August 9, 2007

FOSS and the philosophers

Author: Matt Butcher

I used to think of myself as something of a rare bird -- a philosopher and software developer with a keen interest in the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) movements. But as I discovered at last month's North American Computers and Philosophy (NA-CAP) conference in Chicago, there are many with similar interests.

The conference, held at Loyola University Chicago, featured keynotes by Richard Stallman, of GNU fame, and philosopher Peter Suber, an advocate of the Open Access (OA) movement in scholarly journals. Academic philosophers and computer scientists from North America, Europe, and Africa traveled to Chicago to attend the conference and present their research.

Attendees were treated to more than 40 presentations during the three-day stretch. While FOSS and OA were the official themes of the conference, the participants addressed a broad range of topics, from cognitive science and AI, to Web 2.0 and the semantic Web, to online teaching and researching tools.

Is it surprising to hear of philosophers and computer scientists -- together with economists, legal scholars, mathematicians, and sociologists -- getting together to discuss topics that seem to be the primary domain of software developers? Not to those at the conference. "I was impressed to see that there are serious modern philosophers and computer scientists alike who think the intersection thereof is interesting," computer science professor George Thiruvathukal said. "Given a history of computing that includes other disciplines (philosophy,
mathematics, science, and art), I'm not surprised but I am nevertheless impressed."

The conference, run under the auspices of the International Association for Computers and Philosophy (IA-CAP), was hosted jointly by Loyola's philosophy department and its computer science department, which is the home of the Emerging Technologies Lab, a FOSS research group.

Sessions began on Thursday afternoon, with IA-CAP president Luciano Floridi giving the opening address. Immediately following this was a series of four excellent presentations devoted to ethical issues in FOSS. In many ways, this panel set the tone for the remainder of the conference.

For example, Samir Chopra and Scott Dexter, one a philosopher, the other a computer scientist, presented a paper on the so-called "Freedom-Zero Problem" with the Free Software Definition: How can one claim that it is morally responsible to mandate the unrestricted access to and use of code even in cases where this will certainly lead to harm? For example, why doesn't the GPL forbid Free Software from being used in nuclear weaponry, or for torturing other humans? This ethically charged issue reappeared in numerous conversations throughout the conference.

In the sessions that followed, topics were more varied. Panels were organized around such areas as ethics in software development, epistemology and Wikipedia, online scholarly resources, and the effectiveness of online education. The level of detail of the presentations varied widely. While one paper might be devoted to high-level introductory material, another would took a close look at a particular perplexing issue. One of my favorites was Jesse Hughes' presentation, entitled "Is Software Malfunction an Oxymoron?", in which he points out how difficult it is to describe what a software malfunction is.

Friday evening, Stallman gave his keynote address, entitled "The Ethics of Free Software." For those familiar with Stallman's philosophy, his speech contained nothing new. He walked through the four freedoms, explaining the rationale for each. He discussed DRM ("digital restrictions management," as he calls it), and how the FSF's recent round of revisions on the GNU Public License version 3 are designed not to prohibit DRM in Free Software, but to make it impossible to prohibit the modification or removal of such DRM features. He closed his lively lecture by donning a robe, placing an old hard disk platter on his head like a halo, and taking on his humorous persona of St. Ignutious (a play on words with GNU and the name St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits and namesake of Loyola University).

Saturday morning, Peter Suber delivered his keynote. In a well-structured presentation, he explained the Open Access movement in the scholarly publishing world, and presented a sketch of a philosophical argument in support of OA journals and repositories. Conference organizer Tony Beavers said, "Peter Suber's arguments on open access publication were so thorough that it was difficult to think up a counter-argument, even while trying to play the role of devil's advocate."

The main idea driving the OA movement, broadly speaking, is that journal articles, one of the few genres of non-royalties literature, ought to be provided online free of charge. In many of the sciences and humanities, cutting-edge research is published in topic-specific scholarly journals. But the authors of such articles are rarely paid, nor are those who act as peer reviewers. Further, authors often give up copyrights altogether. "Authors in this field are not motivated by monetary incentives, but by concerns about prestige and furthering research in the field," Suber argues. Scholars, he suggests, ought to publish their articles with OA journals, and archive copies of these papers with OA repositories. Author would benefit from greater exposure, while other scholars would benefit from easier access to cutting-edge research.

After the second keynote, a round-table discussion followed, with Suber, Stallman, and philosopher Selmer Bringsjord fielding questions from the audience. At moments, the discussion was heated, but the debate was instructive. "Good arguments both for and against the Free Software movement were waged, though sometimes obscured by political rhetoric and the emotional investment that committed thinkers can bring to critical and controversial issues," Beavers said. "Still, those unfamiliar with such issues walked away better informed as to the nature of any controversy."

The cognitive power present at this conference was impressive. Almost all attendees either held Ph.D.s in a related field or were graduate students seeking such degrees. The papers were well-researched, interesting, and insightful. What about those caricature philosophers we hear about so often? Apparently, none showed up to this conference. There were no papers focused on subjects such as "How many angels can dance on an IP packet." On the contrary, many of those who attended the conference hope to make a practical contribution. When asked why a conference like this is of any importance to software developers, system administrators, and others whose daily work revolves around computers, Thiruvathukal said, "Given the now ubiquitous nature and power of computing in our society, it is more important than ever that everyone who uses computers -- developers included -- understands the Spider-Man mantra, 'With great power comes great responsibility.' It is the discipline of philosophy that provides the tools of ethics and helps us to guide how we apply technology responsibly. These issues are of paramount interest to computer science and philosophy educators."

Not all of the sessions were focused on philosophizing about computers. For example, graduate student Rory Smead, in his paper "The Evolution of Cooperation in the Centipede Game with Finite Populations," examined aspects of game theory using computer simulations. This led computer scientist Matt Bone to remark, "The best part about this was that computers were used to 'do philosophy.' I've seen computers do math and physics, but never philosophy." Other sessions highlighted software research tools, such as logic diagramming applications, that are specifically targeted toward philosophers.

The conference illuminates the extent to which the ideas, motivations, and results of FOSS have become the subject of discussion at academic institutions. While a dissenter's voice was offered by some, discussion was constructive, and indicates that many scholars see value in examining the philosophical implications of FOSS.

In the weeks ahead, the conference organizers will be releasing videos of the sessions (including Stallman's and Suber's keynote addresses) on the conference Web site. Some of the presentations can already be found on Slide

The next IA-CAP conference, the Asian-Pacific AP-CAP conference, will be hosted at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand, November 2-4. The European E-CAP conference was held two months ago at the University of Twente in the Netherlands.

Matt Butcher is a principal consultant with Aleph-Null, Inc., and a member of the Emerging Technologies Laboratory at Loyola University. He is the author of three books on FOSS software. The most recent, Mastering OpenLDAP, will be published by Packt Publishing this month. Matt is also a Ph.D. candidate in the philosophy department at Loyola, and a member of IA-CAP.


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