Interview: Decoding Liberation – The Promise of Free & Open Software

April 3, 2008

In the first of many interviews to come to you from Of América, we bring you an interview with Samir Chopra and Scott Dexter, authors of Decoding Liberation (DL) – The Promise of Free and Open Software.

I decided to bring this interview to you not only because of our wish to do more interviews about stimulating subjects with cool and smart people (We do); I also think that, in a “civilization” in which most of our infrastructure, most of our productive lives and our very DNA are mediated or manipulated by software, many of the classical questions and issues covered by one of my favorite pursuits, politics – freedom, power, citizenship, labor, production – must include a discussion of the liberatory potential in and of software.

Though interested in these critical, but heady topics, I am not the best person to either introduce or elucidate on such topics. Fortunately, my friend, Samir, and his colleague, Scott, are. So, without further adieu, here’s the interview, which covers lots of good and interesting ground.


Of América: What is open source? Free software?

SC, SD: Over the past few decades, it has become common for software companies to provide their software only as executable programs: all we users have to do — all we can do — is install the software and start using it. But what if we users have an urge to modify the way these programs work? Maybe we wish some annoying behavior would go away, or we fantasize about some really useful feature that’s just not there. Most of the time, this sort of wishful thinking can’t go beyond fantasy: we’re at the mercy of the software company, who decides when and whether they’re going to distribute an update or new version. And any eventual update may not, of course, tend to our needs.

The obstacle here is that the executable form of the programs we’re given doesn’t give us access to the information — the progam’s “source code” — that a programmer would need to change the program’s behavior. Most of us aren’t programmers ourselves, but we could certainly hire one to do some customization for us, if we had the source code. But source code is guarded by proprietary software vendors as a trade secret, because they believe that much of the value of the company resides there.

But there is an obvious alternative: to distribute software with its source code. This is the guiding principle of free and open source software (FOSS). This distribution creates all kinds of possibilities: for users to inspect the code of the software they use, modify it if they have the need, and even, perhaps, to send these modifications back to the originator to be folded into future versions of the software. So, the core distinction between FOSS and proprietary software is that FOSS makes available to its users the knowledge and innovation contributed by the creator(s) of the software, in the form of the software’s source code. So what makes the software “free” is not that it’s free of charge (though it generally is), but that we’re free to do all these things with it.

The terms free software and open source software are nearly synonymous terms for this particular approach to developing and distributing software. The difference lies in how this software is described and what kind of advocacy is carried out: “open source software” advocacy mostly relies on arguments about this kind of software’s technical superiority and efficiency of production; “free software” advocacy certainly acknowledges these factors but also uses ethical arguments about users’ freedoms and the impact of software on the life of a community or society.

Why did you write this?

We began to wonder whether the freedoms of software bled over into spheres of activity that are affected by software, so our guiding question became, “What is the emancipatory potential of free software, and how is it manifested?” Freedom is a multifaceted concept subject to diverse interpretations across many contexts; our book is an attempt to bring out what specific moral goods free software might provide in several important areas. We wanted to understand what free software’s liberatory potential is and how we might go about realizing it: we thought we saw, behind the software freedoms, glimmers of some important messages about how we could work as a community, how knowledge could be shared, and what a highly technologized world could look like. This book is partly an expression of a utopian hope that these can be realized.

What does this stuff have to do with politics?

Technology has always had everything to do with politics! Technological artifacts of the past consisted only of hardware: engines, motors, pumps, levers, switches, gears. To control the hardware was to control the technology. Hardware is expensive to acquire and maintain, so technology was invariably controlled by large economic entities—states, then corporations. Concerns about social control invariably addressed control of technology; Marx’s concerns about the control of the means of production were focused on the hardware that both crystallized and generated capitalist power. The 20th century brought a new form of technology, the computer, in which hardware and control are explicitly separated. With the advent of the computer, the means of production no longer inhere solely in hardware; control is transferable, distributable, plastic, and reproducible, all with minimal cost. Control of technology may be democratized, its advantages spread more broadly than ever before. The reactionary response to this promise is an attempt to embrace and coopt this control to advance entrenched social, economic, and political power. It is this reaction that free software resists. Most fundamentally, free software is a vehicle for moral discourse and political change in the still-new realm of digital technology.

Why talk about liberation? What does software have to do with freedom? What does freedom have to do with software?

The ‘free’ in free software has been famously explained by Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation as, “Think free speech, not free beer.” That is, software is a mode of expression; the protection of that freedom of expression is even more valuable than getting software “for free.” More specifically, the seminal Free Software Definition explicitly identifies four freedoms that are fundamental to users and developers alike: the freedom to run software for any purpose, the freedom to study and adapt a program to your needs, the freedom to redistribute copies of software, and the freedom to share your improvements to the software with the public.

In our work, we take free software to be a liberatory enterprise in several dimensions; we’re interested in the impact of the software freedoms, which seem quite technical on a first reading, on political, artistic, and scientific freedoms. The title of our book is suggestive of this impact: in a world that is increasingly encoded, our free software carries much potential for liberation. Granted, claims about technology and freedom are nothing new; much of the early hype about the Internet was rhetoric of this kind. But what is important about the recurrence of such hyperbolic enthusiasm is that it is clearly articulated evidence of a broad social desire for technology to live up to its potential as a liberatory force.

How deeply is software embedded into our lives? Does software control us or do we control software?

In a heavily technologized, computerized world—which we are slowly moving toward–the personal and social freedoms we will enjoy will be exactly those granted or restricted by software. Eben Moglen, Professor of Law at Columbia Law School perhaps puts it best:

“In the twenty-first century, power is the ability to change the behavior of computers. If you can’t change the behavior of computers, you live within a Skinner box created by the people who can change the behavior of computers. Every artifact around you responds by either handing you a banana pellet or a shock, depending upon which button you push and whether you are “right,” from the designer’s point of view.”

The question then becomes, “How closely does the designer’s point of view match mine?” And what recourse do we have if it’s not a good match? Free software offers us a qualitatively different measure of control over our machines.

Is this another book about how evil the King of Proprietary Software, Bill Gates, is?

No, it’s not. It is hard, though, to write a book about modern software without discussing the impact of the 800-pound gorilla that is Microsoft. The free software community is directly impacted by some of Microsoft’s action, like it’s omnipresent threat to launch patent infringements suits against free software projects. On the other hand, Microsoft has clearly acknowledged the impact of free software, as they have an active development lab dedicated to improving interoperability between free software and Microsoft’s products.

And, in fact, when we want to make a point about the value of the collaboration that free software allows programmers, we quote Bill Gates, from a 1989 interview: “[T]he best way to prepare [to be a programmer] is to write programs, and to study great programs that other people have written. . . . You’ve got to be willing to read other people’s code, then write your own, then have other people review your code. You’ve got to want to be in this incredible feedback loop where you get the worldclass people to tell you what you are doing wrong . . .”

How do I impact any of this if I’m not a programmer?

Even non-programmer users, just by using free software, can make a real difference by asking for new features, pointing out problems, and making copies of the software to share with their friends. The free software community is incredibly good at taking advantage of these seemingly small contributions; developers are very eager to hear from people who are using their work and want to see it thrive. Even a small handful of demanding users can dramatically improve the quality of the free software they use. On a political and social scale, citizens can demand that governmental entities or their employers make the technology they use transparent by using free software (for instance, voters could demand, as, indeed, they already have, that voting machines only run free software).

How can community organizations, political groups take advantage of this?

Free software is intricately involved with a number of social goods that are increasingly under attack, ranging from consumer choice and the struggle against monopolies, to the distribution of creative and intellectual works, to the preservation of the creative and liberatory potential of the Internet, and the human right to communication. We hope our book will make these connections clear, and inspire thought about what sorts of political strategies will work best to preserve these goods. Another of our goals is to make the case to activists from a variety of struggles that tech activism, whether around free software, or privacy, or net neutrality, is an important factor in any fight — effecting change in the technological sphere has more and more to do with change in the “real world.”

Thanks, Samir & Scott.

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