Mast Kalandar

bandar's colander of random jamun aur aam

Sat, 07 Sep 2002

Response to Lawrence Lessig's talk at OSCON 2002

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  Or why the "Open Source Movement" is likely to fail
    where it matters the most.

In the discussion below, the Open Source vs. Proprietary distinction is made for all forms of "Content Creation and Transmission"; thus other than computer software I include text, audio and video as well as data.

There is a moral high ground that the Open Source Movement can take and does take when it compares itself to Propreitary Systems. The OSM is fighting for freedom while the PS are fighting for control. The OSM is the "future" which is being restrained by the PS which is the "past". The OSM is young and dynamic people who are "going out there and trying to change the world" while the PS is old "sticks in the mud" who want to keep to the old patterns. Unfortunately, for the OSM the governments, legislatures and courts of the day are (by and large) sticking behind or side-by-side with the PS; even in countries with strong democratic constitutions and institutions. This is a big failure for the OSM and one should try to understand why.

One possible reason is that government is run by old people and they stick with other old people (actual age is not what is relevant here; this age being "in the mind").

Another possible reason is that the OSM is spending so much time "doing things" that they haven't spent enough time "fighting the fight". They care more about technology than about causes.

While both the above reasons have their merits, I would like to present a third possible reason that has not (to my knowledge) been adequately discussed.

Fair-minded constitutional institutions such as governments and the courts do intervene when a large section the population they govern is under threat; this threat could be physical, economic or even ideological. Most democratic institutions are, however, only tuned to react when this "large-ness" criterion is met. When a much smaller population, that is considered "special" in one way or another is under threat, the same institutions do not in general react unless there is power-play at work. By power-play I mean powerful business or military or other extra-constitutional interests. To give an example AIDS was not considered a major health issue by the governments of many countries when it was thought to affect only the gay male population or the sexually prolific (such as "sex workers"). In contrast, when the business interests of large corporations or banks (which at some level represent a very small number of individuals---i. e. the share-holders) are under threat, the government and financial institutions of the country where these coporations have major operations will often provide succour; power-play has come into action.

The nature of the OSM is that it is a movement of the content-creators, for the content-creators and by the content-creators. While some among this movement may argue that they are working for the common good, it is not so until it is perceived to be so by the common person. In fact, some hackers are pretty open about the fact that they wouldn't mind if the freedom to examine the source were somehow restricted to "those who can do something with it". The collection of all content-creators (those within the OSM as well as those with the PS) is perhaps no more than one or two percent of the entire population of the "developed world" and much less than that elsewhere.

The "web" was supposed to "change all this". Everyone was supposed to spring up and be creative and post their ideas with free-flowing discussion and code abounding. Actually, book-reading and education as envisaged in the Gutenberg revolution was supposed to achieve something similar. The one difference between the Gutenberg revolution and the current one is that today far more people in the "developed world" have the economic (time and money) freedom that is necessary to participate in this creative surge. But to many people's disappointment it has not happened.

The "Internet" has become, like so many media before it, a "spectator sport". It does not matter that you shout from the roof-tops to urge people to take a football to the local playground or even go and cheer the local school team, to enjoy themselves without having to spend any money. Most people will opt to go to the big stadium to see Manchester United vs. Arsenal paying money (probably not a lot but infinitely more than they would have by playing themselves!). No one can argue that this is "wrong". It is similarly not "wrong" of people to use their computer as a "television with bells and whistles". To an "insider" it just feels "stupid". In this "outsider" manner of "use" it matters not to the spectator what is inside the television and who produced it and who made the money as long as it works and doesn't cost too much.

All those people who, by training, education, ideology, indoctrination, what-have-you, will not participate in the creative freedom that is possible (with the advent of personal computers and the telecommunication network) are also unaffected by the war that the OSM sometimes claims to be fighting on their behalf. If the PS were to "win" and all machines were able to read files stored in proprietary formats which the user had "paid for", those complaining about the proprietary nature of the format and the restricted nature of access to it would sound like someone accusing the CD seller of being too restrictive since he has only a floppy drive on his computer.

The OSM has two ways to "win the war" against the PS. One way is to acquire enough "power" to engage in "power-play"; with big corporations lining up behind the OSM this may actually happen. To my mind this is a way of losing the war not winning it.

There is a bigger dream. One that will probably be more difficult to achieve. That finally, in this case the creative revolution that was to be unleashed by Gutenberg will actually take place. That the democratic institutions will find that the PS are actually hindering the creative freedom of a large section of their population.

That is the great GNU hope:
The spectator will start to play.

Thu, 05 Sep 2002

Who fixes the systems at IMSc?


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