Commercial software is authoritarian; FLOSS is the Enlightenment

The following is a guest post from Jonathan Poritz, an associate professor of mathematics at Colorado State University–Pueblo. It is a companion piece to his article in the newest issue of Academe. Part One ran earlier this week.

I ended the first of this two-part post on a version of one of the main points of my Academe article, which was: while to popular musicians and fiction writers, the open approach just seems to deny economic reality, to academics open culture and free software are so obviously viable that it wouldn’t occur to us to doubt. In fact, when peer review and the scientific method are your standard way of policing the quality of work in your discipline, you should demand open source software, knowing that it would have to be better than the alternative.

This intuition about quality is completely correct, as people with technical knowledge are aware. Google runs versions of the open-source Linux operating system and Apache web server. The “quants” whose financial models drive the stock market wildly up and down these days run Linux. Scientists at large and small corporations demand it. My office computer, running Linux, was last re-booted 251 days ago (when I had to restart the machine after a defective hard disk was replaced) … do you know of a computer running the bog standard commercial operating system that run smoothly for months without needing reboot? And the examples go on and on.

And then there’s malware (the computer security term for all things nastly like viruses, root-kits, etc.). There are at most a meager handful of such programs targeting Linux, while there are tens of thousands of viruses for the bog standard. Some of this difference would disappear if Linux were to become more widespread, of course (see the section “Diseases of a monoculture” in my Academe article).

The denial of the reality that FLOSS is far superior to commercial software seems almost Orwellian:

  • “War is peace” … and the commercial operating system is made reliable and easy to use by market pressures — even though my colleagues who run the commercial alternative are constantly complaining and loosing valuable files and hours or days because of some SNAFU.
  • “Freedom is Slavery” … and “Linux is not quite ready for the desktop” (which is the title of a dreary article in the IT trade magazines every few years) — even though learning to use the slightly different user interfaces in FLOSS is no harder than learning the new interfaces every time commercial software goes through a new release (easier, in fact, since FLOSS is always more highly configurable and customizable).
  • “Ignorance is Strength” … well, this Newspeak dictum is true, if the ignorance is ours and the strength is the IT companies’ profits.

Let me finish this long post with two points I didn’t have space to raise in my Academe article, both with an associated human story.

The first has to do with inertia, and the reluctance to learn something new even if one has the nagging impression that it might be better than what one is currently using. When I was a grad student, there was an excellent senior mathematician who saw me one day using a public computer in our department to make a beautifully typeset research paper. (I was using the open source programs Emacs to edit the file and TeX to make the fancy math formulæ).

He immediately began to lambaste me for wasting my time on this new technology. He reasoned that it was wasted, because even though it did produce a beautiful paper today, tomorrow the operating system and applications programs would all be different and I would have to invest a huge amount of time merely to stay current. When all computers spoke the same language, and that language had settled down and would no longer change in the future, he would learn how to use them; until then, he would not.

It is not hard to make the jump to FLOSS (no harder, as I pointed out above, than it is to stay current with commercial software). Commercial software users waste so much more time, those who jump to FLOSS will gain back their learning time in just a few weeks or months. As teachers we make our students learn new things every day, as scholars we learn new things in our fields every day — of all people, we should be ready to learn how to use a new tool if it will vastly improve our academic world.

Final story and point: I’ve worked with students at different institutions over the years, asking them to write programs as part of large research projects I was directing. It has become clear to me that there are two cultures in the IT world, represented by those who were trained (usually formally in courses) on commercial software on the one hand, and those who were trained (often by training themselves) on FLOSS, on the other.

Those from the commercial environment need very close management, they need exactly the right piece of expensive software bought for them to use in exactly the way they were trained, and they need a detailed description of exactly what I want their program to do, with which inputs, outputs, and internal structure.

The open source software engineers are a completely different group. They will spend a few hours setting up the environment they want on my research computer by downloading a dozen free programs off the ‘net, installing them in consultation with HOWTOs also off the ‘net. When I ask them to write a program in the research project, they will wander off and write something, usually without asking what kind of input the program should take or output it should produce, or how it should work. Some of “their” program may be taken directly from the source code of a piece of similar open source software they found, and if the input and output formats are wrong, they’ll find some other FLOSS tools which will do the re-formatting on the fly.

Does this difference in approach seem familiar? To me, it speaks of the difference between information and education, between learning how to follow some algorithms accurately and how to think critically. In short, these two different IT cultures are on both sides of the great fault line we hear so much about these days in academia, between what we want higher education to be and what small-minded, profit-seeking bureacrats are pushing it towards. So why not keep the culture of indepdence and critical thinking even in our campus IT environments? Particularly when it is cheaper and more reliable.

As a post scriptum, let me advertise something I’m writing at the moment responding to the obvious question that will occur to many upon reading this post and my Academe article: how do we get there from here? IT on most campuses is under the control of a small priesthood which exercises enormous and arbitrary power over our daily activities in pedagogy, scholarship and service. And yet faculty usually have, at the moment, very little say. I will be at the AAUP Shared Governance Conference in October talking about how we faculty can try to seize back some of this power — I hope to see you there, or that you will look for the paper I’m writing up on this topic!

One thought on “Commercial software is authoritarian; FLOSS is the Enlightenment

  1. Pingback: Linux enlightment | Authenticitali

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