Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2013/ Losing My Religion (again)

Losing My Religion (again)

It appears that I am losing some of my faith and enthusiasm for free software, and I didn't even realize that I was religious in this way.

I never intended to become a free software zealot, and I do not self-identify as one. I am not a software developer, and I do not contribute that much to the movement, and I make my living as a Windows administrator. But many people see me as "that KWLUG guy" or "that Linux guy", and there is truth to those accusations.

I probably would not have gotten into Linux if it had not been for UNIX, and I would not have gotten into UNIX if it had not been for my university lab environment. But once I bought my first computer in 1998, I knew that I wanted to be running Linux on it, and I decided to go with Debian because I had read that it was "political", and I had aspirations to be an activist. It seems that I make all major life decisions without thinking very much, and this was no exception. But boy howdy did Free Software change my life.

Over the years, I bought into the free software ideology -- or at least those parts of the ideology that were personally beneficial to me. I appreciated the low price of my operating system, I appreciated that I had access to the same powerful software used "professionally", I appreciated that so much good information existed about my software (thank you, public mailing lists; thank you, bug trackers), I appreciated the verbose debugging message much free software offered (contrasted against the black box of proprietary software at the time), I appreciated being able to configure my systems to suit my eccentricities (thank you, xscreensaver backgrounds), and I appreciated the good feelings I got when I contributed a bug report that led to some software improvement. But all of this appreciation was pragmatic, not ideological -- or so I thought.

Earlier this year, I was ingesting my mandated dose of government-funded messaging (namely, TVO The Agenda podcasts) when I listened to an interview with Jaron Lanier. As far as I can tell, Lanier's argument is that giving away things without getting paid for them is immoral. It is immoral to make posts on Facebook without being paid for them; it is immoral to give away our demographic data; and it is immoral (although well-intentioned) to participate in the free software movement. The argument goes like this:

It is an interesting argument, and I can't shake the feeling that Lanier's analysis is more right than wrong. What really distinguishes Lanier's argument from other sob stories about the immorality of free software is the giant computer effect: Our intention in giving away our efforts was to make it accessible to the world, but the ones who take the most advantage of this are the powerful, not the poor.

Although Lanier focuses on user-generated data more and free software less, I think the free software movement is culpable for this state of affairs in many ways:

I do not think that Lanier has all of the answers. His solution to the problem is basically unionization, which requires a solidarity and class consciousness that I do not see happening (and which I am not even sure is desirable). Also I think that imposing fees on the usage of works currently given away for free will slow down innovation considerably. His proposed testbed for micropayments is the 3D printing universe -- basically, he hopes that nobody will give away design specifications for 3D objects without getting paid for them. Fair enough, but he chose a pretty bad example. We might have had widespread 3D printing twenty years ago if it had not been for patents. Patents are not the same as micropayments, but I think the principles are similar.

The big surprise for me when listening to Lanier's interview were my emotions. I felt angry and defensive when he criticized the culture of sharing and the free software movement, even though intellectually I could see the value of what he was saying. I've been through that wringer before with environmentalism, and it's a pretty bad sign. It means my heart is aligned with one side of a debate and my brain is aligned with the other side. Now I get to live with the uncomfortable (often paralyzing) tensions, perhaps for the rest of my life. I felt somewhat uncomfortable in promoting Software Freedom Day this year; will I even want to promote such events in the future?