Living free

I’ve been playing around with the idea of only using open source/free software. Currently I’m running Ubuntu Linux, Mozilla Firefox, Gaim, Mozilla Thunderbird, the GIMP, Limewire, Open Office. I’ve got to wonder — do I really need proprietary software? I’m starting to think not. But the open source/free software concept really extends beyond software. The whole open source philosophy touches on many aspects of my life.

Open source religion
I am a Unitarian Universalist, a religion that emphasizes personal freedoms, social justice, and environmental responsibility. There are no secrets, no impenetrable hierarchies, no privileged viewpoints. Most relevant is the fact that the church is entirely in the hands of the laypeople — you and me. That’s open source religion by my reckoning.
Free music
I’ve been listening a great deal recently to Ehma and reClock. I found them through Indy Custom Radio, a little app that downloads and plays free music based on your ratings of what it has already played. Artists in every genre distribute some or all of their music under the Free Art License. I’ve had good luck at Jamendo — find some free music for yourself.
Free knowledge
When I need to know something, I turn to the internet or the library, both free-knowledge institutions. Wikipedia is my source for the “fair and balanced” take on a subject. There are countless dictionaries, references, and bugfix listings to be found with a simple search. I’m going to grudgingly include Google in this category as well — it does provide a free information-finding service.
Free education
You can get the better part of a college education online, if you know where to look. MIT maintains OpenCourseWare, where anyone can download course materials from their undergraduate classes. WikiBooks develops community-written textbooks, among other materials. And countless bloggers offer slices of distilled wisdom from their life experiences.
Open formats
This is really what the internet is based upon: the unencumbered exchange of information through protocols that have been hashed out by the larger programmer community. When protocols compete, the more useful ones win. When proprietary protocols are promoted by locking in the user, no such natural selection can take place, and users are stuck with an artificially grown environment. But open source formats and protocols can and do compete with non-free formats — as a result, I find myself using .ogg audio, .tar.gz archives, and .png images with great satisfaction.
Open source security
As any cryptography expert can tell you, a closed-source cryptosystem is a time bomb. Without constant and extensive peer review, many major flaws will be left uncovered until too late. A well-built security system should not be damaged by having its innards revealed. I use the RSA algorithm, PGP, 3DES, Diffie-Hellman, and Rijndael, among others. I feel safer knowing that people haven’t been able to break these even knowing how they work.
Et cetera
Heirloom seeds/seed saving (no patented varieties), open hardware, open government…

What might not fit well in the open source model? The only thing that comes to mind at the moment is competitive strategy, where your welfare depends on keeping ideas out of the hands of others. This applies to the military and to business, and not much else.

So I’m thinking that the open source model really is viable. What remains to be seen is what an open source economy would look like. I’ll be exploring that in a future post.


Responses: 7 so far Feed icon

  1. Sally Carson says:

    Very interesting post Tim. Thanks for sharing those resources, I'll definitely be reading some WikiBooks!

    I like that you mentioned that the internet was founded on this concept of openness. It so often seems that Microsoft is in direct opposition to this founding ideology of the web. Molly Holzschlag had an interesting reaction piece to Steve Ballmer's recent BusinessWeek article where he boasted the Microsoft would "win the web." Ug.

  2. Tim McCormack says:

    Yes, the idea of open source internet is a pretty fundamental one for me. I'm currently writing a piece that looks at modular design vs. suite design. The internet is a modular, distributed system by design -- the original intent was to provide a network that could survive thermonuclear war. A centralized approach is not appropriate for such a goal, but that's what Microsoft would provide. They are, at core, a suite company. The internet is, at core, a modular system. I don't see a takeover any time soon.

  3. Sally says:

    Ha ha, maybe "thermonuclear war" is a code word for Microsoft. I thought you might also be interested in this, open source hardware!

  4. Anonymous says:

    Regarding:
    Free education You can get the better part of a college education online, if you know where to look. MIT maintains OpenCourseWare, where anyone can download course materials from their undergraduate classes. WikiBooks develops community-written textbooks, among other materials. And countless bloggers offer slices of distilled wisdom from their life experiences.

    I'm actually not so hot on this idea. There is a certain value in being exposed to ideas that you are not interested in or would find offensive, something that self-educated people don't have to deal with unless they want to.

  5. Baron says:

    There is a huge difference between Open Source and Free. No offense Tim, but you use them as though they're intechangeable, and they're not. The confusion is common because Free has several meanings in English. I encourage you to get a copy of Richard Stallman's book Free Software, Free Society and read it thoroughly. The issues are massively complex, and there is very little careful thinking about it online. Most people use the terminology flippantly and don't provide any insight, which is a great disservice to the rest of society. To give you an idea what I mean, imagine people referring to the American Revolution as "those tea party guys" and implying there's nothing more to it. Similarly, your offhand comparison of ethics and intricacies of software, law, society and religion shouts "ignorance" (again no offense). These issues really are deeply bound together -- Free Software really is about the most fundamental rights you have. I hope you'll learn more about it all.

    Damn I hate being on a soapbox... it just came out that way. But hopefully the fact you posted this on your blog means you want to learn more.

  6. Baron says:

    Follow-up to my last post: the specific Stallman essay addressing this is Why "Free Software'' is better than "Open Source''.

  7. Tim McCormack says:

    You're right, Baron -- I am using the terms rather loosely, mostly out of ignorance. I guess what I'm trying to get at is the whole mentality, and I'm not sure what words to use.

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