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After the Software Wars (Part 2)

February 26, 2009


Open source is as much an intellectual movement as it is an economic idea.  In some cases, more like a religious movement.  Based on my highly non-scientific research (i.e. the Atheism subReddit), I’d say that there is a far higher percentage of atheists among technical people than among the non-technical.  And yet, the human need for Some Great Thing doesn’t disappear with the dismissal of deities; it often gets channeled into some other universal system or enthusiasm – Objectivism, Esperanto, or of course open source, something that is going to save Mankind.  I often think of something I read in the Atlantic last year, about a study called “Engineers of Jihad”:

…[T]he stereotype of the poverty-stricken terrorist has been dispelled by studies showing that militancy and high levels of education go hand in hand, a new Oxford study tries to explain why so many violent Islamic radicals are … engineers. The authors gathered data on 404 militants from 31 countries, and among the 178 whose principal academic focus could be determined, engineering was by far the most popular subject…The authors couldn’t find evidence to support the idea that radical groups seek out engineers for their skills. Instead, they speculate that something in the engineer’s mind-set—the emphasis on structure and rules, and on finding singular solutions to complicated problems—may fit neatly with Islamist notions of the ideal society. (In support of this hypothesis, the authors cite surveys from America, the Middle East, and Canada indicating that engineers are more likely than other professionals to be religious and right-wing.) They also note that engineers tend to be high-achievers who rise by merit, which may make them more likely to be frustrated by their interactions with corrupt bureaucracies in the Middle East and North Africa and thus receptive to radical messages.

I think that when you’re conditioned to find “elegant solutions” every day, in mathematics or biology or programming, it just naturally makes you want to find rules-compliant solutions to human social issues as well.  Humans, however, always being moderately to wildly irrational, rebellious, and individualistic are very difficult targets upon which to pin rigid belief or behavior structures.  So even eliminating religion from your belief system because of its fundamental irrationality, its stubborn refusal to play by its own rules and cohere logically, still leaves a need in the structured mindset for something to take its place. 

There is a wide streak of messianism in the open source movement.  In this book, Keith Curtis is not one of the wilder bearded prophets out there, though he does draw on them.  The book does give you a good idea of the two prongs to this movement, which I would say are probably part of any social change movement – there’s the “Doin’ cool stuff” side and the “Moral Imperative” side.  For instance, the “doin’ cool stuff” aspect of a political movement is creating posters, hanging out in bars together after your protests, hooking up with like-minded partners – the fringe benefits of the “Moral Imperative” that drives the public face of the movement – protests, voter registration and cold calling, etc. 

For instance, Curtis takes the example of the DARPA Grand Challenge (a Defense Department initiative to create a remotely-driven vehicle which can be handled as well remotely as it could be by a driver) to show how people can work together to advance science:

Some might wonder why people should work together in a contest, but if all the cars used rubber tires, Intel processors and the Linux kernel, would you say they were not competing? It is a race, with the fastest hardware and driving style winning in the end. By working together on some of the software, programmers can focus more on the hardware, which is the fun stuff!

So there’s the cool stuff reward of working together on interesting problems, cooperating and getting the buzz you get off working with smart people.  [Of course, the reason some people might not want to work together on the software might possibly be that the prizes are $2,000,000, $1,000,000 and $500,000 for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd places, respectively, but that would not be the motivation of Movementarians.]

Curtis says that “Making scientific advancements publicly available has not decreased the motivation to do science!”  True, people do science because they love it, but people who do science also need to get paid, and are, usually by a university, a company R&D department, or through government or foundation grants.  Unlike software, which anyone with the brain for it can do on most any computer, “doing science” requires significantly larger physical plant, hardware, infrastructure and staffing investments.  The fact that government-funded science becomes “publicly available” means that the taxpayers paid the government to pay the scientists a good living to do the science.  So, herewith, Outland’s First Law (undoubtedly expressed better elsewhere in fine econometric language):   A person’s ability and desire to work on a “passion project” will always have two counterweights: the minimum amount of time she must spend on earning a living, and whether the desire for greater economic gain outweighs the desire to do cool stuff with one’s surplus time and energy.

So if doin’ cool stuff isn’t enough to give a movement the full steam it needs, what is?  Only the Moral Imperative can overwhelm the practical considerations I’ve dwelled on so far.  Professor Eben Moglen, one of the leading prophets of the movement, asks: “If you could feed the world for free, would you? Likewise, if you could build a free library of human knowledge that no child would ever outgrow, would you?” Moglen and others are overly fond of metaphors – the loaf of bread that is free to duplicate, creativity being like some auto-generated physical force like magnetism – taking the mystical miracles of religion and sewing them into the new belief system.  Organic metaphors are very popular; Against Intellectual Monopoly uses the tree – all tapping into cultural hot buttons like the Tree of Knowledge or the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes to enhance the religious ecstasy of the believers.

In a religious system, Great Satans are also needed – RIAA, Microsoft, DMCA, all serve as useful targets, especially since their blunders only highlight the irrationality behind their motivations (i.e. suing downloading grandmothers for $1M per copy of “Happy Birthday” “stolen,” sewing customers up into proprietary music formats and subscriptions and then abolishing them, bringing a billionaire novelist’s wrath down on hapless fanfic authors).  But it’s not enough that these villains be doing typical stupid corporate shit – they must be Holding Back the Progress of Mankind!  Poisoning the Tree of Knowledge at its roots! Et cetera.  Lots of capitalizable concepts that trigger emotional responses in the recruits. 

Because like any movement, open source/free culture needs recruits.  The young need to be convinced that The Way has been discovered, and this is it – the future of the world depends on you saving the cheerleader.  The movement can’t just be rational, it has to be exciting. 

Software as Science

One of the key concepts behind Moglen and other is the idea that science is a set of Platonic forms – i.e., things that exist with or without us which need only be discovered in their earthly application.   There is an argument that “software is math,” which Curtis endorses.  I.E., since software is really a mathematical process, a series of calculations, copyrighting software is like copyrighting Pi.  Curtis quotes Stallman saying that patenting software is like patenting chords in music; how can anything get done afterwards? 

I’m in agreement with Curtis that software shouldn’t be patented, but rather copyrighted.  It’s clearly absurd that something like Amazon’s “One Click” checkout could be patented as if it were the internal combustion engine.  But if we accept that software is math, we’re also surrendering the ability to copyright it any more than we could copyright 2+2 is 4. 

And with that I disagree – software isn’t math but the application of math to problems.  We can argue that numbers “exist” in Platonic form, but software does not – the first processor chips had to be designed by men, languages to run on them written from scratch by men, the programs to make them useful written by men (and women), trial and error all the way.  Likewise it’s not the chords that make the music, it’s the inventiveness of the musician who sews them together in unique and wonderful patterns.

Given that math is a set of rules.  But these rules are *static,* math = math; you can’t modify the rules or add new ones.  Change the parameters of a programming language, and you change the possibilities it offers to the programmer.  Change the processor chip, same thing.  Software is the *application* of math just as an accounting method is an application of math different from other methods.  The value comes from the application; to say that some yet unwritten piece of software to run an airline reservation system “exists,” waiting only for its rules to be “discovered,” is the same as saying that all future discoveries already exist, and they belong to us all because they are already part of the realm of basic scientific knowledge.  “If someone invents the software equivalent of an idea like E=MC2, do we really want just one entity to “own” that idea?” Curtis asks.  This misses the point – if software discovers a mathematical concept like E=MC2, then no, we don’t – but if software solves the problem of faster-than-light travel, or some other invention, then the creator has a right to the benefit of it. 

If we say that software = math, we are also saying that farming = biology, for instance – that since everything is already true that governs whether or not a seed will grow in this soil, this climate, then the fruit of the fields belongs to us all, that food cannot be owned either. 

I would agree, for instance, that the human genome *would* fall under the “math rule,” as the building blocks of our species literally do belong to us all, are a set of scientific principles which cannot be owned.  Attempting to “patent” the building blocks of the human race is transparently like trying to patent 2+2 – it’s clearly a case of something that exists previous to discovery, and which being part of all of us can’t be owned.  But the methods resulting from the genome – hereditary disease tests and cures, for instance – can be owned, because they are created through invention of the new based on the discovery of the existing.

If research is paid for by the citizenry, that has an effect on what should or should not be patentable.  Personally, I would love to strip patents from Big Pharma, if only because the cost of my meds is breaking me, but that’s incompatible with any capitalistic society.  However, the government should either stop giving taxpayer-funded research to these companies, or force them to price their drugs according to the amount of R&D paid for by the citizenry.  

Removing patents from medications does have a much more powerful justification than is available for other forms of IP:  Nobody drops dead because they can’t have free or cheap software.  In addition, whereas you have freedom of choice in other forms of IP (i.e. to use a Windows computer or not), if there’s only one drug available that can keep you alive, you’re forced to patronize the monopoly  at whatever rate it chooses to set.

Out of time again, and still not done!  The conclusion next time.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Keith permalink
    February 26, 2009 11:57 am

    It is true that free software is in some ways a religious movement: because it requires faith. Faith that by making something free it will continue to evolve, faith that by working together things will move faster, faith that letting “anyone” contribute will not cause things to degenerate. But we have the historical examples to guide us.

    My point about the Darpa challenge is that it is possible to cooperate in certain specific areas and still compete. They should have cooperated on the vision side of things, and competed on every other side. Just like they all “cooperated” in using internal combustion engines.

    Next, I believe that scientific research in software can be paid for. I addressed this as well in my previous comment.

    By the way, Eben Moglen’s example was talking about the fact that Wikipedia is “free” for everyone to use. He wasn’t talking about free effort spent to improve things — he was assuming this knowledge was already out there. So should you give it away, or not? I will change his quote to make it clearer. (I don’t have an exact quote, anyway.)

    I believe math is copyrightable. 2+2=4 is not because it is already out there and too obvious.

    Software might be the application of math to problems, but it is also math. I reference Knuth about this topic, and also lamda calculus. You absolutely can change the rules of math. Math is only static if you don’t change it. Software is likewise static if you don’t change it.

    Farming is not biology, because farming involves planting seeds, plowing the fields, etc.

    All patents can save lives. How many lives did the lightbulb save because people quit banging their head against a wall and dying? And suppose that we take away pharma patents and they call go out of business. Then who will save lives? I argue against biotech patents for different reasons.

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