Monday, March 20, 2006

Trust, In a World Built In Code

I have never thought about Open Source as a mean to protect the users at the ends of the network. Open Source has been injected into my knowledge system as a great way for bootstrapping a project and having quality software and quick bug fixing; as a genial door opener (through a no-cost software) in what has been for years the unique playing field of Enterprise Software Gorillas; and as a fantastic contributor to the commoditization of infrastructures, allowing innovation to occur at higher, functional levels.

Yet in all these years I have never heard anyone talking about Open Source as a mean to protect me, to secure my well-being, or to guarantee my personal freedom.

Then last week I stumbled upon a short paragraph which caught my attention and changed my perception:

Code is the technology that makes computers run… that directs the functionality of machines. These machines – computers – increasingly define and control our life. They determine how phones connect, and what runs on TV. They decide whether video can be streamed across a broadband link to a computer. They control what a computer reports back to its manufacturer. These machines run us. Code runs these machines.

This paragraph is an excerpt from Lawrence Lessig's 3 pages introduction to "Free Software, Free Society, Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman". Strangely, my knowledge about Stallman has been so far limited to trivial facts and images: bearded man, long hair, GNU is Not Unix and other nonsense. I don't get how the knowledge about this man and his philosophical work has eluded me so far, because as you will soon see Stallman's ideas are pertinent to many of today's burning issues (that doesn't imply that we have to accept his ideas; we should, nevertheless, inject his ideas hard into the mainstream conversation).

Back to Lessig's excerpt, the analogy between code and law is what made me jump. "But, of course! "Code Napoléon"; Code of Ethics etc. etc." – code is what defines behavior, organizations, and societies. We all learn to know each of the contextual codes we're associated with – home, work, state etc. – and behave accordingly. Which means Code regulates us, governs us. Code is Law, and Law in Free Societies is open, accessible to anyone and modifiable.

Lessig continues with the inevitable questions that anyone should ask once this meaning of code is revealed.

What control should we have over this code? What understanding? What freedom should there be to match the control it enables? What Power?

These are simple questions that are simply relevant to the discussions about privacy over the net; about Google and its overwhelming potential of becoming evil; and of one of the hottest clichés of these months – the Attention (O'Reilly's eTech theme for this year). I dare referring you to all my Google articles (see the side bar for categories) to see that Stallman's work and ideas are relevant. They are sort of a solution to all the above mentioned problems. Here's a final quote from Lessig's Introduction:

These questions have been the challenge of Stallman's life. Through his works and his words, he has pushed us to see the importance of keeping code "free"… in the sense that the control coders build be transparent to all, and that anyone have the right to take that control, and modify it as he or she sees fit.
This is "free software"; "free software" is one answer to a world built in code.

Google, Yahoo, AOL, Microsoft and all the emerging SaaSers, such as – open your code! It's tough, but you can do it progressively by using, for instance, an equivalent to the recently published Microsoft Reference License (MS-RL) – "a reference-only license that allows licensees to view source code in order to gain a deeper understanding of the inner workings of a Microsoft technology. It does not allow for modification or redistribution".

Can you imagine how much Trust will be introduced into our world, as well as to our life, by granting access to the code that run our virtual existence? Naturally, this raises issues of Intellectual Property, Commercial Secrets etc., but as Stallman says: "There are always numerous ways to organize any kind of business".

Or, we can spend our life before the Law. Just like in Kafka's "Before the Law" parable, we're standing today before the Doors of the Law and we're denied access to it. We can react like the subject in that parable and wait till death for an authorization that will never come, or we can take the law in our hands. As Slavoj Zizek (in "Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left") explains:

The subject failed to include himself in the scene, that is, to take into account how he was not merely an innocent bystander of the spectacle of the Law, since 'the Door was there only for him'.

Stallman has devoted his life to fight all the guards that stand before the Doors of the Law ("My 22-year-old child, the Free Software Movement, occupies most of my life, leaving no room for more children"). Yet, I must make clear that Stallman's ideology about free software is much broader than what's been described in this post. It is also much less "fear-driven" and much more "social-sharing and happiness-for-all" driven.

It had not been known to me prior to reading Stallman's book that "Free Software" and "Open Source" represent two different ideologies and credos. While Stallman's Free Software Foundation promotes free society through free software, the OpenSource Initiative promotes open source as a mean to increase productivity, as is stated in their home page:

The basic idea behind open source is very simple: When programmers can read, redistribute, and modify the source code for a piece of software, the software evolves. People improve it, people adapt it, people fix bugs. And this can happen at a speed that, if one is used to the slow pace of conventional software development, seems astonishing.

I mention this because undoubtedly I was a product of the Open Source movement. I am glad I came to know this other movement, FSF, which provides me with so many interesting ideas to grok.


Richard M. Stallman

Free Software, Free Society: Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman

Richard Stallman's Personal Page

Richard Stallman - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

FSF - The Free Software Foundation

Lawrence Lessig

Lawrence Lessig

Introduction to: Free Software, Free Society, Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman

Lawrence Lessig: Bravo Microsoft (Lessig welcomes Microsoft's Shared Source Initiative and an interesting discussion about the Orwellian nature - or not - of Stallman's free software concepts evolves)

Stallman and Winer

Richard Stallman: Response to Dave Winer on Python Licensing
Doc Sealrs take on Richard Stallman: Response to Dave Winer on Python Licensing
Dave Winer : What is Open Source?


Anonymous Aurélien said...

You should read the future of ideas next.
You'll see that Stallman's fight for the freedom of software is not limited to software but expends to all aspects of life. It is the fight for "the fate of the commons in a connected world" as Lessig puts it.
The "pronetariat" versus the info-capitalism... And don't get me wrong it is not about a new class struggle.

6:22 PM  
Blogger Muli Koppel said...

Salut Aurélien

It took me some time to figure out what "pronetariat" means. Anyway, thanks for your references, I will certainly look into them.


8:36 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home