In case you missed the latest flame war on Slashdot, there’s a new prediction of Linux’s demise. A company’s pioneer Bob sees Windows taking the bloom off the Linux bud, if not burying it completely. Which are the reasons? The Open Source movement’s ideology, in part. In Bob’s perspective, this ideology is just so much utopian nonsense “balderdash”, as he terms it, and none too gently.
In last week’s column, I addressed Bob’s contention that today’s big, complex programs can be created only by big, profit-oriented corporations. That’s true, but only if you accept that computer programs must be huge, bloated, bug-ridden monstrosities.
There’s another way to build software: the layer-by-layer method, in which you create relatively small programs that each perform a limited set of functions, and do so with a high degree of reliability. An excellent example: the GIMP, an open-source graphics editing program that’s posing a genuine challenge to Adobe PhotoShop. The GIMP’s architecture breaks down each program function into tight, compact modules, each of which can be abstracted out of the whole and extensively tested. You cannot create PhotoShop over a weekend, but you can create a new plug-in for the GIMP, and with each tightly coded, well-tested addition, the program gets better and better.
You don’t have to be utopian to claim that open-source development can create outstanding, feature-rich software. It’s easy to say that Bob is wrong, and it’s easy to produce the refuting evidence. There’s more on the way.
But there’s something deeper at stake. For Bob, the Open Source effort looks like socialism, and he sees it headed for the parallel, final breakdown at the hands of entrepreneurship. Admittedly, should you tune in to Richard Stallman long enough; you begin hearing John Lennon’s “Imagine”. But I can’t locate any resemblance between open source and communism. Open source prompts me with the academy, or more to the level, from the long-standing customs of open knowledge-creating and sharing that handles the impressive successes of Western science.
When you become a scientist, you give up the quest for great worldly wealth. You get a decent wage, to be sure. But you don’t exploit your discoveries–you contribute them away. You publish and reveal all. You don’t get a penny from the journals, either. In fact, some of them make the author pay the typesetting charges!
What’s the payoff? There are probably as many motivations as there are scientists. Some are curious; they just can’t stop thinking about why the edge of the waterfall curls, or why the Milky Way’s arms from those big, elegant spirals. Others are big kids who can’t wait to get into the lab for another rewarding day of exquisite, exploratory fun. Still, others care very deeply about the value and meaning of science. In a recent series of lectures, physicist Freeman Dyson reveals the source of his commitment to science: a quest for ways that science and technology can contribute to social justice, the elimination of poverty, and the preservation of the Earth’s environment.
I’ve never heard anyone call science communism. It has absolutely nothing to do with communism. In fact, communists don’t like scientists very much. Scientists are too hard to control. They care too much about truth.
University scientists aren’t the only people doing research, of course. For-profit corporations engage in research and development. But the consequences illustrate precisely what’s at stake. Proprietary knowledge doesn’t get disseminated unless doing so enhances the corporation’s bottom line. That’s understandable, but we need an alternative. In the most capitalist of all countries, the U.S., a bipartisan Congressional consensus supports public investment in university research and the creation of knowledge for everyone, including for-profit companies. This isn’t communism; it’s common sense.
So what’s at stake with computer software? Plenty. Computer technology is partly responsible for the longest sustained economic boom in U.S. history. It has helped establish U.S. economic, technological, and political dominance in a fractious and dangerous world. It promises to help solve the most vexing problems now facing us: the demand to create efficient, non-polluting energy sources, to deal with the ravages of world hunger, to unlock the mysteries of cancer. It’s vital that computer knowledge remains an open public possession, but that’s not what’s happening. Right now, for gaining revenue, information technology companies are dwindling all over themselves trying to patent even the meaningless pieces of coding, and an unbelievably myopic U.S. Patent Office is giving away the store. (You’ll learn more about the software patent crisis in an upcoming column.) Computer systems that are vital to public safety and welfare are operating with closed, commercial code, which is loaded with unknown (and unknowable) bugs.
The Open Source movement won’t wipe out commercial software, any more than it will create an important and valuable alternative. Computer software is too important to leave to for-profit corporations. There needs to be a balance between publicly accessible knowledge and proprietary, for-profit knowledge, and the Open Source movement is lighting the way.
If you still think this is pie-in-the-sky utopianism, maybe you should go talk to kids in some international school. Without computer literacy, they don’t stand a chance in today’s global economy. Thanks to GNOME, an open-source desktop system for Linux, so many governments are saving millions that would have otherwise lined Microsoft’s products, and it’s spending the money on computers instead. Call it communism, if you like. I call it progress.
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