October 15, 2001

Osama bin Laden, Open Source software, and the United States

Author: JT Smith

- by Robin "Roblimo" Miller -
That's one heck of a buzzword-filled headline, isn't it? But it's on point, because today I'm thinking about how Islamic fundamentalists look at open, democratic governments, and how it isn't that different from the way closed-source software vendors view Open Source.A common complaint about Open Source is that its development can be messy, even chaotic and argumentative. It is a rare Open Source or Free Software development email list that doesn't degenerate into a flame war at least once in a while. From the outside, this looks horrible, as if these developers and the users who surround them spend more time yelling at each other than trying to accomplish something useful.

Now pretend you are a dictator or a close associate of a dictator in a country that doesn't allow citizen dissent. With the way the world is shaping up today, you are under increasing pressure to either declare yourself a U.S. ally or associate yourself with bin Laden-style anti-Americanism. You know what bin Laden, the Taliban, and other ultra-fundamentalists -- not necessarily Islamic ones, either -- want. They issue clear messages, with their group or country speaking with one loud voice.

The United States doesn't have a single voice. Sure, President George W. Bush says we have these goals or those, and that we will accomplish them no matter what it costs, and we all cheer. Then we hear "but ..." about many of the ways in which Bush would like to accomplish those goals.

Make it easier for U.S. law enforcement to intercept and decrypt email and other Internet transmissions that may be used by terrorists to send messages to each other? Lots of Americans, including many politicians both liberal and conservative, think this a a bad idea -- and are happy to say so to anyone who points a TV camera at them.

Attack all countries that harbor terrorists? More cheers ... followed by more questions. Does this mean we are going to attack Iraq, Iran, and Libya? They've certainly harbored many terrororists over the years, Mr. President. What about Saudi Arabia? It looks like a lot of terrorist funding comes from there. But so does a lot of oil we depend onto keep our economy cranking. And if we come down on the Palestinians for their decades of anti-Israeli terrorism, we are going to hear many earfuls about how the Israelis are the real terrorists, not only from Saudi Arabia but also from almost every other oil-exporting nation in the Middle East. Once again, you can find many Americans who disagree with each other, and will disagree with anything the president says or does about Israel or Palestine or both.

Questions. Debates. Arguments. These are three major ingredients in the American political process. To the leadership of a country where decisions are made in a more orderly manner, like North Korea or Syria, democracy must come across as messy, even chaotic and argumentative. How, people in those countries must ask, can Americans claim to support their president at the same time they second-guess almost every decision he makes?

Now back to Open Source development. Think of a marketing person from a closed-source software company looking at the email list archives from almost any Open Source project, and comparing those sometimes contentious messages with the orderly flow of information (usually press releases) from closed-source software companies. How in the world, our marketing person must ask, can these Open Source people possibly claim they're working toward common goals, or have any goals at all, when they do this much arguing?

Dictatorships always look orderly. The troops line up when and where they are told. Everyone shows up to work on time. Streets seen by foreigners are always clean, and there are no smelly homeless people or beggars hanging around trying to cadge spare change. Large pictures of the ruler adorn public buildings, often with quotes from His Leaderness below them that talk about nationalism and fighting against the Uncouth Barbarians who would overthrow this perfect system in favor of some sort of near-anarchy like those awful Americans have, where TV and newspaper reporters say nasty things about the government without being jailed the way they would be in a well-ordered nation.

Of course, behind the packaging, that dictatorship may not run very well. A few streets away from the areas where foreign reporters are allowed to take pictures, there might be all kinds of horrors, including malnutrition and women getting beaten for wearing the wrong clothing. Anything can happen behind a veil of secrecy, and those who are used to putting their best face forward and hiding everything else, and assume the United States does the same, must wonder what sort of horrors are hidden in the United States.

We export the Jerry Springer Show, you know. And people in some countries do not know that Springer represents us at our worst, not at our best.

Similarly, the Open Source and Free Software advocates who get the most press are often the most outrageous, not those who are best at presenting the many benefits of Open Source and Free Software in a logical manner that will appeal to the unconverted, and I'm sure we've all cringed now and then at some of the insults spat by Linuxite Fundamentalists at those who dare question their articles of faith in any way.

But who will shut down the noisiest members of the Open Source rabble? In a dictatorship or closed-source company, it would be no problem. They would be ordered to zip their lips and turn all press or public inquiries over to a public relations professional who would issue quotes as pithy as those we see below dictator murals in repressive countries. In an Open society, anyone who wants to have a say has it. You may not like what some say, and I might not either, but tolerating speech we don't like is one of the prices we pay for freedom.

Freedom is a harsh mistress. It takes time and mental energy to sort through dozens of conflicting political statements or to sort through dozens of Free Software packages to find those that work for you. I think a lot of people, whether they consciously realize it or not, would really rather have some sort of trusted authority tell them what is true and what isn't politically, as well as what software they should and should not use.

I would rather do my own choosing, thank you. And if that makes me a minority both among computer users and among the world's general population, so be it. If my preference for the rowdy politics and disagreements common to Open Societies and Open Source Software make me seem strange to some, I will not stop being strange, but will glory in my strangeness to the point of asking ThinkGeek if they will make a cap that says "STRANGE" on it that I can proudly buy and wear.

I support Open Source and Free Software even though I often criticize some of the people who make it, the same way I support the U.S. government at the same time I reserve the right to criticize it. I also understand that many people who share some of my views are not going to share all of them. This, too, is part of true freedom, and for some, this seems to be the hardest part of the concept to grasp. But grasp it we all must, if we don't want to end up with dictatorial governments, religious leaders, and closed-source software makers controlling our lives.

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