Keeping it Small and Simple

2008.03.27

Open source as social change

Filed under: Open Source — Tags: , , , , , — Lorenzo E. Danielsson @ 14:43

On alfresco blogs, Russ Danner writes a rather disturbing post. Russ is interested in what the open source community can learn from big business. This is of course very important, at least if we begin with an assumption that we as humans exist to serve big business. Needless to say, this is the prevailing belief among the ruling elites. And, needless to say, the victims of this system, the vast majority of the world’s population, do not agree.

I, on the other hand, am interested in open source as a model for social change. That is not to say that open source “belongs” to one or the other side. Open source is a method for developing software the focuses on the universal right to view, modify and redistribute the source code underlying the software. I won’t go into the details here. Enough has been written on that already.

Open source didn’t exist in the beginning. What did exist was a nameless form of sharing of code and ideas which was probably very healthy for the software development community. Just like the academic community, where researchers share what they write so that it can be analyzed and improved upon, the early software developers shared their code. The code got looked at and improved upon. The original developer also benefited as she or he got access to those improvements. In short, knowledge in the early software development community was accumulated through sharing.

Eventually, business put its dirty hands into the bowl, and all of a sudden the fruit of people’s labor turned into the property of corporations. Programmers came to be seen, not as creators of software, but as labor. Users no longer had access to the source code itself, only the final compiled version of the software. As a reaction to that, the open source movement (or as some prefer, the free software movement) was born as a reaction to the attempts of business to restrict the rights of computer users to freely share software.

It is important to recognize where the open source movement originated. It didn’t start off with companies all off a sudden deciding to share their source code and allow others to modify it for their own and others needs. No. It started as a grassroots movement that was opposed to losing the right to view, modify and share source code. Business only got involved when it realized that it could make big profits.

I think that the world of open source will be yet another battleground between the haves and the have nots. The elites will use the methods that they are historically noted for, fear, intimidation, threats and the legal system (which they control). The masses have resisted in a number of ways: strikes, boycotts, sabotage etc. All justified methods of response to the intimidation by the bosses. Much can also be achieved by forming alternative communities that by-pass the rigid hierarchical structures of the capitalist system, still working within that system, a form of “societies within a society”. A friend of mine once remarked that these could act as cancers that destroy the capitalist system from within. I cannot comment as I have not given much thought to the possibility of that happening.

I am not opposed to the ability for individuals and organizations to be able to earn an income out of their software skills. I myself, do not survive on air. We live in a system where the majority of us, against our will, are forced to become wage slaves in order to survive. What I am against is big business, that thing that ensures that the vast majority of the worlds wealth remains in the hands of a very small group of families. Of course, those families are overwhelmingly white, Christian and have a special set of values that they feel the whole world should accept.

History teaches us that the elites groups have few, if any, inhibitions when it comes to what is allowed in order to get the dumb masses to understand the God-given right of the elites to rule. Bombing Vietnam to bits, causing death a devastation was considered legitimate. Destroying the American labor movement is seen as a good thing. Privatizing water, a foundation of life itself, is considered fully legitimate. (Obviously the market potential for something that none of us can survive without is staggering.) I could mention so many examples, but it will take me off-course.

Russ Danner is a self-proclaimed capitalist (although he never states exactly what capital he owns) and thus sees the elitist system as good, and who can argue. After all, it has helped 0.1% of the world’s population to amass an enormous amount of wealth, at the expense of the rest, the insignificant have-nots that make up the vast majority. They exist merely to serve the rich. The working classes are themselves to blame, for not picking the right parents, as the liberal theory goes.

So what is Russ Danner’s take on open source? He states:

Open Source is not about the bits, it’s not about the community, and it’s not about licenses. It’s about a better way to do business (read: make money via serving customers.)

It’s not about community, because community implies those ungrateful masses who are supposed to serve the elites. The elites have built up a system called wage slavery which is how things are supposed to be done. Community is the start of dangerous dissent against the ruling order. Never mind that those communities wrote the software. Once the labor is done, business can take over.

Licenses are equally insignificant since the elites control the legal system. If these open source licenses cause the masses to actually believe that they can form egalitarian communities without bosses and without being controlled by those who rule, the legal system can be changed. Imaginative lawyers can invent just about anything they want. Like intellectual property. Never mind how mind-bogglingly ridiculous the whole idea is. Once you control the legal system, you decide. The dumb masses, the “uncontrollable herd” have just to obey. That is their lot in life.

It is about a better way to do business. Business is good, because most people are practically barred from entering that field. Very few have the financial means to start a business, especially in a sector like IT. The liberal propaganda system of course tells us differently. It can safely do so since in practical terms the ability for anybody to set up a business is like the “rags to riches” myth: not a practical possibility.

So, in summary, Russ Danner sees in open source the possibility for big business to take the work of various open source communities and use it to make huge profits. The communities themselves are, as we have seen, irrelevant. Any claims they make equally so (remember, licenses are irrelevant). So Russ sees open source as yet another way for the rich to bleed to poor. And that is good.

He goes on to say:

I would be sorely upset if I found my development staff was hacking MySql code.

I guess development staff means “wage slaves”. What does sorely upset mean? That you deny your developers the freedom to work on what they want to work on? Does it mean that the right to choose only exists for the capitalist class, the bosses? If one of your developers worked on MySQL code on his free time, would you punish him or her for that? What if the changes the developer made to MySQL was beneficial to Alfresco in some way, would that developer be credited for that? Or still punished for their insubordination against the elite way?

But could the open source movement work for social change? Well, not in isolation. But it can play a part. One must be careful not to see all open source users or open source developers as a part of a coherent whole. The only thing that connects us all is the fact that we work on or with software that fits the criteria of being called open source or free software. Otherwise you have the full spectrum of political beliefs, including Russ Danner’s capitalist ones, or the outright racist viewpoints of Eric S. Raymond.

A computer is a wonderful machine. It doesn’t do much. But it does have one particular feature: it can be programmed to do a large variety of things. Big business wants to control the programming part. They want a situation where the computer becomes like a television set. You don’t program that. Business gives you a set of channels to choose from. Business wants to give you a set of software applications to choose from. You should not be developing anything by yourself, let alone share your creations with anybody else. That would be bad. That would be evil. Then you become an enemy of the powerful people you are to serve.

But open source communities can revolt against these injustices. Individual groups of loosely-knit developers and users, without any hierarchical structure, that just develop software for themselves and others to enjoy, can challenge the system. Imagine the joy of working on something that you are interested in, without a boss breathing down your neck all the time, issuing threats and intimidation. Imagine the joy of giving freely, not because it gives you “do-goody” points, but because you are a part of a system of gift-giving. Wouldn’t that be so much better than being constrained by a narrow conception of humans as being “dogs in a jungle, locked up in a fight to death over a single bone”?

The fact is that we the people, have the ultimate power. If you oppose the system in any way you can, we can bring it to its knees. Gain and share knowledge. Share the creations of your mind. Build communities based on equality rather than inequality. Read and gain wisdom. Don’t limit yourself. Learn how to program, learn your history, learn about the political system and how it is used to oppress us all. Learn about why we as human beings are divided, see for yourself who’s interests it serves. And against who.

Don’t apply arbitrary barriers to community membership. The other should be equally welcome regardless of color, gender, educational background, language etc. He or she still laughs like you do, cries like you do, has hopes, dreams and fears like you do. They are being controlled, just like you are being controlled. They are taught to fear you and despise you, just like you are taught to fear them, to despise them. They are being fucked in the ass, just like you are being fucked in the ass.

I wonder if these are Russ Danner’s personal opinions or the opinions of the Alfresco team as well. I have been using Alfresco for some time (not the enterprise version, and I never will). I would not mind being able to sell Alfresco and make some money off that. I would of course then want to donate a part of the proceeds to Alfresco, not because there is a contract that states that I must do so, but because it is the right thing to do. That seems a much better foundation for mutual understanding than the implied threat of the legal system.

Of course, there are alternatives to Alfresco in the open source arena. If Alfresco wants to unleash the destructive force of big business on the movement then I will have to look into alternatives. Or start something new. Re-inventing the wheel isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially if the current wheel is trying to run you over.

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