August 14, 2002

The most important thing I've learned about Open Source

- by Tina Gasperson -
It's another incredibly hot day, late summer in Florida. As I sit here on my
back porch watching the kids swim, I'm thinking about just how much my
understanding of the Open Source software world has changed my life. First, it
was just, "oh, this is an operating system I can run for free if I'm willing to
forego some of the ease and familiarity of Windows." And for me, that really
was enough reason to try it, because I happen to be one of those curious
types who loves playing with her computer (for many hours on end if the
challenge warrants it).
The reason I kept using it was, of course, because of my job. It just wouldn't
do to have a reporter for an Open Source news site using Windows. And granted,
this was pretty strong incentive to make it work. Whatever the reason, it wasn't
long until I was running Linux full time, and so was my husband. We figured out
how to do everything we needed to: use a Web browser, send and receive email,
create and view graphics files, do word processing and spreadsheets, use the
calculator, play free cell, and listen to music. I also learned how to find and
install applications, whether they were packaged in .rpm format or in a "tar
ball" as source code.

I got frustrated many, many times. Easily distracted, I would go on wild goose
chases to find the files I needed to satisfy dependencies. I learned that it was
very important to make sure the "developer" applications were installed when
switching to a new distribution in order to be able to compile source code (this
is one of those things they don't tell you -- you just have to figure it out for
yourself; kind of like a rite of initiation).

Speaking of rites, a friend of mine once told me about the time he went down to
the Moose Lodge with the intention of becoming part of the club. Until he found
out that in order to be accepted, he'd have to pick up a cucumber between the
cheeks of his (fully-clothed) butt and keep it there while he walked across the
meeting hall, at which time he decided he had to leave.

I think the
Linux community is a lot like that. You have to be willing to suffer a little
humiliation in order to gain entrance to what is really a wonderfully intricate
and entertaining circus of human interaction. A whole bunch of people aren't
willing to do that -- all they can see is the cucumber and the posture required
to carry it. We can't really blame them, can we?

Regardless, because some of us are willing to use our rears to make a place for
ourselves, the "community" exists and thrives. It's not just programmers,
although programmers seem to make up the core group. It's everyone you'd expect
to find in a bazaar, to borrow from Eric Raymond's theory, where the "merchants"
are programmers and the "shoppers" are users. There are lots of opinionated people on both
sides of the merchandise table; squabbles over features and price and usability
that sometimes turn into heated disagreements and a few deftly pitched insults.
You'll even find some "town criers" who've secured a place in the busiest square
and a megaphone to amplify their words, who shout out all the "news" and
"events" of the day -- and for every town crier there are dozens of watchdogs to
shout back, "hey, you got it wrong, again, stupid..." Oh, to be a town crier who
learns from her mistakes!

But learning how to use Linux and learning how to move in this "community" and
learning how, hopefully, to get the story right more often than I get it wrong,
haven't changed my life as much as another aspect of the Open Source/Free
Software philosophy: the realization that "ideas" and "innovations" are
things to be shared freely with others. They are the basis of our ability to
move within our environments with freedom.

We use an idea to make some aspect
of our life easier or more productive, or we use an idea to facilitate a
money-making enterprise. We make the choice to share our ideas with others, or
to keep our ideas locked up. I haven't tested this theory, but I have to wonder
if generosity with ideas works the same way as generosity with money -- after
all, the principle is the same. The more you give, the more you get. Turn on the
faucet, and the water flows. Turn off the faucet, and the water gets stagnant
and sour.

Stagnant and sour, like the way the music industry and "big software" want to
artificially maintain their flow of money, not by letting the ideas flow freely,
but by shutting out our rights and extorting payment in order to fill up their
greedy stinking cesspools. Don't misunderstand what I am saying. I am not a
socialist, nor do I want to eliminate competition, or use the government to
perform policing functions it was never meant to do. But if American businesses
are colluding with government officials to take away our freedoms, we as
citizens have a moral obligation to stand up and defend those freedoms. Too
often these days, as a result of our 12-year long indoctrination into the "lack
of critical thinking skills" mindset that makes it easy for us to be led around
by the latest "sounds good" moral outrage, we do get led into
sacrificing our freedoms for the sake of comfort and security.

Our ancestors would be appalled and saddened at how we have wasted their most
extreme efforts to gain our liberty. We owe them more than that. They gave their
lives for us. Maybe it is time for us to give up companies that would limit our freedom until they get the picture.

Here are a few organizations whose member companies might need to feel the sting of lost business
before they begin to support liberty.

Software Alliance

DVD Copy
Control Association

Recording Industry Association of

The so-called Initiative for Software Choice


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