Freedom in Source

There are two schools of thought on why software developers should release their projects as free/open source software. There's the thought that open source equals software freedom from large companies who might seek undo influence over your computing; then there's the opinion that open source equals the freedom to tinker and use your software as you see fit. [1]

Which is a really interesting argument, I suppose, if you're living in the 1980s (or before really.) In the earlier days of computing and open source, having unencumbered access to source code meant something very different. Most computer users 'back in the day' had a stronger programing background, and computer systems (software and hardware) were less reliable and required more tinkering. Open access to source code had a functional meaning that was fundamentally different from what it means today.

Today, most computer users and users of open source software don't have a particularly strong background in program. My desktop, with the exception of a few encumbered media codecs, and a closed source video driver, is all open source. While I write shell scripts that do cool things, and I can dabble in PHP when needed, I've never tinkered with an C code, and never really done anything that could be rightly considered a "program." And this says nothing of all the people who use open source programs like Firefox, Open Office, and Pidgin.

While I am a fierce proponent of open source (as traditionally defined) in a strictly pragmatic sense, the fact that I can download the source code of software is largely irrelevant to me on a day to day level. This is to say that the "source" in "open source" is as much a symbolic identifier as it is a meaningful technological feature.

So what does open source symbolize and signify in the contemporary moment? This is a huge question that I think we requires a non-significant amount of attention. Is open source really about larger freedoms in our society? Is open source software about smaller/more concrete freedoms in terms of flexible and customizable systems? Is open source just the only viable way to practice the UNIX philosophy of small modular tools, rather than large monolithic tools?

There are also other angles that we can run with this question. Is open source the only way to gain a large enough user base (cite prevalence of LAM(P/P/P/R/J) stack vs. Microsoft's server technologies?) Given current economic instabilities, might open source be a more viable way of generating wealth and participating in an authentic economy?

I expect that I'll probably be tossing this question around, in various ways for years to come, but you have to start somewhere.

Onward and Upward!

[1]The conventional wisdom is that this divide is represented by the division between the Free Software Foundation (in the freedom from corner) and the BSD/Apache Software Foundation (in the freedom to corner). This is of course simplifies the position of both of these institutions in the community, as both BSD folks and FSF folks advocate the "opposite" argument. For example, RMS' pro-hacker arguments are very much "freedom to" and I think the inspiration for BSD-style projects is often very much a "freedom from" kind of proposition.
comments powered by Disqus