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What Free Software, Linux and Microsoft Have Taught Us

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Thank you to Rufus Polson for this guest article!

All in all, I think Free Software users know from practical experience how to question and why to question; we also have learned about freedom in a way that most people don't get to--as a practical reality, an experience, not just a slogan.


The world is a complicated place, and there are a lot of agendas out there. Making sense of it, getting an idea of the truth or of what's the right thing to do is hard, it sometimes seems ever harder. People who are into Free Software, Open Source, Linux and so on see over and over how most people end up with skewed ideas about computers and software--and while in some cases this is because the people are clueless, lots of them are smart or even brilliant. They just don't have a strong knowledge of the issues at play--and indeed the "knowledge" they do have is often misleading. So how can we hope to understand what's going on in so many other important areas, where it is our knowledge that is limited and probably misleading?

I think that Free Software has given us two kinds of lessons that, if we pay heed to them, can be a useful guide to figuring out what's going on elsewhere. The first kind of lesson is the kind we've gained from Free Software itself--from the way it is made, the ideals that underpin it, the communities that have grown up with it. The second is the kind we've learned from the response to Free Software by those who see it as a threat.

Starting with the second kind of lesson, Microsoft in particular has taught us a lot about how the world works. We've seen that when profits are threatened, corporations will not limit themselves to "competition in the marketplace", but will try whatever tactics they can get away with to crush the threat. We've seen that among these tactics, propaganda and misinformation can be mobilized very effectively in ways that are hard to counter even with a very vigorous grassroots community communication effort. That has given Free Software proponents a view of the media that many people are unaware of: the depth of the influence money has on what is typically said, the ways columnists and similar speakers can be paid off or themselves deceived, the impact of advertisers on the coverage of many media outlets. But this isn't a lesson about Microsoft or the computer industry, this is a lesson about society as a whole: Any time you see media coverage of an issue and some opinion seems to be rapidly becoming the conventional wisdom, you can ask yourself--who could make money from that position? Who has media clout and needs to stave off a threat? Who's the Microsoft here?

We've seen that corporations with very strong market positions lose interest in producing good products. And we've seen that in the short to medium term, failure to produce good products does not necessarily mean the products will not be bought. We've learned that people often don't have good information about their options when buying, or buy things for the sake of emotional comfort, or butt-covering, or peer pressure, or even corruption. We've also had a lot of experience of ways those with large market positions can create structural controls over markets, putting up barriers to entry using everything from influence with retailers to patent laws. My personal opinion is that all this knowledge should give us a deep suspicion of the idea that markets are inherently efficient--at least where firms are large and few, or regulation is ineffective.

On the other end, seeing Free Software in action has I think given us an appreciation few can match for the potential of fairly egalitarian co-operation. People argue about whether Open Source is Communist or Capitalist or whatever. I think that's basically a category error in a way. Certainly for most capitalist businesses in practical terms, Free Software lets them save money and get more done better. That's good for business. But I'd have to say that Free Software does refute the idea that competition is the only way to get anything done, or that self-interest is the only motivator. And we don't see that only in the software itself. Look at Helios and tell me he doesn't get anything done, or that he's motivated solely by self-interest (people can play games with definitions of "self-interest" but they end up circular, basically defining actions as self-interest just because people performed them). Of course there are lots of communities out there, and lots of charities. But Free Software is perhaps unique in our time in that it's a big, successful model that is doing better than traditional ones at being productive and dynamic.

It often seems as if the models we're presented with either involve faith in brute competition (which for practical purposes seems to mean faith in huge unaccountable corporations and their bosses) or faith in the authority of government--typically distant and far more accountable to moneyed lobbyists than to any nominally democratic processes. Freedom is presented either as something abstract and only exercised very occasionally by voting, or something that can only be used to step over one another--or perhaps buy things destined for landfills. Those seem to be your choices--you can have pointless freedom or isolating freedom. In Free Software, people come together in freedom and do what's needed for themselves, helping themselves and helping each other. Our collaborators may be far apart in miles, but they're not inaccessible the way both the big companies and the big governments are. Surely this has shown us in ways most people don't get to directly experience that there are other possibilities.

All in all, I think Free Software users know from practical experience how to question and why to question; we also have learned about freedom in a way that most people don't get to--as a practical reality, an experience, not just a slogan. We also have learned that amazing things can be built by co-operative communities with nobody truly in control. That puts us in a better position than most to see what's actually going on and act in positive ways, to help make the world better, neither paralyzed by the feeling of futility nor fooled into doing what's counterproductive. Maybe that sounds utopian, but I think in these times we need some utopians.

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