On a 1GB thumb-drive hanging from a chord around my hat rack lies the remnants of an obsession that thoroughly occupied my mind in the years between 2001 and 2004: the cult of open-source software. Though I left the world of Linux almost a decade ago and hardly looked back since, the recent indignities and intrusions orchestrated by private companies trusted with personal data has me looking back towards the idealistic world of Linus Torvalds and Richard Stallman with all the nostalgia of a Charles Foster Kane looking into his shattered snow globe.
For those not familiar. free and open-source software (of which GNU, Linux, and BSD fall under) is a category of computer applications whose distribution and release are completely open to the public without charge or legal requirements. For a moment in the late 90s and early 2000s the world of open-source software (under the banner of Linux) exploded and seemed on the verge of pushing back against the uniformity of Microsoft and other corporate software giants. At this time, enthusiasts (especially those found in my computer-science oriented clique) looked at the open-source world not only as an alternative to Microsoft, but as an idealistic crusade against the constrained nature of closed-source programming. According to the open-source movement, software development should be returned to the people, users should be the ultimate owners of their devices and software, and anyone should be able to take existing code and modify it for their own ends.
Despite the open-source movement’s more lefty overtone, even my, uber-libertarian adolescent self was drawn to the idealist nature of the movement due the romantic notion that one could, and should, own one’s own software. At this point, the internet was still young, and large software companies were just starting to realize the utility of covertly inserting themselves in between the user and the machines used to connect people with the outside world. To me this seemed like the ultimate violation of the producer/customer relationship. I had paid for my computer ( and even the operating system), so why was Microsoft constantly telling me what I could and couldn’t do with it. It was just like G.K. Chesterton’s assertion that the most fundamental property right is that of a workman to own his own tools. In those days, I believed that I was a craftsman and I didn’t want Microsoft telling how I could hold my hammer.
I think it was this emotion (more than the commonly repeated anti-corporatism) that gave the open-source movement its appeal. By being a user of Linux, one was accepting a dual role, first as a community member and then later as a craftsman or protector. In fact, my experience with the open-source world was very much like the semi-feudal communities described by Chesterton and Belloc. The open-source community had its knights who helped neophytes navigate the task of installing and maintaining software, its craftsmen who forged new open source projects, and its priests who advocated for continued use of open-source software and legally challenged abusive IP laws. The community even had an explicit moral code. Creators were expected to leave their work open (even if they were earning profits from the initial sale of the software) so that future generations could use their ideas to enhance the open source community generally. Conversely users were expected to employ the open source alternative when one existed. At the core of this moral community, just as in Distributism, there was a concept of property. People owned their software, and therefore owned the means by which they expressed themselves digitally. Their role and obligations in the open-source community stemmed from this central premise.
I suppose I don’t need to elaborate on why open-source software was ultimately unsuccessful at taking the computer world by storm. In a word, corporate software was able to fix its problems faster than open-source software was able to address its own. In the early 2000s Microsoft was largely able to fix its stability issues and cutback on the intrusiveness of it’s software interface (goodbye Clippy). Moreover, new and fast moving innovations in hardware became the order of the day; while the same time, large software suites became essential to functioning in most academic or corporate environments. This spelled doom for the expansion of the open-source community that could never properly address compatibility issues with corporate hardware and software that refused to acknowledge its existence.
I remember finally making the decision to leave the open-source community for Windows after the 30th time I was unable to share my open-source office documents with collaborators who were using the much more popular Microsoft Office suite. The idealism and moral community of the open-source world just wasn’t worth the additional hours spent trying to figure out how to cope with either the Linux/Windows compatibility issues or the absence of the more popular pieces of modern software. The point of a computer is to save time, at the end of the day, if software is costing you time, it’s really hard to justify its continued use. So, after almost 4 years of trying to incorporate Linux into my life, i de-installed the software, saved the remaining distribution image to an unused thumb drive, and never looked back.
Still, I am not sure that I didn’t sacrifice my ideals for convenience. I continue to believe very firmly that people have the right to own their own software tools and personal data; and (as should be all too obvious from recent events) the continued use of closed software seriously calls digital privacy and person data-ownership into question. By abandoning open-source software, have I fundamentally conceded that the ideals of data-ownership aren’t worth the loss of convenience? My conundrum was expressed perfectly in an xkcd comic published several years back:
If people can’t make minor sacrifices of convenience for their ideals, then they really have no right to complain when those ideals are lost to the world. But before we let the open-source purists have their well-earned trip to “I-told-you-so” land, I think a few caveats need to be mentioned.
Fundamentally, I don’t think the open-source community was ever honest about their products. The open-source leaders constantly claimed their software was more convenient and more powerful than the corporate alternatives and suggested that the only reason people continued to use Apple and Microsoft was path-dependence. All of these claims were (and still are) manifestly false to anyone who has ever used both Linux and Windows. Open source applications are much slower, plagued by old bugs rarely seen in their corporate counterparts, and are at least three years behind mainstream software in terms of their user interface. That’s not to say that there are not also open source innovations, but the claim of superiority on the part of the open-source world is laughable
To be honest, the open source community should have admitted their deficiencies and re-emphasized the moral and community case for their product. The desire to assert privacy and ownership over digital data was, in my opinion, the only reason why anyone ever wanted to use open source software in the first place. Emphasizing this reason over others would have allowed the community to come clean about the sacrifices users would need to make in order to use their product.
So, would this have worked? Perhaps, Perhaps not. In order to ask for sacrifices, a community must have a moral claim people consider paramount, or otherwise, be so tightly-knit as to motivate a sacrifice even when a moral-imperative is not clear. I don’t think modern people consider data-ownership to be a paramount value, and I know the open-source community isn’t tightly-knit enough to lead the public to a new moral truth. People may be willing to arbitrarily fast or forego certain foods because their fellow religious congregants believe God commands it. But asking people to use slow and unsharable software so that developers on the other side of the country feel free from Microsoft? That’s a stretch.
I have often imagined that the true destiny of open-source software is to become essential to an existing moral community much the same way literacy became essential to Medieval monastic communities when society writ-large saw the value of preserving books as not worth the cost. People may not be willing to forego the easy options when they are alone; but when everyone in a church, synagogue, rotary club, or private school begins using open-source software not only does the cost-of-entry go down, the moral benefit of proclaiming yourself in favor of the principle becomes realizable.
Still, this suggestion is a shot in the dark. As much as I like to imagine monks in a scriptorium typing out lines of Linux Kernel or Orthodox Jews being required to use only GNU products, I am not expecting older and more established moral and cultural communities to make open-data a core concept in their ministry anytime soon. So until then, I suppose I’ll be listening to the open-source purists play the saddest open-source song on the world’s tiniest open-source violin. Who knows, perhaps they might find it in their hearts to let an apostate play a lick or two.