Free software, free world

January 23, 2008

The concept of a free world is near and dear to those advocates of FOSS.
In recent years free software advocacy has grown in volume if not in
momentum. Subscribers to this peculiar philosophy - that all software
should be free, open source, and readily available to the public at
large - seem to hold certain similarities to other philosophical

Anarchism, for one. Libertarianism for another. But it goes deeper than
those mere labels.

All software being freely available as a good and desirable trait of a
society implies…nay, requires that believers subscribe to the idea
that materialism and ownership are inherently negative concepts. In this
they resemble some beliefs of a few Native American tribes. Non-market economies based on
concepts of barter and dumb-barter, however, almost always have a
concept of ownership behind them even if there is no currency or common
value basis for items. In small societies, the materialistic bent of
placing value on an item gives way to placing value on the exchange of
the item, thereby replacing economic value with social value. In
today’s anonymous global village, social value is of far less
importance, and thus materialism has risen as a natural consequence.

Interestingly, the FOSS advocacy movement seems to be pushing for a
return to social value over material value. Linus Torvalds is considered
influential and prestigious for his uncompromising dedication,
generosity, and competence. Bill Gates, while similarly intelligent, is
reviled for his tremendous wealth and reputed anti-FOSS tactics. A developer’s prestige in the FOSS community is directly proportional to his or her contributions to the community.

Now, while this is all well and good and I applaud a return to social
value over material value, there is one glaring flaw in the FOSS
advocacy philosophy - free software doesn’t pay the bills. Some
companies get around this by offering services to support their free
products, but service isn’t particularly time-consuming, thus enabling
fewer developers to support a single product and restricting the number
of jobs available at a given company. This suggests that the entire
software industry is either flawed in its concept or flawed in its
execution and gives rise to questions regarding the legitimacy and efficiency of the current paradigm.

For FOSS to become a viable methodology, the software industry must
shift from a production-centric environment to a service-centric one.
This is not to say that development itself must go by the wayside;
rather, services need to be placed higher in priority than development
so as to foster an equivalent financial return for developers and still
promote the free usage of software. Service industries account for 70% of the economic activity in the United States; certainly, by transforming the software industry into such will bring no great harm to the pocketbooks of developers as a whole…but its effects on the individual developer can’t be directly determined.

Personally, I hope that the FOSS philosophy and its focus on social
value is a sign of a general disillusionment with materialism in
general. Certainly, it can’t hurt to help others through ideas such as
FOSS. To find out more, check out the Free Software Foundation’s website. Their Resources section is particularly helpful.