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A New Ethos for Free Software

Posted in Free/Libre Software at 6:10 pm by Guest Editorial Team

Article by Thomas Grzybowski

A candle
Thomas Jefferson: “A candle loses nothing when it lights another candle.”

Summary: “Free Software is a Process!”

This essay initiated/emanated from my reading of a popular piece written some years ago by a certain Mr. Eric Raymond: “Homesteading the Noosphere” — an article which I should dismiss immediately. But before I do that, I would like to mention that this cited work contains ad hominem attacks against early pioneers of the Free Software movement and is based upon a profound misdirection. Here I will ignore the attacks and seek to correct the misdirection.

“As people work to create and modify Free Software and distribute it again, the aggregate creative acts give rise to the availability of more, many more useful results.”In his essay, Mr. Raymond immediately places Free and Open-source software in the realm of “property”, making there an analogy to “homesteading” undeveloped land, which is to say: taking, developing, managing, owning property. This preconception is hereby dismissed in the formation of a new ethos.

Software, or Free (Libre) Software rather, does not exist subsumed within the domain of economics, though it may participate there. Culture is the over-arching domain of human social activity and subsumes all forms of economics – be they gift-giving, commerce, or rent-seeking; Free Software is just one manifestation of creativity in our common culture. Free Software (as distinct from other types of software) seeks to more fully participate in the wider cultural domain, and it is this direct and active participation which defines the expression of Freedom implicit in the term Free Software and in the software itself. As people work to create and modify Free Software and distribute it again, the aggregate creative acts give rise to the availability of more, many more useful results. Useful, beautiful software as cultural works are divergently and compoundingly created without limits – growing trees neither proscribed nor bounded. Thus our Freedom propagates.

“In music, as in software, huge corporations seek to define the products and control the markets – thus delineating artificial boundaries and creating scarcity for the art.”Writing software, as an artistic activity, is very closely analogous to textual writing, and also music. Writing and music, as cultural activities, far predate modern commercial practices. Sadly, it has been a major failing of the Free Software community not to recognize this artistic commonality. In music, as in software, huge corporations seek to define the products and control the markets – thus delineating artificial boundaries and creating scarcity for the art. As with a novel or poem, Free Software is not so much in the writing or publishing as in the reading – the using. Like traditional music, each new contributor engages with the original and, more importantly, renews and transforms it in the working of their personal vision into the piece. In our civil society a unification of Free Software with Free Culture would likely mutually reinforce each.

This is not to say that Free Software is purely an art form. Far from it: using Free Software is enjoying Freedom, and this is a practical matter. Freedom is the doing of what one wants with the software. Obviously, freedom is directly related to what is possible – for instance, you may want to use your computer as a flying machine, but you are neither able nor free to do so. If your printer, the printer you paid-for and have in your possession has no software driver, you are indeed unfree to use it to print your document whether you have the sales receipt and copy of a software license or not.

“The first being that it is not the software itself which is free: Free Software is a Process!”Now a word about “Public Domain”. Ideally, our printer-driver and all Free Software would reside together with our commonly-held culture in the Public Domain – but our current socioeconomic environment makes this scenario impractical. Copywriting and licensing are the tools we must use – the legal devices required in this present day-and-age so as to preserve our rights to read, use, distribute, and modify and distribute modifications of Free Software. But we need also understand that Free Software is a notion and practice independent from the license – the license is to protect sharing of the ongoing freedoms attached to the software and preventing diversions into the dead-ends of private property.

“To encourage participation, to encourage more freedom, code should be made as modular and simple as possible.”There are some important implications attendant with our new ethos for Free Software. The first being that it is not the software itself which is free: Free Software is a Process! It is the writer and user of the software who experiences and expands their freedom as they engage with Free Software. Code (text) is a lifeless thing, it might as well be carved in stone or baked on clay tablets. And long-term storage is a museum or resource for mining companies. Software Freedom lives only as the code is read, composed, elaborated-upon, and played (used) – much like music. The only constraints upon or shortages of Free Software come from our lack of participation. Realization that the central nature of the Freedom attached to Free Software resides in the participation of the community should impact the features of the code itself, both the design and the style. To encourage participation, to encourage more freedom, code should be made as modular and simple as possible. When code is modular in its functions, other developers can easily and directly utilize just the pieces that they wish. When code is simple to understand, it is simple to test, to trust, to modify or extend. It is more simple for others to document and more simple for everyone to share.

As we have seen, an application of the ethos outlined above results in a branching tree, or an ecosystem with exponential growth of value to human civilization, all at virtually no financial cost. This is indeed something of a miracle!

Licence: Attribution-ShareAlike CC BY-SA

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