, all questions implicity or explicitly (but quite fundamentally) answer this question in their own manner. Technology, being a product of the social world that we live in, rather than the clean room temples that technologists would rather have us believe, also hinges on this crucial question. Are people mere consumers or should they be participants as well ?

A question that we answer in our daily lives, without ever realising it.