New Geeks

I've for some number of months started to recognize a division between what I've been thinking of as "new" and "old" guard geeks in the open source world. The old guard have been the linux and hardware hacker-type people who are prone to say "GNU/Linux" and "free software" or conversely be interested in BSD. These are people who care about plain text files and get really invested text editors and data formats and stuff like that. Think sys-admin. The new guard, by contrast, are web programmer types. The Rails and Drupal folks, the web 2.0 crowd. More jokingly, I might call this the "Perl versus PHP" dynamic, but that's not a particularly productive comparison or breakdown.

Like all false dichotomies this one has limited descriptive power as everyone, even the old school geeks use the Internet. Linux exists today because of the way that Internet supported its development. None the less I think that thinking about these new and old world geeks (as it were) as having different interests is productive insofar as it allows us to better understand the way that the open source is changing in the coming years.

Part of me thinks that this has something to do with the effects of "open source" versus "free software" debate. I've noticed that Drupal developers almost never say "free software," even though it's a GPLv2/3 project. I say open source rather than free software, even though I'm generally a proponent of copyleft. I've outlined my thoughts on the subject before in an essay on software freedom, but I'm pretty sure that people have different reasons for this. In any case, judging by the prevalence of Apple laptops, it seems like the whole "we need an open source/free software stack from top to bottom," impulse isn't as strong that underlies a lot of the free software argument.

Another part of this shift might be the fact that proprietary operating systems are much better today than they were twenty years ago. OS X is really stable (thanks to open source) and works great (of course) with Apple hardware, [1] and despite the vast unpopularity of Windows Vista and my general disdain of the OS, technologically the NT kernel OSes starting with version 5 (so windows 2000 and XP and even Vista) have probably been pretty good. Or good enough at any rate.

And there's, of course, the whole web 2.0 'thing. In a lot of ways the operating system question becomes less relevant as everything becomes cloud-based anyway, and "freedom" or "openness" is always difficult to judge in terms of network-based services and applications. There's the AGPL, but that not withstanding I'm not sure there's a good one size fits all (hell, I'd even take 2-3 sizes fits all) solution to software freedom, user rights, and privacy and security for network services.

Like I said at the beginning, I don't think the new geek/old geek (particularly with regard to open source) is totally productive, but it's a useful starting place for a conversation that I'm very interested in. If you have feedback, of course...

Onward and Upward!

[1]This might seem obvious, but I think one of the reasons that Apple's laptops are so successful is that by controlling the hardware as they can, they can get great battery performance and the best sleep/wake functionality around.
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