The Free Software Definition and Vaidhyanathan, and O’Reilly in the Social Media Reader
At first glance, these reading selections may appear a bit dry, but they’re valuable to our conversations because they represent different perspectives from certain “stakeholders” of the internet and computing. In the case of the Free Software Definition, the declaration represents a specialized computing community (or as Gates called some, personal computer hobbyists) that strongly support a political and ethical imperative. Vaidhyanathan represents the academic perspective of critic and problem poser, and O’Reilly represents the perspective of a long term business person whose company has straddled tech and created an interesting niche in tech business and culture through software manual publishing and conference hosting.
Their importance as records of the state of computing in the early to mid 2000s (and in some cases its forecasted future) is also their weakness – they are words from the usual suspects. Yet the content of their discussions cross beyond the materiality of the internet and computing, and into economies of culture and capital that affect all of us. The internet’s capacities to intersect between expression, innovation, collaboration, and commodification are unlike any other, it seems. Is it impossible that a conversation about the future of the internet doesn’t ultimately come down to fundamental questions of freedom and control (regulation)? I think Vaidhyanathan does a laudable job of speaking to the complex politics with respect to legacy copyright laws and the rhetoric of free/open source. Speaking of the open-source model, Vaidhyanathan speaks to my concern over the voices shaping the conversation:
“It has been difficult to court mainstream acceptance for such a tangle of seemingly technical ideas when its chief advocates have been hackers and academics.”
These works all have in common a reaction (Free Software Definition and Vaidhyanathan) to and/or dialogue (O’Reilly) with the proprietization of software and computing, versus the historical and romantically routed philosophy of hacker culture and free/open source software radiating from academics and researchers, the likes of whom founded the Free Software Foundation, and many of whom have supported the development of GNU/Linux OS.
Who can and how can we make conversations about the future of the internet/computing, and open versus proprietary relevant to all users?
What are some examples of a successful strategy that’s gotten the general public in dialogue? What is the role of media and government? What about privacy and security?
Are the business systems that support Web 2.0 competencies here to stay? How do they advance or hinder internet and computing?
Notes on the Free Software Definition
The free software definition is more than a definition, it’s a declaration that free software is an extension of the fundamental freedom of speech. It is an evolving statement that traces the history and revisions of the very political definition from 2001 to present (a nod to wiki edit history), though the fundamental concepts has been systematically advancing since the early-mid 1980s with the work of Richard Stallman to develop a completely open OS with the GNU project.
The free software definition consists of four main freedoms:
- freedom to run a program as you wish
- freedom to learn how the program works and the freedom to change the program to your own specifications
- freedom to distribute copies to your neighbor
- freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions
Most of these freedoms cannot be achieved unless software source code is open – free for anyone to access and use. The definition also stresses that free software is not about cost. In fact, FSF condones distributing copies of free software for a price. More on that here. The definition also comes out pretty hard against a group advancing the term “open source software” instead of “free software.” FSF believes the two are fundamentally different. Richard Stallman writes:
“The two terms describe almost the same category of software, but they stand for views based on fundamentally different values. Open source is a development methodology; free software is a social movement. For the free software movement, free software is an ethical imperative, essential respect for the users’ freedom. By contrast, the philosophy of open source considers issues in terms of how to make software “better”—in a practical sense only. It says that nonfree software is an inferior solution to the practical problem at hand.”
The Free Software Definition talks about copyright, and recommends using copyleft licensing which requires that any future modifications of the existing software be licensed exactly the same, so that no one can convert the software into a proprietary (nonfree) version. But in general, the Definition does not go into detail about the range of software licenses available, and the style of the post reads sort of like a one sided conversation and has an air of superiority.
Notes on Web 2.0 by Tim O’Reilly
Tim O’Reilly and his colleagues at O’Reilly Media introduced the term “Web 2.0” after the dot-com bubble burst in the early 2000s. Since the coining of the term, it’s taken on a monstrous life of its own, and O’Reilly’s writes to explain its original intentions.
What makes something on the internet Web 2.0 instead of Web 1.0? O’Reilly describes 2.0 as “…principles and practices that tie together a veritable solar system of sites” that exhibit some/all of the following principles or “core competencies”:
- services, not packaged software
- architecture of participation
- cost-effective scalability
- remixable data source and data transformations
- software above the level of a single device
- harnessing collective intelligence
from Figure 4.1, the Web 2.0 Meme map
Fundamental features of Web 2.0 include the web as platform, integration of transformative social networking technology with blogging and RSS, strategic management of the data supply an application works off of, and constant maintenance and iterative improvements to the product. The most enduring concept throughout O’Reilly’s discussion is really about shifting business models in the likeness of Web 2.0 companies that have had huge success (Google, Amazon, eBay). O’Reilly emphasizes that companies are best positioned when they work with the network: this includes leveraging the user community, for instance Amazon tracking user activity to improve search results, and Flickr categorizing content with user generated folksonomies. Web 2.0 also pushes the option for modular product development that takes existing independent components and assembles something of new value.
I have several concerns having to do with O’Reilly’s section about improving the user experience. The emergence of cross platform access is convenient but can also degrade user privacy and open source software didn’t get explored in great detail.